Bakassi returnees’ two-decade grueling sojourn in ‘new Bakassi’
The horrible handling of the resettlement of the people of Bakassi by the Federal Government, as well as the international community since the October 10, 2002, ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ceded the oil-rich peninsula to Cameroun, has continued to evoke very sad memories among the bewildered people.
Today, they recall with nostalgia, how they usually gathered at moonlit village grounds, in Abana, Atai Ema, Ekpri Ikang, Akpa Nkanya, and other spots celebrating their heritage and culture, while insects chirp away in surrounding vegetation, while the Atlantic Ocean constantly erupts in thunderous claps.
Since losing the island and the consequent loss of 76 oil wells to neighbouring Akwa Ibom State, the Bakassi people, and by extension the entire people of Cross River State have continued to bear the brunt of the poor implementation of the Green Tree Agreement (GTA) or treaty of 2006, which was entered between Nigeria and Cameroun, under the supervision of the United Nations. Up till today, the treaty is yet to be ratified by the Nigerian National Assembly.
Twenty years after that landmark verdict, the distraught people, who are still wallowing in abject poverty, are livid with rage because all the promises that were made by the Olusegun Obasanjo-led government and the international community to resettle them at a befitting location, which supports their lifestyle and occupation, have not been met.
As of today, many of them are still living as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in different locations, with scant attention from the Federal Government, while some have drifted to different places in an attempt to start afresh. In the new Bakassi Local Council, which was carved out of Akpabuyo Local Council, infrastructure is sparse, just as life is more grueling for the returnees as governments at different levels continue to give excuses.
This is happening five years after the former Chairman of Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), Aliyu Mohammed, in 2017, revealed that as part of efforts to assuage the pains caused by the ICJ’s ruling, about N38b had been paid as special allocation to the state, by the Federal Government over a period of 11 years, as compensation for the loss of Bakassi, and by extension, the oil wells.
Recently, the nostalgic feelings welled up, as some of them came together to recreate scenes from their generations-long moonlight shows in their ancestral homestead. This time around, electricity provided illumination, while a massive artwork, which served as the backdrop on the stage depicted the Atlantic Ocean. At the popular Greenville Hotel in Ekorinim, Calabar Municipal Council, where the event was held, tables were set in a manner that reminded them of their native huts.
Also on the menu for the night, were native meals, and local alcoholic beverages enjoyed by the locals for hundreds of years. They include fisherman’s stew, edita iwa, nsat iyak, ekpai, ufofop among others.
Complementing the evening, were soulful tunes from traditional groups. Their renditions in Efik, Fulani, Yoruba, Kalabari, Igbo, Ibibio, and other languages showcased their love for Nigeria, despite the ill-treatment meted to them in the wake of the loss of Bakassi.
Tagged, “An Evening in Bakassi Peninsular,” a prominent son of Bakassi, and a stakeholder, Mr. Joe-Mary Ekeng, said that the “celebration was just a way of bringing the real Bakassi people together, and also trying to reach out to our relatives out there in Bakassi. Before the peninsular was ceded, we normally took boat rides to our villages to sit with our kith and kin, who are predominantly fishermen. This location and the celebration are, therefore, to let us cast our minds to what used to be. And as you have noticed, we had our native delicacies and drinks, which we enjoyed in groups the way we used to do.
“I miss Bakassi of old because it used to be a peaceful riverine area devoid of all the hustle and bustle of the city; where you were just there and at peace with nature. The people there had no business with petrol scarcity or electricity,” Joe-Mary recalled.
Reflecting on the plight of the people, Ekeng who is the Executive Secretary of Calabar Urban Development Agency (CUDA), expressed dissatisfaction with the way that previous administrations have handled matters related to their wellbeing since the ICJ’s verdict was handed down.
He, however, praised the efforts of the Governor Ben Ayade-led government to resettle “us and give us a sense of belonging. He has done a whole lot, but unfortunately, the #EndSARS protest led to the destruction of all that is supposed to be ours. But I want to believe that subsequently, the government will come and go, and even though it may take a while, I am very sure that one of these days, everything will be fine-tuned and we will get what we want…Next time, I know that the reunion will be bigger and better.”
For a former chairman of Bakassi Local Council, and Coordinator of “An Evening in Bakassi Peninsular,” Mr. Ani Esin: “The nostalgic feeling evoked by the event is that we have come together to continue practicing what we have been doing and to also begin a new conversation in Bakassi because the war is over, the soldiers have returned to their barracks, the oil companies are still operating, and the devastation of the forest and climate change issues are continuing. A lot of other issues are still happening. Even the people are disintegrated because of rhetoric. So, we want to raise the bar so that we can begin a conversation that will bring a positive thing in Bakassi, and bring back the people.”
Esin continued: “The issues affecting Bakassi are far beyond the Green Tree Agreement; they are for the governments of Nigeria and Cameroun to begin to look at. Right now, we have Bakassi in Nigeria and Cameroun, so clearly, there are issues that both governments should be addressing. While there are also tripartite meetings out there, we as a people must also begin to sit down and think together to see what we can do with the bad situation that we have found on the ground.”
SINCE the Federal Government has done very little to properly settle and empower the returnees, Governor Ayade realising the importance of a shelter over their heads, built for the displaced people, residential quarters in the new Bakassi. But the structures were thoroughly vandalised in the wake of the #EndSARS protest, and this threw the 100 families that were resettled back into the cold. Those that are awaiting resettlement in that particular location are about 2,720.
Because of the carnage, Edet Ene Okon, one of the returnees lamented: “We have gone back to our former settlement at the African Nations School, at Akpa Nkanya, in Akpabuyo Local Council. Over 1, 000 of us with our children (100 families) are displaced. We have gone back to join others that did not benefit from the resettlement.
“We have returned to Ikot Eyo, but most of us are still scattered everywhere, and it has been each man for himself and God for us all. My boss, Etim Okon Edet, otherwise known as Ekpedeme, who is our camp leader now resides in Calabar, the state capital. For now, we have been surviving on menial jobs, and things are not as they were before, and all promises made by the Federal Government are yet to be fulfilled. We see on television and hear from the radio how other displaced persons in other parts of the country have been receiving things from the government, but over here, we have got nothing.”
He continued: “Ever since Bakassi was ceded to Cameroun, we have not been feeling fine, and our major problem is money. We have no money to feed, and the N500 per day that we get from the menial jobs that we do is not enough for anything. Lacking food and shelter in this kind of condition makes life hellish. We cannot go back to fishing because we do not have money to buy nets and other related work tools. But we must not fail to point out that the United Nations, the federal and state governments are not doing anything for us. Ever since the incident at Ifiang Edem Inyang (the location of the vandalised Ayade Estate), our people have been scattered everywhere.”
Also sharing his worries, a senatorial aspirant for Cross River South Senatorial District, which Bakassi is part of, Mr. Victor Effiom Ekpo said: “It is so sad that what happened to the Bakassi people was allowed to happen at all… The GTA/Treaty should be ratified because when you talk about what happened in the past, and the present state of things, it’s no longer the same. So, if I am elected to the National Assembly, I will set up a new committee so that we can once again, look into the main problem of the Bakassi people. I am going to partner with the executive because it’s the executive that will work with the international community to get all these things done. We will try to see if there would be a window for a referendum because you can’t forcefully make your people move to another country against their will. By referendum, I mean that we will call the people of Bakassi and make sure that the people that are living there have a say, and have their rights as human beings.”
AFTER RMAFC in 2017 disclosed that about N38b had been paid as special allocation to the state by the Federal Government over a period of 11 years, as compensation for the loss of Bakassi and by extension the wells, the state government insisted that the amount was grossly inadequate, considering the enormity of the dislocation suffered by the people, and the attendant economic loss to the state.
Ayade’s Chief Press Secretary/ Special Assistant on Media, Christian Ita, had, in an exclusive interview with The Guardian said the state was not satisfied with such a paltry sum.
He said: “We have 12 months in a year, so multiply that by 11 years and divide it by N38b, that is when you will know whether that money was meant to achieve anything or not. By the time you finish the calculation per month, you would know that the amount would have become a pittance. It is nothing. We are thinking that we should be compensated in perpetuity; we should be compensated heavily. I know that the governor is even considering taking the Federal Government to court to ask for over N3trillion damages over the loss of Bakassi Peninsular and its oil wells because no laid down procedure in international law was followed in ceding the area.”
Ita, who said the ceding of Bakassi was an issue between two sovereign nations – Nigeria and Cameroon, and Cross River State had no hand at all added: “Even when you look at the Green Tree Agreement, it has nothing to do with Cross River State, so there is no need to beg the issue because I think we are begging the issue. The truth of the matter is that the little element of comfort that the people of Bakassi are enjoying is coming from the state government, even after the state suffered what could be described as double jeopardy. After the peoples’ land was ceded without their consent, the state also lost over 70 oil wells as a consequence, and it is the same Cross River State, which now has less money that is being left to cater for the wellbeing of the people.”
Ayade’s stance and the threat of litigation were, however, before the governor defected from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC). Since joining the ruling party, he has been less combative and less vociferous on the matter.
NOT only is the well-being of the people of Bakassi being compromised, but they are also suffering economically and politically. In fact, 20 years after the loss of the peninsular the country is yet to expunge the names of Bakassi villages or wards, which are now in Cameroun, from its map.
As a matter of fact, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) still maintains the old Bakassi wards in its Atlas and Directory of Registration Areas (RAs). The consequence of this is that thousands of Bakassi people, who were relocated to new settlements within Nigeria, have remained disenfranchised for years with no law legalising the new RAs as wards in Nigeria.
The affected wards in the old Bakassi, which are now in Cameroon and still exist on Nigeria’s maps and INEC’s Atlas and Directory illegally are Abana, Akpa Nkanya, Akwa, Ambai Eba, Amoto, Archibong Town, Atai Ema, Efut Iwang, Ekpot Abia and Odiong.
After the main Bakassi was ceded, the Cross River State government had, in an attempt to legalise the affected wards in Nigeria, and ensure that elections are conducted there, enacted a law, creating three Ikang wards of Bakassi, through Law Number 7, 2007 of Cross River State.
But INEC failed to recognise the wards as a replacement for the lost wards based on a Supreme Court judgment, which set aside Law Number 7 of the state, rendering it null and void.
The electoral umpire subsequently disallowed elections in the new wards created by the state from Akpabuyo Local Council under the New Bakassi, as provided for in the said law.
INEC had argued that the new wards under the New Bakassi were unconstitutional hence no election could take place there except under Akpabuyo, as no state House of Assembly has the constitutional power to create, alter or delineate state constituency and compel the commission to obey the same.
The INEC National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye, maintained that by virtue of the 1999 constitution (as amended), INEC does not create wards. He disclosed that rather, the states’ independent electoral commission has been vested with the authority to create wards.
“Before the coming into force of the 1999 constitution, it was the responsibility of the commission to create wards but after the coming into effect of that constitution, the power to create additional wards now resides with SIEC. The power we have is to create constituencies,” he said.
On the Supreme Court judgment and INEC’s failure to recognise the three new wards created by Cross River State, he noted that the time of filing the case and when the judgment was delivered must be taken into consideration.
“There is a supreme court authority that makes it clear that the creation of wards, with the coming into force of the 1999 constitution, now resides with the States’ Independent National Electoral Commission. Moreover, INEC does not conduct elections based on wards. We conduct elections based on electoral constituency. In fact, we don’t call them wards but Registration Areas, which is the first layer of our collation of results. Nobody is elected from those places, it is just for administrative convenience.
Peeved by the alleged disdain for their wellbeing by governments at different levels, some of them are now calling for a referendum to address several concerns that they have lived with ever since, determine their fate, and fashion the way out of the quagmire. Some of those concerns include their disenfranchisement, the absence of law protecting their lost villages and wards, the inability of the international community and the United Nations (UN) to keep to the June 12, 2006 Green Tree Agreement (GTA), and the loss of their means of livelihood and total neglect by Nigeria.
Assessing the condition of his people, a former Chairman of Bakassi Local Council, Chief Emmanuel Etene, said: “I have not seen any improvement in the lives of Bakassi people. Well, we have been allocated a place for settlement, but it is not well with us. INEC and the Nigerian government have not given us a place… “What indigenes seek now is a new template for Bakassi because we are still using the old template,” he added.
Etene called on the National Assembly to secure Bakassi by amending, or by enacting a new law, or ratifying the treaty. “For now, it is just like super-imposing the old Bakassi on the existing people in the present location (Akpabuyo) and this creates a lot of problems. It is almost like we are now trying to displace them and definitely, there is bound to be friction. The current situation is affecting us because we do not have a constituency that we can call our own. For instance, we are operating in the former riverine area and Akpabuyo Local Council, which we share a position with still retains its Akpabuyo constituency. What we need is proper integration with the people that we came to meet.
Nigeria’s former Ambassador to Uganda, Etubom Nya Asuquo, in his response, said that it was unfortunate that he had left the National Assembly before the issue of Bakassi came up, stressing that if he was still at the legislature, things could not have taken the turn they took. “The truth of the matter is that our people both at the National Assembly, and even the Bakassi people were more interested in money than doing anything for their people,” he said.
He blamed the Federal Government and the National Assembly for the poor handling of the matter, saying: “They were dilly-dallying until events had happened before they started shouting. And even with the shouting, they were getting money for the rehabilitation of the Bakassi people. Go and see if there’s any rehabilitation. The people have not been fair to the Bakassi people and by people, I mean those who are their leaders.”
A Senatorial aspirant for Cross River South Senatorial, which Bakassi is part of, Mr. Victor Effiom Ekpo, also bemoaned the turn of events.
According to him, Governor Ben Ayade tried to put one or two structures in place, but criminals under the guise of #EndSARS vandalised the place. “We are going to go into renegotiation with the landlords in those communities to see how we can settle those who refused to join Cameroon. We are going to set up a committee and see how we can attract the Federal Government to at least do the needful.
“The agreement should be ratified because when you talk about what happened before and the present state of things, it’s no longer the same and that is the essence of saying I will set up a new committee so that we look into the main problem of the Bakassi people. I am going to partner with the executive because it’s the executive that will work with the international community to get all these things done.”
However, the Chairman of the Cross River National Assembly Caucus, Senator Gershom Bassey, does not want the National Assembly to ratify the Green Tree Agreement saying: “I don’t agree that the ratification by the National Assembly is in our best interest. The matter must remain open until we have state and federal governments that are ready to revisit the issues with the sincerity and seriousness that it deserves. One that will bring the full might of the government to the matter so that it can be resolved in favour of the Bakassi people and Cross River State.”
On what should be done for the Bakassi people for losing their ancestral home, Bassey who is aspiring to be the next governor of the state said: “Bakassi should be declared a special economic zone with a targeted federal allocation to address all the economic challenges that have been the direct result of the ceding of the territory to Cameroun without the permission of the inhabitants of the original Bakassi.”