When the International Court of Justice handed over a contested, oil-rich peninsula to Cameroon, a decade-long nightmare began for its Nigerian residents.
CALABAR, Nigeria — Okon Etim Effiom is still haunted by his past in Bakassi peninsula, 40 kilometres away from Calabar, the capital of southern Nigeria’s Cross River State.
Fishermen used to pay to hire Effiom’s wooden fishing boats. Sometimes they gave him some portion of their catch.
He had plenty of fish, periwinkle snails, shrimps, crayfish, lobsters, and crabs for his family’s consumption and for sale at local markets.
“Fishermen were making a lot of money, and buyers came from different towns to buy the fish and shellfish in our market, dry them and shift them to where they would be sold,” he recalls.
The Bakassi peninsula lies in the Gulf of Guinea and is rich in fish, oil and gas reserves. Around 90 percent of the peninsula’s estimated 300,000 population are Nigerians who were mostly in the fishing industry. Nigerians from states like Ebonyi, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Abia and Delta, also live there.
Change of fortune
A formal handover ceremony in Calabar in mid-August 2008 shattered the lives of the majority of the peninsula’s residents.
As flags exchanged hands between Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities, so did the fortunes of the population in Bakassi, where many of the people are from the Efik ethnic group, which doubles as a lingua franca across Cross River.
It was at this ceremony that Nigeria officially transferred authority over the territory to Cameroon in agreement with a 2002 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which upheld Cameroon’s claims to Bakassi peninsula.
In the immediate aftermath of the handover, tens of thousands of Nigerian fishermen and their families, including Effiom, fled Bakassi to nearby towns in Cross River State.
Akwa Ibom, for instance, received at least 100,000 displaced Bakassi residents by September 2008. Other states like Bayelsa came in and took their people back.
“Our farmland, our gods, our ancestral homes, our culture, our institution, and our dignity were lost after the handover,” a former Bakassi chief Etim Okon Ene tells TRT World.
“Life has been really difficult for us here.”
A disputed territory
Ownership of this swampy area had been highly contested between Nigeria and Cameroon in the years that followed independence in 1960. The maritime and land boundaries were yet to be completed, and attempts to do so had faltered continuously.
The presence of oil and gas in the peninsula, it seemed, exacerbated existing tensions. Nigeria was already extracting oil from the peninsula, and Cameroon, by the late 1980s, was making inroads into the oil export market.
By December 1993, after Nigeria sent troops to occupy most of the territory, fighting between the armies of both countries resulted in violence and the killings of dozens of people.
Some months later, Cameroon complained to the ICJ, asking the court to determine the whole maritime and land boundary from Lake Chad in the north to the Gulf of Guinea in the south, covering about 2,300 km of the land border.
The ICJ began to examine colonial-era records, holding judicial debates as they pored over maps and records. By October 2002, the court ruled in favour of Cameroon -- a judgement that was partly influenced by a 1913 treaty between former colonial powers Britain and Germany which, indeed, showed that the area belonged to Cameroon.
Nigeria initially kicked against this judgement, but later accepted it would adhere to the terms laid out by the ruling after former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan brokered meetings with the head of states of Nigeria and Cameroon between September and November 2002.
This culminated in the establishment of the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission (CNMC), which was saddled with demarcating land and maritime boundaries. The CNMC was backed by the UN and was chaired by Ahmedou Ould-Adballah, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative at the UN Office for West Africa.
Negotiations gathered further momentum with the two countries signing the so-called Greentree Agreement in the June 2006, with Nigeria accepting to transfer authority of the disputed territory over to Cameroon.
Two months later, Nigeria withdrew over 3,000 troops but continued to control some parts of the peninsula until June 2008 in line with the pact. This gave Nigerian nationals the chance to return and resettle in Nigeria, become Cameroonian citizens or continue to stay in Bakassi as resident aliens in Cameroon.
The struggles in Nigeria
Okon Etim Effiom and his family wanted to stay back, but had to leave Bakassi because “things changed immediately” after the handover.
“When we go to fish the Cameroon gendarmes would seize our boats, arrest our brothers, ask us to change our identity, and to pay tax, something we have not done before,” the 43-year-old fisherman remembers.
In the town of Ikang in Cross River State, tens of thousands of returnees like Effiom and his family received support from both state and federal government, and from NGOs and humanitarian agencies.
But resettlement measures were painfully slow, forcing him and thousands of returnees to go back to the peninsula in late 2009 to continue fishing.
When Cameroon assumed full control of the territory in August 2013, Effiom and his family had to move again.
“The gendermes said we should leave the territory, and seized a lot of our property and collected plenty tax,” he says. “The hardship was too much so we started finding our way back to Nigeria.”
At least 7,000 other Bakassians alongside Effiom moved to a primary and secondary school in Akwa Ikot Eyo Edem village, in the Akpabuyo local council of Cross River State. Many more were dispersed in other villages and towns in the state, including in Obutong camp, where the government built at least 300 shelters for more than 5,000 returnees.
They received support from the Cross River State emergency management agency, the National Emergency Management Agency, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and other local NGOs until Cross River authorities introduced a conditional cash transfer programme that temporarily halted much of this support by mid-August 2014.
“They came here and took the statistics of our people, and made biometric ID cards for us but none of us received the monthly 5,000 naira ($14) under the cash transfer programme,” recounts 47-year-old Eyo Umo Orok, who has been living in a dilapidated secondary school building in Akwa Ikot Eyo Edem village.
Only three out of Orok’s six children, all of whom are of school-going age, attend a nearby public school where student desks are inadequate, and classrooms are overcrowded and riddled with badly damaged floors, full of small holes and dust.
“Many of our child are not going to school because parents do not have enough money to pay for the termly fees,” says Effiom, who is now the secretary for the returnees camped in Akpabuyo.
In both the primary and secondary school camps in Akwa Ikot Eyo Edem village, where about 3,000 returnees currently stay, there is no water supply, so the displaced Bakassians have to trek through a rough, sloppy terrain for about 3km to get water from a stream. And, in the absence of sanitation facilities, the surrounding bush serves as a space for defecation.
“Most young people go for menial jobs like farming, harvesting palm fruits and in construction sites to see how they can survive,” says Effiom.
“Our old mothers and wives go around the community to help families in the host community with household chores, at times they are lucky they get 500 naira ($1.4).”
Fortunately, they are able to receive healthcare services from a health worker sent from the state to administer drugs and treat minor ailments like malaria, coughs and fevers.
Efforts to resettle the displaced Bakassi people have floundered, despite the federal government saying it had provided up to 9 billion naira ($25.3 million) between 2006 and 2015 for their resettlement.
“These people have suffered a lot and many people have benefitted from diverting resources meant for Bakassi IDPs,” explains Effiong Anthony Edet, an accounting student of the University of Calabar, who has been working with his friends and a local church to provide water, clothing, food, books, healthcare services, entrepreneurship training, and scholarships for Bakassi children since 2017.
Occasionally, government agencies such as the Nigerian Ports Authority, and local nonprofits, conduct medical outreaches wherein they provide screening and drugs as well as clothing, food and cooking and household items.
Dawn of a new beginning
Instead of waiting aid or resettlement, which barely comes, the returnees ventured into small-scale farming in 2015 with training and support from the UNHCR, which gave about 172 Bakassi households in Akwa Ikot Eyo Edem 50,000 naira ($139) each.
The host community, in turn, gave them a large strip of land that spans over dozens of hectares. The returnees then pooled resources together to hire tractors to clear the land for farming. They would later start growing watermelon, pineapple, plantain, eggplant, pepper, and pumpkin leaves.
“Farming has helped us to feed our families and to meet some of our needs,” Etim Okon Ene, leader of the Bakassi people in in Akpabuyo, says with a smile.
However, this changed when the Cross River State governor promised to build 5,000 houses to resettle them. Their farmlands were bulldozed to make way for the project backed by the state and the African Nation Development Programme.
But two years after the site was cleared, what lies on the large expanse of land is a handful of uncompleted brick houses, and a site already brimming with bushes and plants.
The failure of that project, it appears, pushed the Cross River State Governor Professor Ben Ayade to build 52 two-bed apartments in nearby Ifiang Ayong village, on the bank of a river along the Nigeria-Cameroon border.
The new housing units sit inside the Bakassi local council in Cross River State, near Akpabuyo. It is entirely different from the formerly disputed Bakassi peninsula which lies 30km away.
Okon Etim Effiom cannot wait to be resettled more than a decade after displacement.
“I hope we can restart our lives again in a New Bakassi.”