Southern Cameroon: Humanitarian crisis brewing in Cross River
• Nigeria, Please Come To Our Aid’
The series of agitations for self-independence, or at worst, a federal system of government, by the people of Southern Cameroon has gone on for years. Usually, it takes the form of peaceful protests, strikes and riots, but as the tempo increased last September, many protesters were allegedly shot dead by government forces, as the international community continues to sit on the fence.
But last week’s arrival of over 300 Cameroonians, who fled their country through the Mfum/Ekok Nigeria-Cameroon border, in Etung Local Council, shows that a serious humanitarian crisis is in the offing.
Southern Cameroon shares western border with Etung and Ikom local councils in Cross River State. The Nigeria/Cameroon border post in Mfum, in Etung Local Council was on September 28 shut by Cameroonian authorities as a result of escalating crisis.
On arrival in the country, most of the fleeing Cameroonians, comprising women, children, young boys and girls looked disheveled, haggard and unkempt, after a stressful seven-hour journey, within which they covered over 300km.
At the Ekok -Mfum border, where they huddled, the scene was pathetic. Even though they were only separated from their country by a 40-metre hanging bridge (built by Britain in 1946 to enhance effective coordination of the administration of Southern Cameroon and Nigeria before the plebiscite), their sense of security was sky-high, since they were not within the grip of Cameroonian security forces, who they accuse of severe breach of human rights.
The Ekok border town, which used to witness a beehive of activities, with traders from Nigeria and Cameroon doing different businesses, has suddenly gone dead, except for the scores of refugees venturing into the country for safety.
When The Guardian visited the border post where the refugees are stranded, it was noticed that they are without food, water, clothing and finances to sustain themselves. A good number of them are on the Cameroon side, and are not allowed to cross into Nigeria, because the border is closed (at the Cameroon end), while the gate at the Nigerian side is open. The border between Nigeria and Cameroon is the middle of the bridge.
Several trucks, some empty, are also stranded at the Ekok end, as they cannot come into the country, and the ones at the Nigerian side are parked at Ekajok, the next Nigerian town to the Mfum border.
Some Nigerian traders, who planned to enter Cameroon are staying in small hotels around there pending the re-opening of the border.
Emeka Ndubisi, a Nigerian businessman stranded at the border said: “I have been here for days now and I cannot cross over because of the problem inside Cameroon, and the closure of the border. You can see my goods are here, and I have had to offload everything for the truck to go back because I don’t know when the border will be opened. We are suffering my brother, and this is not good at al.”
Some of the refugees said the left their country without food and their personal belongings (except very light ones), and were on the road to Nigeria for several hours. “The Cameroon government is killing our people, who are harmless. This is genocide; the international community should come to our rescue before Biya’s government annihilates us,” one of the refugees lamented.
Tateh Donard Silav, while narrating his plight, said: “The people of Southern Cameroon have been constantly marginalised by the authorities at Yaoundé. Since 1961, Southern Cameroon has suffered marginalisation under the Republic of Cameroon, where we are treated as slaves. The recent crises began because lawyers in the Anglophone South protested the justice system, where the civil law practiced in Francophone was imposed on the South that practices common law. Teachers also protested the new educational system introduced in the South by the authorities leading to a consortium by protesters and arrest of some members by government.”
Another refugee, Peter Kunde said: “Our ordeal in Cameroon is terrible as the Paul Biya-led government treats us like slaves. Now they are killing our people because we want independence. This is not fair. I had to run away with my wife and two children because they just come in and attack us anyhow, and even take our belongings.
“The journey to this place is far, but I thank God for this new road, the Trans-African Highway, by African Development Bank. If not for the road, our whole bodies would have been covered with mud and dust. Now, the sad thing here is that we don’t have a place to sleep, and so we just spread wrappers on the floor and manage to sleep with mosquitoes flying everywhere. Please the Nigerian government and the United Nation should come and help us because we are dying.”
Concerned by the situation, officials from the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displace Persons are carrying out the registration of persons who desire asylum in Nigeria.
Head of the team, Titus Murdakai, who visited the Nigeria-Cameroon border on a fact-finding mission, said they were in Ikom to take statistics of stranded migrants, who need asylum as a result of the crisis in Cameroon.
“Our team will be here for five days making sure that we reach out to those stranded at various locations, we are impressed with the management of the situation at the Mfum Border by Nigerian security operatives.”
Last Monday, the Assistant Comptroller of Immigration at the Mfum Border, Lawrence Asuquo, while receiving officials of the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons at the Mfum Border, explained that, “75 migrants of different nationalities were stranded at the Nigerian side of the border in different communities, while 20 Nigerians were stuck at Ekok end of Cameroon.
Asuquo, who spoke on behalf of the Cross River State Comptroller of NIS, Mrs. Funke Adeuyi, explained that initially, the border on the Cameroonian side was to be closed for 72 hours as an emergency measure, expressed concern that it has remained closed since September 28, thereby worsening the plight of stranded migrants.
Considering the pathetic situation faced by the migrants, Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State, has advocated a zero visa entry policy into the country, from all African countries, as the state prepares to play host to over 40, 000 refugees expected to be thrown up by the crisis in Southern Cameroon.
Ayade, who received the Comptroller-General of Nigeria Immigration Services (NIS), Mohammed Babandede told his guest, “going by the estimation you have given from the UN Refugee Agency, about 40, 000 refugees will be coming into Nigeria. We have a duty to cater for the needs of our Cameroonian brothers, and I think the NIS has a big responsibility here. We need to review our policy to ensure zero-visa policy. Every African must be allowed to come to Nigeria without visa. Nigeria must take the lead in Africa.”
Babandede, during a courtesy visit last Wednesday, said out of the 40, 000 refugees expected to migrate into the country as projected by the United Nations Refugee Agency, Cross River State is expected to play host to 30, 000.
Babandede, who was on a two-day visit to the state to assess the situation on ground, said that 300 refugees have already been registered within the last few weeks and “you are aware of the crisis happening in the Nigeria-Cameroon border for which the UN Refugee Agency has projected 40, 000 refugees that will be coming to Nigeria, and 30, 000 of them are likely to come in through Cross River State.”
He said the “Cameroonian refugees should be well protected just as they did for us during the crisis period of Boko Haram in the north eastern part of Nigeria. We will work towards ensuring their safety and the security of lives in the state during this period.”
Speaking to newsmen after a visit to the Mfum Border, Babandede said there is close collaboration between the service and the state government, with a view to addressing the safety of incoming refugees.
The NIS boss, who said Nigeria and Cameroon enjoy a good relationship as neighboring countries, added that plans were on to ensure the safety of refugees, as well as safeguard our national security.
He assured that the country is well prepared for the challenge as a strategic system was being worked out for proper screening of the refugees, as “Nigeria respects human rights and human dignity. The country equally respects the sovereignty of Cameroon.”
He said the Nigerian government is committed to the security and stability of Cameroon, pointing out that the two countries will continue to co-exist peacefully. Babandede, therefore called for closer ties between the Nigerian security operatives and their Cameroonian counterparts for the benefit of the two countries.
He explained that as migration managers, the NIS will continue to play its role in ensuring that migrants and refugees are safe and properly handled and emphasised civil management of migrants without infringing on their rights.
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