Nigeria hands over disputed area to Cameroon

Monday, August 14, 2006

Nigerian and Cameroonian officials held a joint ceremony to mark the formal handover of the Bakassi peninsula from Nigeria to Cameroon. Nigeria agreed to cede the resource-rich area after a long drawn dispute with Cameroon. The ceremony comes after Nigeria completed the withdrawal of its troop stationed in the northern part of the peninsula. Many Bakassi residents are reported to be opposed to living under Cameroon's authority.

Map showing the Bakassi Peninsula on the Nigeria-Cameroon border

Long-drawn dispute

The resource-rich Bakassi peninsula was claimed by both Nigeria and Cameroon, leading to military clashes between the two back in 1981. In 1994, Cameroon approached the International Court of Justice(ICJ) to rule on the claims, and the ICJ ruled in 2002 that the area belonged to Cameroon as per a 1913 treaty signed between then colonial powers Britain and Germany. Nigeria finally agreed to the handover in the UN brokered Greentree Agreement signed in New York on June 12th, which gave Nigeria 60 days to withdraw its military forces from the area. The agreement signed by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and Cameroon's President Paul Biya, was the outcome of the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission, set up by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to address the issue.

Handover ceremony

The ceremony was held in the capital of northern Bakassi, the fishing town of Archibong, and was witnessed by African Union, British, French, German UN and US officials, as well as the Nigeria's chief of defence staff, General Martin-Luther Agwai, and the heads of the army, navy, airforce and the police. The Nigerian flag was lowered Cameroon flag was then raised. The Nigerian Justice Minister Bayo Ojo and his Cameroonian counterpart, Maurice Kamto signed the documents Monday transferring authority at exactly 12:30 pm (1130GMT).

Speaking at the event, Mr. Ojo said "We yield ground in order to give way to peace.", adding, "We have reason to celebrate the peaceful resolution of the Bakassi peninsula dispute". He tried to reassure Nigerians living in the peninsula, saying the transfer "does not not mean an end in itself. You still have the opportunity of living here if you choose to do so".

Mr. Kamto told the gathering ""We have the conviction that things will not be different in Bakassi, whose inhabitants have always co-existed in peace as they do in other locations and regions of Cameroon."

Kieran Prendergast, representative of the UN secretary general at the event called the handover "a good example of taking initiative in conflict prevention and solution".

Local opposition

The population of Bakassi, mainly Nigerian are reported to be deeply unhappy over the transfer. After Nigeria began its troop withdrawal last week, a group called the Bakassi Self Determination Movement declared Bakassi's independence from both Nigeria and Cameroon. The group hoisted blue and white flags and declared the creation of the "Democratic Republic of Bakassi".

Speaking to the IRIN news agency on Monday, the leader of the group, Tony Ene insisted on the "natural right" of Bakassi residents to "determine our future,", adding that "If Nigeria does not want us, we choose to go it alone and not with Cameroon.".

Some residents have said that they will fight Cameroonian authority and called for help from militants in the Niger delta region. Complaints by Bakassi Nigerians of harassment by Cameroonian police years ago had led to the deployment of Nigerian troops in the region. Many residents have said that they wish to evacuate the area rather than live under Cameroon.

Cameroon welcomes transfer

The Cameroon state broadcaster, Cameroon Radio and Television said "Today is a beautiful day for Cameroon... (and) Nigeria," adding that the handover "demonstrated the good faith of Cameroonian and Nigerian authorities to do everything to ensure that their two peoples can continue to live in peace and harmony in Bakassi,".

Reuters also reports Cameroonians in Yaounde as welcoming the transfer.

Violation of terms by Cameroon alleged

The Nigerian Newspaper, The Daily Champion reports that several villages in the peninsula were "taken over" by Cameroonian security agents prior to today's formal handover, violating the terms of the handover agreement. The Lagos-based daily reported Brigadier General Felix Chukwuma, a spokesman for the Nigerian Army saying that higher authorities in Nigeria have been notified of this "violation of the UN-brokered agreement on the demilitarisation of the peninsula". "I am very positive that Nigeria would take this up at the appropriate level," he said.

Transition arrangement

Nigeria has given Bakassi residents the option of either staying on in Bakassi under Cameroonian authority or getting resettled elsewhere in Nigeria. Under the handover agreement, Nigeria retains civilian authority over the southern section of the peninsula, known as West Atabong and Akwabana for two more years, during which the resettlement can proceed. Cameroon is to take full administrative control after a five year transitional period, during which neither country is expected to allow military presence in the region.

The UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for West Africa, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah has said that about a dozen UN civilian observers will monitor the situation following the troop withdrawal to "reassure" the locals of their safety under Cameroonian authority.

The UN Office for West Africa has said in a statement that the next meeting of the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission will discuss how to delineate the maritime boundary between the two countries.

Resource-rich region

The 700 sq km Bakassi peninsula lies in the gulf of Guinea, which is estimated to contain up to 10% of the world's oil and gas reserves as well as being a rich fishing ground. The peninsula is estimated to be home to between 150,000 and 300,000 people.