Up to 100,000 Nigerians displaced from Bakassi in southern Nigeria are sheltering in makeshift camps 10 kilometres away in the state of Akwa Ibom. More keep arriving according to the Nigerian Red Cross, leading local authorities to fear an impending humanitarian crisis.
The influx has overwhelmed Akwa Ibom’s local authorities who are struggling to feed, shelter, clothe and medicate the returnees, most of whom have come empty-handed, according to local journalist Tommy Solomon.
Aniekan Umanah, Akwa Ibom’s information commissioner, warned IRIN “There is no way we can handle things for much longer.”
Umanah told IRIN they have received no assistance from the federal government, and are relying on non-governmental organisations like the Nigerian Red Cross.
Okon Eyo, 45, a now homeless fisherman and father of seven has tried to access dwindling emergency supplies at Mbo camp in Akwa Ibom. “We want the federal government to move in quickly and assist us,” he pleaded. “We want to get on with our lives. We don’t want this thing to drag for too long.”
Government help slow to arrive
Nigerians started fleeing Bakassi following the 14 August 2008 ceremony between the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria, which officially handed over administration of the disputed Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon.
According to Umanah, Akwa Ibom received 75,000 returnees over the last two weeks of August. Just when local authorities believed the last returnees had arrived, 20 more buses came in early September. “We were helpless. We had to shelter them in a local school and make arrangements for their food and security. We don’t know when it will end.”
The Nigerian National Boundary Commission, which helped steer the Bakassi handover, pledged more than US$7 million in federal funds to resettle Nigerian nationals from the disputed territory into the neighbouring Cross River state. But none of this funding was slated for Akwa Ibom, according to Florence Ita-Giw, head of the presidential task force on Bakassi returnees.
As a result. many returnees may not be eligible for federal help. The National Boundary Commission also set up the government’s aid package expecting people with family in other parts of the country to return there, according to Tunde Orebiyi, national secretary of the Nigerian Red Cross.
Returnees to Cross River have as yet seen little government help.
Ita-Giw with the national government, counsels patience. “We are working hard to make as many houses ready [as possible] for occupation by the returnees, but it can’t be done overnight,” she told IRIN. The Red Cross’ Orebiyi has warned resettlement can take as long as one year.
Some 300,000 Nigerians lived in Bakassi before its transfer to Cameroon. In the process leading up to the handover, authorities had discussed a transitional arrangement allowing joint administration by Nigeria and Cameroon for an initial period to guarantee the fair treatment of Nigerians left behind.
But this was not put in place, according to returnees and journalist Solomon.
“The returnees said most of them were being terrorised by the Cameroonian police and they did not find life easy under the new ruling,” Solomon explained. According to him, the Cross River authorities are investigating reports that Cameroonian soldiers recently killed Nigerians in Bakassi.
Mambou Deffo Roland, chief of the Cameroonian military police, declined to comment on these allegations.
But in a 21 August speech following the handover, Cameroon President Paul Biya assured the safety of Bakassi-based Nigerians. “I reassure them: their safety and rights will continue to be guaranteed, they will be able as in the past, to continue their lives in peace as long as they abide by the laws of Cameroon.”
Some Nigerians took their loss of Bakassi with outrage, accusing the government of betraying them.
An activist in Bakassi, who asked to remain anonymous, said lingering resentment among returnees could escalate into a full-blown insurgency.
The peninsula has suffered attacks by both Nigerians and Cameroonians over the past year, with casualties registered on both sides.
But the Nigerian military is keen to play down such fears. “There is absolutely no security threat,” said Nigerian military spokesman Mohammed Yusuf, “Threats by whom, to whom?” he asked. “Nothing is happening. There is no problem in Bakassi.”
Nigeria and Cameroon have been praised for the peaceful resolution of their border dispute in a conflict-prone continent with colonial era borders.
But for some the pain incurred by the recent re-drawing of the map will be slow to subside. A prominent Bakassi chief Edet Okon told IRIN, “The emotional and sentimental attachment to one’s ancestral home is not something you can do away with in a short period of time.”