BAKASSI, CAMEROON —
Cameroon gained total control of West Africa’s Bakassi pensinsula in August 2013, following a prescribed five-year transition from Nigeria. But most of the oil-rich area’s 300,000 inhabitants still are Nigerians. Now, Cameroon’s military has begun cracking down on Nigerian businesses suspected of evading taxes.
Business owners don’t understand Cameroon's tax laws, said Stanley Obi, a provision store owner, adding that he’s seen an array of people seeking payments.
"At times, you see the council will come to collect theirs after the tax [taxation officers] will come, police will come," Obi said. "You see, you are just confused in the whole system."
Fresh fish retailer Na Eric said that ever since Cameroon gained sovereignty over the peninsula, Nigerians in Bakassi frequently have been harassed by Cameroon soldiers: "It is a means of killing our businesses."
Obi also said a curfew was imposed in the peninsula last week following disputes between businessmen and groups of tax collectors.
The governor of the southwest region in which Bokassi is located confirmed his administration had imposed a nightly curfew. Bernard Okalia Bilai said the decision to halt people coming from Nigeria’s Cross River state followed a meeting at which peninsula residents complained that others were disrespecting maritime borders, attacking the locals and refusing to pay taxes.
The governor said Nigerians must understand that Bakassi is now a Cameroonian territory and that whoever lives there must submit to all national rules and regulations, including paying taxes.
The International Court of Justice had awarded control of the disputed Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon in a 2002 ruling. Nigeria eventually decided not to fight the ruling, over the protests of many Bakassi residents.
In 2008, the ICJ gave Nigeria five years to transition and cede control. As of August 14, 2013, Nigerians – who constitute 90 percent of the peninsula's population – had to obtain residence permits and be treated as foreign nationals. Those who decided to become Cameroonians had to acquire national identity cards and respect Cameroon laws
Mayor Aboko Patrick of Kombo Abedimo, a locality in Bakassi, said its residents must pay taxes, as determined in various treaties approved by Cameroon and Nigeria.
'No indiscriminate collection of taxes'
In the United Nations-backed Greentree Agreement that in 2006 set terms of the handover, "one of the articles states that there shall be no indiscriminate collection of taxes within the Bakassi peninsula. It did not say that there shall be no collection of taxes," Patrick said. "But the Nigerians, who outnumber Cameroonians, have [understood] that there will be no collection of taxes."
Immediately after the ICJ ruling, tax collection in Bakassi was suspended. But as of mid-August 2013, residents had to start paying their share.
Bilai, the governor, accused Nigerians of disrespecting the ICJ ruling’s terms by refusing to pay taxes.
Cameroon created a special committee to help develop the area. Its head, Ndoh Beltha Bakata, said it’s difficult to help Nigerians feel at home in Cameroon.
"Their culture is not our culture and so they have to be sensitized," Bakata said. "We are just trying to make them see first of all that Bakassi is Cameroon, but we don't force them to do anything against their will. Now we have to implement our own laws."