CAMEROON-NIGERIA: Settling Bakassi - interview with UN envoy Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah

Thursday, November 15, 2007

After 43 years of border tensions and occasional violence, Nigeria and Cameroon appear to have resolved their border issues once and for all.

In October, the first of six UN observers arrived in Nigeria near the disputed Bakassi peninsula to monitor the final phase of Nigeria’s pull out and transfer of authority to Cameroon. The handover, which began in August 2006, should be complete by June 2008.

The agreement on Bakassi is one of four that the two countries reached over their 2,300 km boundary from Lake Chad in the north to the coast.

The countries set up a ‘mixed commission’ to craft and implement the agreements,  which until recently was headed by Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative at the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA). He is now the Special Representative for Somalia but he spoke with IRIN in November while in Dakar. The following are excerpts:

IRIN: What is really at stake with this border?
There has not been peace on the border between Cameroon and Nigeria since independence in 1960. There were skirmishes, particular in 1993 and 1994, between the two armies in which people were killed, and the risk of conflict has continued. On 10 October 2002 the International Court of Justice ruled on the border and what I did was broker agreements between the two countries to respect and implement the court’s findings.

How did you do it?

It took a lot of listening and patience and making sure nobody got too excited. It didn’t take a big expensive UN peacekeeping mission. It just took some good diplomacy and preventative measures. The whole process cost only $6 million, money which came from the regular UN budget. There will be another cost still of around $12 million to physically demarcate the border but it will come from extra-budgetary funds with Cameroon and Nigeria providing half.

When IRIN went to Bakassi recently nearly everyone we met there said they wanted to remain Nigerian. Why were the wishes of the people living in the territory not considered ?

The identity of a people is not always the same as the identity of the territory they live on. There are more than three million Nigerians living in various parts of Cameroon. Only a small percentage of them live in Bakassi. Whether they are living in Bakassi or elsewhere in Cameroon that territory is not Nigeria.

But the difference is that the Nigerian government has a local government area called Bakassi with its own administration?

Yes,  that has made things more difficult because the Nigerian constitution does not allow for the dissolution of a local government area. But I have to hand it to the Nigerian government for finding a creative solution. The government simply moved the district of Bakassi nearby, to a new geographical location within the undisputed part of Nigeria.

Did all the disputed land end up going to Cameroon?
Not all of it. You know there were four agreements. There was the agreement on 16 December 2003 for Lake Chad in which Nigeria lost 33 villages, although in a show of compromise Cameroon ceded two of those villages to Nigeria.

What about elsewhere on the border?

In the 14 July 2004 agreement over the 2,300 km border both sides lost territory. One Cameroon congressmen came from a village that Cameroon had to cede to Nigeria. The congressman’s opponents tried to force him to resign saying he had no legitimacy as he had lost his constituency but luckily the move failed. 

The demarcation of the 2,300 km was an incredible achievement. It is the longest border that the UN has ever brokered, longer that the Kuwait-Iraq border, the Ethiopia-Eritrea border and the East Timor-Indonesia border combined. It is a border with villages sometimes lying right in the middle, with for example a school on the Cameroonian side and a cemetery the Nigerian side.

But UN observers will be there 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.

Yet all of Bakassi went to Cameroon?

It took a lot of pressure from France, Britain and other European powers but on 12 June 2006 the two countries signed that agreement. As a face-saving measure for Nigeria I devised a scheme based on a 19th century border agreement between Ecuador and Peru which allowed Nigeria to maintain a presence in 18 percent of the territory for two years, until June 2008.

And was the maritime border complicated to negotiate?

It was the most difficult of all. There is a lot of oil and gas and fish in the area and there was the issue of access to the sea for the Nigerian naval base at the nearby town of Calabar but we finally reached an agreement on 11 May 2007.

Is it resolved who will get the oil?

Pretty much. Cameroon has been very reasonable about the oil that Nigeria already started extracting. They said that Nigeria could continue to extract the oil as long as it pays Cameroonian taxes. 

But there is still the issue of oil reserves that straddle the maritime border which have not yet been developed. The two countries have agreed in principle to a joint development zone but it is not yet clear how that will work.

Are there still risks that the agreements could fail?

What is important is to implement confidence - building measures for the governments and the populations. We have to make sure both sides keep meeting and talking, to strengthen the agreements.

People in Bakassi told IRIN they were afraid that Cameroon will oppress them. 
A lot depends on the behaviour of the government of Cameroon because it is getting most of the land and the people on that land need to feel confident that Cameroon has their interest at heart. Cameroonian gendarmes have exploited Nigerians living in the territory in the past and that must end.

So far Cameroon has been slow to provide services [in the newly acquired areas of Bakassi]. It is a very centralised-type of government in which everything comes from the top.

Source: IRIN
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