The Bakassi Debacle, A Postscript – BY PROF. AKIN OYEBODE

In Breaking News, International News, National News, Politics, Reports

by crossriverwatch admin

Prof. Akin Oyebode speaking at the event
Prof. Akin Oyebode speaking at the event

Being the paper delivered by the Guest Lecturer, Professor Akin Oyebode, Head Department of International Law and Jurisprudence, University of Lagos, Akoka at the 2nd Year Anniversary Lecture of CrossRiverWatch at the Transcorp Hotel in Calabar on August, 27 2014.

Introduction:

The struggle over the Bakassi Peninsula by Nigeria and Cameroon is indeed a watershed in contemporary international relations. More importantly, it is a new chapter in and prolongation of the contestation among the imperialist nations for title over the area during the latter part of the 19th century and beyond. The fact that both countries deemed it fit and proper to resurrect the quarrel confirms the validity of the adage that the more things appear to change, the more they remain the same.

That two independent African countries can thump their noses at the modus vivendi prescribed at the first OAU Summit in Cairo in 1964 on the sanctity and inviolability of Africa’s boundaries (uti possidetis, ita possideatis) is a telling indictment of the inability of Africa’s rulers to hold themselves bound to promises that they had freely made.

The brouhaha instigated by the Bakassi affair has simply refused to go away hence my inability to resist the opportunity to revisit the matter in an event as auspicious as what we are celebrating today. It is an issue that most of us feel very strongly about and to which it is hoped a closure should be attained as soon as possible in order to put things on an even keel by redressing whatever injustices it had occasioned.

Accordingly, it is intended to set the discussion within the context of the deleterious consequences of the European-African encounter in the 19th century before revisiting the effort especially, by Cameroon to unscramble the imperialist egg at the International Court of Justice and conclude with prognostications on what needs to be done by Nigeria to assauage strained nerves and restore self-worth, sense of belonging and amity among our longsuffering peoples.

The Artificiality of Africa’s Boundaries:

Africa’s over a hundred boundaries make Africa the world’s most fragmented and delineated continent, with the variety and complexity of its nation-States constituting a most forbidding proposition to votaries of pan-Africanism and continental unity. When to all this is added differences in language, religion, culture and attitude, it becomes clear why the task of creating the United States of Africa out of the multiplicity of existing African countries remains as daunting as ever.

However, it needs be stated that most countries and their boundaries are generally artificial and arbitrary. They are not of divine origin but a consequence of adjustments and re-adjustments, wars, conflict and existential realities in the human experience. The uniqueness of the African experience, however, lies in the fact that the map of contemporary Africa was not of our making but a product of imperialist wrangling and subterfuge without as much as consultation with our forefathers. The perfidy of Berlin in 1884-5 has stuck up like a sore thumb and held Africa hostage, even as we speak.

The unthinking bifurcation of homogenous culture areas has continued to torment contemporary Africa in spite of the bid of post-colonial regimes on the continent to push back the day of reckoning by letting the sleeping dogs lie. Freezing the boundaries between the African countries at where the erstwhile colonial Powers had left them gave the newly independent countries a respite from inevitable conflicts over boundaries in the face of threatening forces of irredentism, self-determination and re-discovery. However, the allure of continental integration could not put out the fire of nationalism and consolidation of the colonial bequest as new demands soon came to the fore forcing some to re-consider the dogma of the sanctity of the inherited boundaries.

It is in this context, therefore, that we have to come to grips with the contestation by Cameroon and Nigeria over the ownership of the Bakassi Peninsula. Merely highlighting the legal aspects of the dispute without interrogating the historical underpinnings as well as socio-economic and political dimensions thereof would do grave injustice to the essence of the struggle by both parties to assert ownership over the territory. The incidence of territorial disputes across Africa during the years following political independence underscores the fragility of the African States and the inherent weakness of efforts to contain them.

In our own part of Africa, the conflicting aims and aspirations of our rulers soon boiled over and we were compelled to resort to the mechanism fashioned largely by our traducers to resolve a matter which could have been amicably settled the African way.

Nigeria, Cameroon and the Bakassi Peninsula:

The relationship between Nigeria and Cameroon vis-à-vis the Bakassi Peninsula has had a long and chequered history. From during the colonial period when both territories fell under the sphere of influence and, or colonial hegemony of Britain, Germany and France right up to their post-colonial period, the relations between both countries have been lukewarm and, at best, testy. With the UN plebiscite in 1961 dividing the old trust territory part of Cameroon between it and Nigeria, the world has been treated to a cat-and-mouse relationship between both countries especially in relation to the Bakassi Peninsula.

It would be recalled that the attempt in 1975 by President Ahmadu Ahidjo to bring up the Maroua Declaration of 1971 on the boundary between both countries met the stiff rebuff of the General Murtala Administration and the matter was effectively put in abeyance throughout the life of the Murtala regime. It was only when the Shagari government came into office in 1979 that the issue raised its ugly head again. The weakness of the Shagari presidency was exploited by the Ahidjo government as Nigerians resident along the peninsula as well as in Cameroon itself became victims of harassment and intimidation at the hands of the Cameroonian authorities.

Although Nigeria and Cameroon had subscribed to the 1964 OAU Heads of State Declaration regarding the sanctity and inviolability of the colonial boundaries in Africa, it is important to observe that Cameroon gendarmes had continued to encroach on the peninsula in a bid to collect taxes from the Nigerian residents therein and exert authority in the area to the chagrin of Nigeria, a situation which ultimately led to a skirmish with the Nigerian Army in May, 1981 leading to some casualties on the Nigerian side. The encounter brought it home to Cameroon that Nigeria was not going to yield control of the Bakassi to Cameroon so easily and Cameroon, therefore sought a change of tactics by deciding to try its luck at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in April, 1994.

Regrettably, Nigeria’s response to Cameroon’s change of tactics was not altogether adequate, well-informed or indeed, imaginative. Admittedly, Nigeria had immediately challenged the jurisdiction of the ICJ on the matter, but having been overruled on its preliminary objection, it then failed to decline continued participation in the case, more so, as it ought to have smelt a rat in light of the nationality of the President of the Court and other surrounding circumstances. By casting its fate to the wind, as it were, Nigeria became precluded from rejecting the Court’s decision at the end of proceedings.

What is more galling to some observers was the invitation by President Jacques Chirac of France to President Obasanjo to come over to Paris for a parley with President Paul Biya of Cameroon with a view to soliciting the agreement of both parties to abide by whatever decision the Court handed down. If there was any time to be suspicious of the French connection, it was at that point but our President Obasanjo naively agreed to play ball.

In the event, we lost the case and Cameroon was awarded title over the disputed peninsula, even if the Court had ordered some boundary adjustment in the northern land boundary area in favour of Nigeria possibly, as a sop for the historic loss of Nigeria’s sovereignty over the maritime area of the cotested boundary between Nigeria and Cameroon. In effect, the ICJ judgment altered the status of Calabar as a Nigerian port with a naval base such that thereafter, Nigeria would be compelled to seek the consent of Cameroon for passage of its vessels through the estuary of the outlet to the Atlantic ocean. The implications of this for the naval base in Calabar are better imagined than described.

More important, the status of Nigerians erstwhile resident in the peninsula and eking out an existence as fishermen or farmers therein was put in serious jeopardy as they became transformed into strangers in their very places of birth and domicile. The options available to Nigerians in the area were now severely circumscribed as life under the oppression and terrorism by Cameroon gendarmes became simply unbearable. As events later unfolded, the so-called Green Tree Agreement which Obasanjo was dragged along to sign in New York with Biya through the instrumentality of Kofi Anan, supposedly in a bid to tie the loose ends of the aftermath of the transfer of title over the peninsula, never materialized as our people suffered one indignity after another at the hands of implacable, hostile Cameroon gendarmes and other security officers of that country.

Their repatriation and subsequent re-location in an inclement and non-conducive so-called new Bakassi Local Government Area have only worsened their plight as they continue to bemoan their fate, aside from the important legal point that the Federal Government had purportedly transferred the peninsula to Cameroon without any enabling law enacted by the National Assembly thereto and in flagrant violation of the country’s Constitution regarding implementation of treaties.

With the level of anguish across the land arising out of the Bakassi debacle, it is now apposite to consider where Nigeria goes from here in order to cut its losses and mitigate the bad blood which the issue had engendered among Nigerians generally.

Aside from the collapse of Africa’s uti possidetis formula, it needs be recognized that nothing is solved if it is not solved right. The consignment of the wisdom of the OAU founding fathers into limbo constitutes a bad and unhealthy precedent in the resolution of potential conflicts in Africa’s 105 boundaries. Those who had dreamt of trans-border cooperation among the African States and people are now left with ashes in their mouths as many more irredentist forces are now waiting in the wings to upset the apple-cart. Indeed the Bakassi issue has become a festering sore on the African conscience which has left the victims with a feeling of alienation, deprivation and colossal injustice which, going forward, has to be assuaged, one way or another if African unity is to have any meaning.

So, what is to be done?

Options Available to Nigeria to Recoup the Loss of the Bakassi Peninsula

While to some, the best way to re-act to the loss of the Bakassi Peninsula was with a tone of finality and equanimity,, there is, however, a growing body of opinion in the country to the effect that “it ain’t over until it’s over!” Agreed, there is that the official line to accept the ICJ decision in accordance with the desire of the powers-that-be to project Nigeria as a law-abiding member of the international community and a “Big Brother” in the scheme of things in Africa. Nevertheless, there seem to be considerable misgivings among Nigerians in relation to what they consider a shameless surrender to the wiles of imperialism and western conspiracy against the world’s largest concentration of black people.

The notion that there was no point crying over spilled milk, attractive as it may seem, fails to address the question of lapses by government officials in anticipating moves by Cameroon and taking preemptive action and other measures that could have mitigated the country’s loss in the imbroglio. Surely, Nigeria suffered a diminution of prestige and status for having its face rubbed in the mud by Cameroon, a situation worsened by the fact that heads did not roll after the case, a classic case of a successful operation resulting in the death of the baby and for which the surgeon would still have to be paid!

Nevertheless, we cannot run away from considering the possibilities of lifting the country from the lurch. Broadly speaking, there are possibly, three options open to Nigeria in terms of handling the Bakassi imbroglio. First, the Nigerian government might just accept the fait accompli of the loss of the territory forever and urge Nigerians to cease and desist from bemoaning the loss and move on with their lives. Second, the government can make a monetary offer to Cameroon in a bid to re-purchase the peninsula, a situation that is not without precedence in history.

Finally, Nigeria can embark on the unthinkable in order to recover its lost territory, that is to say, go to war…
All the options enumerated above entail costs and consequences which our policy-makers would need to factor into the decision-making process in order to arrive at an optimal position. In the final analysis, one can only pray and hope that the pros and cons would be considered before the ultimate choice is made and that we be able to live with whatever decision is taken in the best interest of the fatherland.

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