Stateless in Bakassi: How a Changed Border Left Inhabitants Adrift
By Chidi Odinkalu
The peninsula of Bakassi has long been the subject of a territorial dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria. Now it shows what can happen to people when control over the territory where they live shifts from one country to another. Tens of Thousands of people, possibly more, who inhabited (and some of whom still inhabit) the peninsula have lost access to nationality or citizenship rights, and now live in a legal limbo.
In October 2002, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague decided that Bakassi was part of Cameroon, not Nigeria. Until then, Bakassi had been part of Nigeria and was one of the 774 units of local government in the country. The United Nations subsequently mediated negotiations between Nigeria and Cameroon to ensure effective implementation of the ICJ decision.
On 12 June 2006, the presidents of the two countries, Paul Biya of Cameroon and Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, signed the Greentree agreement—named after the estate in Manhasset New York, where it was negotiated—setting out parameters for implementing the peaceful handover of Bakassi from Nigeria to Cameroon. Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, brokered the agreement and witnessed it, together with the governments of France, Germany, United Kingdom and the United States.
Under the Greentree Agreement, Nigeria agrees to recognize Cameroon’s sovereignty over Bakassi and to withdraw its troops from the territory. In return, Cameroon guaranteed those living there “the exercise of the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in international human rights law and in other relevant provisions of international law.” In particular, Cameroon undertook not to compel Nigerian nationals to leave or to change their nationality. Cameroon also agreed to respect their culture, language, beliefs; protect their property and customary land rights, and “take every necessary measure to protect Nigerian nationals living in the zone from harassment or harm.”
A phased programme of handover was designed to culminate in Cameroon assuming full control of Bakassi in August 2013. The United Nations, supported by the main powers that witnessed the Greentree Agreement, monitors the implementation of this programme. In the interim, Cameroon created a new administrative sub-division, Kombo-Ambedimo in the Ndian Division of South-West Cameroon, over the peninsula and extended the dirt road from the neighboring Isangele sub-division to the main settlement in Kombo-Ambedimo, Akwa.
There remain several dangerous gaps in the Greentree Agreement. First, it only addresses the citizenship rights of Bakassi inhabitants who remain within Bakassi. It fails to address the rights of those persons who may be on the Nigerian side of the border. Second, the guarantees of protection on the Cameroonian side are weak. They do not provide adequate safeguards for access to residency or identity documents for the Nigerians in Bakassi, or for those who would wish to acquire Cameroonian nationality, nor does it provide mechanisms to prove entitlement to either nationality. Third, there is no obligation on either Cameroon or Nigeria to ensure adequate access to the contents of the Greentree Agreement for all persons among the affected populations in English, French or the local languages. Finally there are no provisions for independent monitoring of the obligations assumed by the parties.
The United Nations, whose personnel are supposed to undertake monitoring, is located in Yaoundé, a full day’s road journey (about 12 hours) away and, can, therefore, only visit the location sparingly. No effort has been made to ensure or build partnerships with civil society groups in educating the populations, designing transitional protection mechanisms or ensuring effective monitoring of the implementation of the Agreement.
The human consequences of these omissions were obvious on a recent visit into Bakassi. In 2007, Bakassi reportedly had an estimated population of about 300,000. Today, most of its people have been “re-located” into the neighboring territory of Nigeria’s Cross-River State, a mere 20 minute’s boat ride away. In elections for the office of Governor of Cross-River State in March 2012, the former inhabitants of Bakassi (now displaced into the Nigerian State to which they always belonged) were unable to vote: they were no longer on the voters' register, their settlements no longer existed in Nigeria, and they had no means of proving their entitlement to vote. On voting day on 25 February, they took to the streets to protest over their apparent statelessness.
The experience on the Cameroon side is not much different. Akwa, the main settlement in Kombo-Ambedimo at the new land-boundary between Cameroon and Nigeria could easily be a community under occupation. The current population of Akwa is estimated to be about 8,000. This includes soldiers and engineers from Cameroon’s Army, as well as construction workers from outside. Most of its people live around the surrounding creeks, reportedly the site of deadly pirate activities. Three primary schools and one secondary school provide access to basic education. Teenage pregnancy is high. One local primary school with a population of fewer than 80 learners had three pregnancies among its pupils in the first quarter of 2012.
Ahead of presidential elections in Cameroon last year, the government ordered free issuance of national identity documents between June and August 2011. Among the inhabitants of Akwa, only two people were ultimately found eligible to receive the new identity documents. As a result, most of them could not participate in the elections. Nearly all of Akwa’s people are unsure what will happen to them and where they belong.
This is an evident case of avoidable statelessness. The citizenship provisions of the Greentree Agreement could be supplemented to address the obvious gaps that produce these indignities. Greater commitment from both Cameroon and Nigeria is needed. The United Nations must show greater vigor too by creating a field base in Bakassi and encouraging greater collaboration from regional and independent civil society. In Bakassi’s incipient statelessness problem, civil society groups must make themselves heard, to ensure that the issues are addressed before they get worse.
Until November 2021, Chidi Odinkalu was senior managing legal officer for the Africa Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative.