BAKASSI, NIGERIA —
Nigeria’s Bakassi people are mourning the loss of their homeland after the Nigerian government declined to appeal 10-year-old ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ceding the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon.
An appeal was the last glimmer of hope for the Bakassi people, who strongly opposed to the transfer of their ancestral home to Cameroon. Nigeria had 10 years to appeal the ICJ ruling but did not do so by the October 10, deadline. The nation’s minister of justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke, summed up the decision by saying “An application for a review is virtually bound to fail.”
Many, like Prince Edem Nsa, say they will not soon forget October 10. “I felt so bad. It was like the ground should open for me to go in and forget about this world,” he said. “It was the saddest day of my life.”
Following the ICJ’s ruling, Cameroon began a gradual takeover of the Bakassi Peninsula in 2006. The takeover caused an exodus of the Bakassi people from the peninsula to Nigeria. Many accused Cameroonian authorities of human rights abuses.
A United Nations brokered accord between Cameroon and Nigeria, specified that on taking over the peninsula, Cameroon should respect the rights of the Bakassi people, who should be free to remain in their homeland. The Bakassi were expected to either become Cameroonian citizens, or retain their Nigerian nationality and be treated as foreigners.
The Bakassi people live in small fishing settlements like this one. (VOA / S. Olukoya)
None of the options were attractive to most Bakassi people. Many said that as members of the Efik ethnic group of Nigeria, they had no affinity with any group in Cameroon.
“We can’t become a part of Cameroon, a country whose language we don’t understand," says Nsa. “We don’t know their culture; we are Efik people. I insist. I don’t want to be a Cameroonian.”
Other Bakassi said it was clear that the Cameroonian authorities wanted the Bakassi to leave their old homeland. The coast line around Bakassi Peninsular has petroleum deposits and a thriving fishing industry. The Bakassi say they were opposed because Cameroon wants to take over these resources.
Although Cameroon denies that Bakassi rights had been violated, at least one Nigerian official said there was evidence to the contrary.
David Akate of the Cross Rivers State Emergency Management Agency, a group responsible for rehabilitating Bakassi people fleeing into Nigeria, says there is evidence some of the Bakassi were tortured before leaving the peninsula.
“Some of them come with burns, knife cuts, bullet wounds and signs of beatings, Akate says. “Often they say the injuries were inflicted on them by Cameroonian gendarmes who harass and extort money from them.”
Though the Nigerian government had promised to resettle the Bakassi people fleeing into Nigeria, many of the refugees say very little was put in place for them.
The resettlement area set aside for the Bakassi by the government lacks basic facilities such as housing, water and health care facilities. And though the Bakassi have traditionally made their living through ocean fishing, the re-settlement area is in an inland region at Akpabuyo in Cross River State.
“Life is very difficult for me,” says Ekpeyong Esong, who used to be a fisherman in his homeland. “I no longer fish; there is no job here.”
As the Bakassi people mourn the loss of their homeland, many of them look back with regret at what they consider the failure of the U.N. arbitration mission to guarantee their rights in Cameroon.
“The U.N. is sleeping, because this problem is so alarming. On a daily basis, Nigerians are losing their souls,” says Aston Orung, a native Bakassi who is very unhappy about the plight of his people.
The Bakassi also complain that Nigeria did not do enough to prevent their homeland from being ceded to Cameroon. Many like Nsa, say they are haunted by Nigeria’s refusal to seek a review of the ICJ’s ruling during the 10-year appeal period.
“For the first time, the reality came on me that I have actually lost the grave of my grandfather, the grave of my father, all our deities and the houses we left behind,” says Nsa whose family is considered royalty. “It is like the whole world has been taken away from me. I feel alone in the world.”
Nigeria and Cameroon had been locked in a bitter legal dispute over the Bakassi Peninsula for decades before the court ruling. Nsa says that while peace was attained the Bakassi people were sacrificed in the process.
“We have not only lost our land, we have lost everything,” he said. “We have lost our heritage, our identity, our wealth, everything we had.
“I don’t know how to explain to my children when in future they ask me where they come from, “Nsa concludes.