Some 10 minutes after leaving the jetty in the Nigerian border village of Ikang, our speedboat pulls up to a muddy bank now under Cameroonian rule, a fact that many locals there say they are unwilling to accept.
“We do not want these new colonial masters,” one woman shouted, and others in the group vigorously agreed. One man said: “We are all Nigerians and that’s the way we want to be.”
On the Bakassi peninsula in this southeastern corner of the Nigeria-Cameroon border, people are undergoing an awkward transition that has bred fear and distrust.
Last week militants killed 21 Cameroonian soldiers in Bakassi. A group calling itself “Liberators of the Southern Cameroon People” claimed responsibility.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 2002 that the peninsula belongs to Cameroon. Nigeria acknowledged the court verdict and has already handed over more than 80 percent of the territory. But the people in this corner of the peninsula said they did not speak French (the main official language in Cameroon) and they did not want to live under Cameroonian domination.
More on Bakassi
Bakassi, more than one place, more than one problem
Bakassi Zone, the twilight of a Nigerian enclave
Settling Bakassi – nterview with UN envoy Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah
The international court’s decision was based to a large extent on colonial-era maps. “Nobody asked us what we wanted,” the paramount traditional chief of Bakassi, Etinyin Etim Okon Edet, told IRIN. “Why don’t we have any rights in this matter?”
In a 1961 plebiscite for all people in western Cameroon on whether they wanted to be Nigerian or Cameroonian, 73 percent of those living in Bakassi voted to be Cameroonian. However, some historians and observers allege the plebiscite was rigged by France and Britain who had already decided on the issue.
The green area is the Bakassi Zone which Nigeria will not hand over to Cameroon until June 2008
“The only thing that should be relevant now is the wishes of the people” the paramount leader said.
That is not how the former UN Secretary-General’s special representative at the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA), Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, sees it. He had until recently headed the Cameroon-Nigeria “mixed commission” that crafted and implemented agreements on the handover.
“The identity of a people is not always the same as the identity of the territory they live on,” he said.
“There are more than three million Nigerians living in various parts of Cameroon and only a small percentage of them live in Bakassi. Whether they are living in Bakassi or anywhere else in Cameroon, the territory is not Nigeria,” he said.
What’s wrong with being Cameroonian?
At Aqwa, which had been known as Archibong until Nigeria handed it over in August 2006, a sudden hush fell over the people at the muddy bank
“The commander of the army is coming,” someone whispered.
The woman in army fatigues walked towards the group with a male soldier by her side. “Bonjour” she said politely in French, requesting travel documents.
She walked on after inspecting them briefly.
“Does she harass you?” IRIN asked.
“Not really”, they said.
“Do any of the Cameroonian authorities here harass you?”
“Well why don’t you like them?” IRIN asked.
“We are afraid of them,” one man said.
Afraid of what?
The locals had various explanations. Some said Cameroonian gendarmes had been oppressive in the past when Nigerian and Cameroonian forces were fighting over the area, particularly in the 1990s. The gendarmes extorted money from local people and sometimes stole their fishing boats, they said.
Others spoke fearfully of the official taxes Cameroonians would force them to pay once the government assumes full control. “The Nigerian government never did much for us but at least they got their money from oil and never demanded anything,” one local said.
Fonya Felix Morfan is the sub-prefect in Akwa, on the Cameroon-controlled side of the Bakassi Peninsula
The Cameroonian sub-prefect in Akwa, Fonya Felix Morfan, told IRIN the local population will not have to pay taxes for several years. “We know they are concerned about that and so we are doing our best to win them over,” he said.
At the same time Cameroonian authorities are providing services. While living standards have deteriorated since August 2006 in the area of Bakassi Nigeria still controls, in the area the Cameroonian government took over, it has created clean water systems and built schools and hospitals.
Yet few people are taking advantage of the services, Morfan admitted. “We have a brand new delivery ward in the hospital here but so far only one mother has given birth here,” he said.
He also said law and order was breaking down as Cameroonian police and gendarmes were not asserting their authority and the local population were belligerent. “Public buildings are being vandalized and people are smoking marijuana right in front of me. They blow the smoke in my face.”
Some locals told IRIN they would relocate to New Bakassi, an area the Nigerian government has allocated for those who do not wish to live under Cameroonian rule. But so far Nigeria has not provided basic services there, not even a road to get there.
Others said that the peninsula was their home and the home of their forefathers and they should not move.
The UN’s Ould-Abdallah said UN observers were being sent to the area “to help people understand that the concept of this border is not to create a barrage. It is a demarcation of national boundaries but no one is going to be displaced,” he said.
The local chief of Akwa, Samson Etim Anke, told IRIN that many in his community were exaggerating the problems they were facing under Cameroonian rule. “I have been trying to enlighten people about opportunities arising from the change of authority, if only we choose to take them,” he said.
“I for one will stay here no matter what,” he said. “If the Nigerian government offers us land in the New Bakassi we should take it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still live here as well,” he said.