Handover of Bakassi: Government Was Right…But Wrong.

It is now seven days since The Bakassi Peninsula was officially handed over to Cameroon in compliance to the ICJ judgement which held that the region, which has come to be better described by what is presumed to be under it (i.e oil) than the visible, belonged to the French-speaking central African country. The August 14th ceremony in itself was the apogee of a process that commenced years ago when some border communities in parts of the northern Nigeria were transferred to Cameroon and vice-versa.

Unlike the Bakassi handover, the one that took place in the north generated little or no controversy. There was no litigation in court over the matter. The people affected did not resist the move. They accepted the matter as the will of Allah. It was also made less controversial because most of the Nigerian intellectuals who stirred all forms of opposition to the Bakassi handover were either in hibernation mode at that time or simply ignored the matter because it was not worth the headache. With no oil under the sun-scorched desert land of the northern region, there was nothing to seethe about. Moreover, unlike the Bakassi handover, the northern handover actually ‘favoured' Nigeria in some way, in that some land (though barren) was transferred to Nigeria as well.

 But Bakassi was bound to be controversial for several reasons.

One: Oil. Oil is always a bone of contention anywhere in the world. It is believed that Cameroon's main motivation for taking Nigeria to court in the first place was oil. There is no grain of love from the Cameroonian government for the Nigerian inhabitants of the peninsula themselves who in any case are more of a liability to them than asset. Cameroon would observably be happier if Nigeria could evacuate all the inhabitants of the isthmus and leave them with the empty land, and of course the oil beneath, so that they could exploit the it without the need to cater for local communities or face complaints of environmental degradation from local indigenes as being experienced by Nigeria in the Niger Delta.

Two: the Green Tree Agreement which former president Obasanjo signed with the FRC over Bakassi was done haphazardly and without recourse to the laws of the land. No effort was made to involve the major stakeholders, which are the indigenes of Bakassi themselves. Their wishes and aspirations were never taken into account. Obasanjo behaved as if he was dealing with an empty land of Bakassi and not Bakassi as a people. To compound the problem, the Nigerian Senate had before August 13th failed to ratify the GTA, thus making it ineffective before the law.

Three: perhaps the fundamental controversy on the matter started with the ICJ itself, which in their colonial determination to give judgement against Nigeria paid no attention to the effect of its implementation on the inhabitants of the Peninsula. They sat in The Hague looking at Bakassi as just a dot on a map spread on their table,on which they could merely use their pencil to realign the boundary lines in such a way that that dot shifted to Cameroon. I am not sure any of the judges ever visited the disputed land. None of the local indigenes (I mean the typical Bakassi fisherman) was called in as a witness throughout the 8-year or so duration of the case. The need for a plebiscite was conveniently ignored by the court thus giving a judgement that could best be described as inhuman.

Four: Some local indigenes of Bakassi went to court to stop the handover and actually obtained an injunction supposedly restraining the federal government from proceeding with the handover on the 14th August 2008, pending the determination of their suit which bordered on compensation demands for the planned displacement of their people from their ancestral land.

In the light of the foregoing, can we say that the Yar'Adua government erred on the handover of Bakassi? The answer is both No and Yes in that order.

‘No' in the first instance because, Nigeria willingly went to the ICJ and pledged to abide by its ruling. Everybody knows that when you go to court, you either win or lose. So when you pledge to obey the court‘s decision, you have taken the risk of accepting even an unfavourable verdict, which is what happened to Nigeria. And unfortunately there is no room for appeal. It hardly makes any sense therefore for Nigeria to renege on the pledge when the ruling turned out to be a negative one. More so after the ICJ judgement has already been implemented in part in the northern parts of the country.

Arguments that the handover violated the rule of law posture of this government in view of the injunction obtained from an Abuja High court stopping the handover are misplaced. Apart from the judgement coming belatedly, there it is no argument that the ICJ as an international court with higher powers cannot submit to the ruling of a lower court in Nigeria over a matter that has international dimension. So asking the Federal Government to stop the handover was an exercise in futility and Justice Mohammed Umar who gave that judgement engaged in judicial rascality sine qua non. It was an abuse of court procedures to give that injunction knowing very well that there was valid judgement to the contrary from a higher court.

Another valid (but rather weak) angle to look at it is that the judge tried to stop what has already technically been done since June12, 2006. Recall that the controversial Green Tree Agreement (GTA) with Cameroon on June 12, 2006 actually stipulates that with effect from August 14, 2008, Bakassi will cease to be Nigerian territory. Even though the ratification of the GTA by the Senate, came after this judgement, it nevertheless validated the agreement, thus one can safely conclude that the deal was done two years ago.

It is instructive to note that the petitioners in that case were not essentially disputing the fact that Bakassi must go to Cameroon by the very fact that they are asking for compensation for the loss of their land and heritage, which cannot happen if there is no handover. It was therefore not necessary to ask for any injunction restraining the handover. All they needed to do was to concentrate on their legitimate demand for compensation which is their right under the jurisdiction of the court they approached. The court needed to have recognised this fact and pointed it out to the petitioners and thus refused to step outside its jurisdiction.

What the court intended to achieve by preserving the ‘res' is indeed questionable. The ‘res' as defined by the court is ‘Southern Bakassi which is to be ceded by the defendants on August 14'.But there is no way the handover will destroy the need for compensation, which is the main relief sought by the petitioners. Therefore preserving the res was not fundamental to justice in the case brought before Justice Mohammed Umar. Or was Umar suggesting that now that Bakassi has been handed over, the demand for adequate compensation of the victims of the unfortunate displacement has become obsolete? The answer is NO. In fact it is now that we can safely talk about the need for compensation with more confidence and justification since the government is not expected to have paid for damages yet to be done.

Some have been calling for war instead of compliance with the judgement, pointing to several nations that have yet to comply with similar judgements. But I beg to disagree. When war breaks out between Nigeria and Cameroon, it is the innocent Bakassi people that will bear the brunt and not these legal luminaries who are sitting somewhere in Lagos or Abuja, quoting jaw-breaking jargons to justify their position. That these legal luminaries and intellectual icons were much around when Nigeria lost that case, indicates that their wisdom on this matter is half-worth a penny.

But yes, the Government erred on the ground that no adequate preparations were made to engage, pacify and even console the indigenes of Bakassi and prepare them for the unfathomable psychological trauma they were about to be subjected to. The government erred in not putting up the entire and adequate infrastructure on ground at the resettlement camps that could make the people comfortable before asking them to move. A social impact assessment ought to have been carried out long before now and mitigation measures fully implemented to minimise the damage to the social, economic, and political life of the indigenes. The amount of reasonable compensation for the loss of their land and livelihood needed to have been evaluated by government and adequate framework put in place to ensure that all displaced persons are carried along.

Did the government do a census to establish exactly the number of people that wished to leave Bakassi and those that preferred to stay? If so how come the dearth of facilities at the resettlement camps? Pictures coming from Bakassi indicate that,very shoddy arrangements were done. This is typical of the Nigerian culture. Obasanjo signed the GTA agreement, which set out the timetable for the handover of Bakassi at the twilight of his administration. Thereafter the government directed its energy to the do-or-die elections and forgot to do what was needful. In fact some reports had it that Bakassi was even used as a conduit to siphon money for electioneering campaigns during that election.

Is unthinkable that the government so far does not seem to be prepared for the humanitarian crisis associated with the Bakassi handover despite the long time lag between the pronouncement of the ICJ and the signing of the Green Tree Agreement on one hand and from the signing of the GTA to 14th August 2008 on the other. This is a sad commentary on our poor planning and crisis management culture.

So it was right to comply with the ICJ judgement but fundamentally wrong to subject the indigenes of Bakassi to unspeakable indignity due to lack of foresight and mismanagement by our leaders.


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