In a country often gripped by nostalgic nonsense and uncontrolled emotions, views such as I hold on the Bakassi issue will certainly cause uproar and charges. But patriotism, as once defined by Theodore Roosevelt, is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
This thing about going back to the International Court of Justice (World Court) to ask for a revisit of its ruling returning Bakassi Islands to the Cameroons is, to put it mildly, opportunistic politics. Opportunists wear many hats including the hat of patriotism especially when there is money in hard currency to be made. The last time I heard about the issue, a group of Nigerians and overseas scholars had come forward with “fresh, new evidence” that the ceded territories indeed belonged to Nigeria. They asked to be paid 400 million US Dollars. The papers were handed to one of this country’s top-ranked military institutions for scrutiny. Since then, I have not heard the outcome. It is all part of the political craftiness going on. But is there really any “new evidence” anywhere? Basically, in this case, there are two positions before the World Court. The position of Nigeria, and that of Cameroon. The position of the Cameroons came out stronger and the court gave judgment in their favour. That judgment was very clear and as sound as any judgment could be. But it is not as if we Nigerians lost all. We perhaps gained far more territory than the Cameroonians had won. The long and winding road to this crisis began with the United Nations plebiscite for the German territories held in trust by the United States to choose which country between Nigeria and Cameroon they wished to join. The Northern Nigerian government, which campaigned vigorously under its leader, the late Sir Ahmadu Bello the Premier won over the Northern Cameroon. The Eastern Region, the reader may recall, waged an incompetent and a lackluster campaign in the 1962 plebcite leading to the ceding of the second half of the German Cameroon to the existing French Cameroon.
There are three strong reasons for which I think our politicians are merely playing politics by reopening the issue at this time, which is akin to seeking the proverbial needle in a haystack.
First is that going by the colonial boundaries drawn up between England on one hand and Germany and France on the other; the exchange of notes and treaties between them, there is no way the court would have declined to give Bakassi to Cameroon. In addition to these, the Organization of African Unity Charter, that is the predecessor organization of the present African Union had all members sign to the fact that those colonial boundaries as inherited by the new states were sacrosanct. Those boundaries were drawn at the Berlin Conference in 1885 using rulers and makers. They didn’t take cognizance of ethnic or linguistic affinity as the Bakassi advocates are championing. If this were the case, Nigeria would have disputed our boundary with Niger to the North. There are tens of millions of the Hausa, Kanuri and Fulani on the other side of the Border. Equally so, is the case of millions of Yoruba, the larger body of whom is in Nigeria but are currently in the nations of Benin and Togo. Of significance in this respect is the Fombina Kingdom, the pre-colonial territory of the Lamido of Adamawa. Today, cities like Marwa and Garua are in Cameroon while the headquarters of their Chiefdom, Yola is in Adamawa State Nigeria. If we are going to use the sentiment of affinity to define the borders of Nigeria is there a chance that we will ever have peace with our neighbours, North, South, East and West?
The second reason why we failed before the Court is that there are too many records of pronouncements and actions, including mass media publications on the Nigerian side that irrevocably and unequivocally gave away Bakassi to Cameroon. This is in addition to the fact that we had allowed them to occupy the territory before and after the arguments started. Each time this matter comes up, critics of our former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon say that he gave away Bakassi to Cameroon in a signed treaty. But the fact of the matter is that there has existed a dominant legal argument in existence before that agreement that may have warranted Gowon’s action. For instance, there is what is called the Taslim Elias’s opinion, which he wrote well before he became the Attorney-General of the Federation. Clearly stated in it is that the territory belonged to Cameroon. Underlying all these issues is also the matter of statecraft. When Nigeria fought the tragic civil war in which millions of our countrymen and women were unfortunately killed, Cameroon sided with Nigeria and the war historians say that this alone made all the difference. They say that if Cameroon had behaved to Nigeria the way Gabon did in their war relationship, this country would not have survived as one entity. General Obasanjo who signed the now disputed Green Tree Agreement had been a part of the legal – political environment in which these past actions were taken.
Thirdly, there is the issue of the map showing the boundary between our two sovereign states. These maps in both colonial and post-colonial versions had consistently indicated Bakassi as belonging to Cameroon. For Nigerians who actually participated in this case at the World Court, the issue of the map was the embarrassing of all the points raised against Nigeria. It was not until 1994, when Cameroon took us to Court that these maps, hanging on the walls of government offices and freely sold at the bookshops and the streets were revised. These were records that you could not hide from the Court or the United Nations.
I have also heard the story that the Surveyor-General of Nigeria, or was it his deputy, at that early period was a Cameroonian but this is neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is that the World Court was presented with an avalanche of documents which they could not have ignored. They gave that decision not to spite Nigeria but to do justice to the two nations.
Today in Nigeria, everything is fair game in politics. Our politics is sickening. Today’s politics is about playing with the sentiments of the people and taking advantage of the situation. This is largely because of the type of politicians we have some of whom are desperate to cling to office in spite of their lack of background, ideology and breeding.
Nigeria voluntarily submitted itself to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and committed itself to the outcome of the case, whichever way it went. As former President Obasanjo pointed out, Nigeria went to the ICJ to avoid war with Cameroon. Even the British Government was quoted recently as advising Nigeria against the present gamble of revisiting the Bakassi Peninsula controversy, after it was decidedly settled. Agreements and legally settled issues must be honoured by nations, even where what they possessed is so jealously valued. Britain had to hand over Hong Kong to Mainland China in 1997. Legal and civilized settlements of disputes are by far more preferable than war. Patriotic chauvinism shouldn’t be allowed to blinker our good judgment over Bakassi.