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Torn in Bakassi: Cameroonian on Paper, Nigerian at Heart


FILE - Locals wave good-bye to a departing Nigerian soldier in Archibong in the southern Bakassi Peninsula, in this Aug. 14, 2006, photo, as Nigerian troops withdrew from the disputed area, which was officially handed over to Cameroon in 2008.

FILE - Locals wave good-bye to a departing Nigerian soldier in Archibong in the southern Bakassi Peninsula, in this Aug. 14, 2006, photo, as Nigerian troops withdrew from the disputed area, which was officially handed over to Cameroon in 2008.

Cameroon took full control of the Bakassi peninsula from Nigeria three years ago as a result of a U.N.-supervised agreement. The transfer ended decades of dispute, but residents say they still feel conflicted. Many still feel Nigerian.

The Nigerian national anthem being sung at a meeting of Nigerian businessmen in Kombo Abedimo serves as a fitting illustration of the identity crisis still affecting the Bakassi peninsula.

Nigeria officially handed Bakassi over to Cameroon in 2008. About 30 percent of residents have since taken Cameroonian nationality, according to the government. But even they say they still feel Nigerian.

"No matter how long a stick lives in a river, it can never become a snake. I am a Nigerian. I will die a Nigerian,” says Deffand Agnes, a 46-year-old nurse who came to Bakassi from Calabar in Nigeria ten years ago.

Economic ties to Nigeria, too, remain strong.

Obi Emmanuel runs an engine boat between Calabar and Bakassi, regularly shuttling gasoline to the peninsula. This has been his business for the past 25 years.

"Here, we don't have a petrol station. Without Nigeria, it should have been very difficult, so we consider Nigeria to be very sustainable for us,” Emmanuel says.

The transition

Bakassi started out as part of Cameroon but it attracted so many Nigerians that Nigeria placed it under the administration of Cross River State. Tensions rose, and in the early 1990s, Cameroon troops tried to take it back leading to bloody confrontations with Nigerian soldiers.

Cameroon took the matter to the International Court of Justice which ruled in its favor in 2002.

The five-year U.N.-supervised transition period began in 2008. When it ended, Cameroon created a Bakassi development fund to improve living conditions.

Ndoh Berta Bakata, president of Cameroon's government commission to develop Bakassi, told VOA that more than $8 million have been spent.

"We need that more workers be sent to the zone to occupy those buildings. When they are there, they will keep safe those structures. We also need to try to ameliorate the conditions of the workers because some of them feel that they are being punished by going there. I must also say that it is a risky zone so something has to be done to improve their working conditions especially putting up electricity and water because that is essential for their stay," Bakata says.

In spite of the investments, schools in Bakassi look deserted. Agbor Innocent teaches at the government school Kombo Abedim.

"When the children come up to class five (fifth grade), they are taken to Nigeria. They don't stay in Cameroon. When there is fish, the children come. When there is no fish, they go away and they go with the children," Innocent says.

Over 90 percent of the peninsula’s 300,000 inhabitants are said to be of the Efik ethnic nationality from Calabar, Nigeria.

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