Reawakening the ghosts of a bitter dispute
In July, reports of the killing of ninety-seven Nigerian fishermen in the Bakassi Peninsula sent shockwaves across Nigeria and the international community, awaking fears that relations between both countries were set to degenerate, leading to a major international dispute.
Though there had been clashes between Nigerians in the Cameroonian axis of Bakassi who stayed back or shuttled on business trips and Cameroonian authorities, the sheer magnitude of the casualties provoked vociferous reactions from leaders and citizens alike, reigniting notions of injustice over the ceding of the peninsula, and leading to calls for a firm and forceful response.
The reports had claimed that the killings happened when a Cameroonian paramilitary unit was enforcing new fishing levy on Nigerian fishermen.
In response, Nigeria’s Interior Minister, Abdulrahman Dambazau, had accused Cameroon of breaching an agreement to protect its citizens, as Nigeria summoned the Cameroonian ambassador to lodge a formal protest note.
Also, Nigeria’s parliament had resolved to investigate the reports against the backdrop of the 2006 Greentree Agreement between the two countries, which they believed provided for the protection of the citizens of the ceded areas from harm.
On ground in Bakassi…. Footage of fishermen and trading activities at Anasa beach
But in August, the Cameroonian government denied the reports, stating that no single Nigerian fisherman was killed in any attack. A three-member delegation sent by Cameroonian President, Paul Biya, stated this in Abuja at a joint briefing at the end of a meeting with Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama.
The leader of the delegation, Cameroonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Ngute, had said that, “We are here to inform the government of Nigeria that a month ago, we had reports in the media concerning massacre of people in the Bakassi area.
“We sent our administrators and we asked Nigerian Counsel in Bua to accompany them. They went there and realised that not a single person was touched and nobody was injured or killed”.
Onyeama had responded by stating that contrary to sentiments expressed in media circles, no mistrust existed between the two countries. He said, “both countries are extremely close, working together very closely and I think sending this delegation by the president himself shows the importance he attaches to that relationship”.
In late July, The Paramount Ruler of Bakassi, Etim Edet, while reacting to the reports, stated that the Bakassi fishermen were levied N100, 000 by Cameroonian authorities and that that was at the centre of the crisis.
He said, “They agreed to pay on condition that they would be allowed to fish freely.
“They are not used to paying such exorbitant taxes”.
However, on the actual number of casualties, the paramount ruler said, “One or two people died, so the rest decided to run away.
“About 189 arrived Ikang in Cross River. Some ran to the coastal communities in Akwa Ibom”.
On her part, former senator Florence Ita-Giwa did not confirm the reports or cite any figures but instead spoke generally about the failed resettlement project and its being responsible for the climate that could facilitate such an incident, while accusing certain people of culpability.
She said, “Those gangsters in Cross River State keep using people’s lives for politics. If they had developed a place for them, those people would have come back from Cameroon since.
“They wouldn’t have stayed long enough in Cameroon for them to be sacked”.
On its part, the United Nations through UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), issued an official statement following the reports.
The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for West Africa and Head of UNOWAS, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, addressed the press.
Chambas stated that the conflict was of extreme interest to UNOWAS, especially with its involvement of the Joint Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission (CNMC).
Chambas said, “As I speak to you now, a team from my office has left Abuja where they have been consulting with officials particularly, the Ministry of Justice, Attorney-General’s office.
“They have continued to Cameroon, they were in Yaoundé last week, so we would look into this and other concerns.
“For now, the information we have is that the issue had to do with an imposition of a new fishing tax in communities
“And this may have generated some friction between the different fishermen, including Nigerian fishermen and tax officials.
“So just to say that this really was not related directly to the border demarcation issues but have more to do with a new tax that has been imposed by the Cameroonian authority”.
The UN official commended Nigeria’s response thus, “But let me commend the initiative of the Acting President of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, who has already directed that the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) should find out what numbers have come across the border to Nigeria.
“He also asked the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) at the Cross River State level to look into what numbers are being displaced from Nigeria as a result of this.
“Do they need help? If they do, that authority should also ascertain the numbers involved and provide the necessary support these newly displaced persons may need.
“So, I think adequate response has been undertaken by the Nigerian side to cater for any Nigerians who might have come back into the country from Bakassi.
“We commend that effort on the part of the Nigerian authorities”.
He concluded that, “While investigation into the matter is ongoing, the UN is working closely with the authorities of Cameroon and Nigeria to strengthen the security protocol for the resumption of border pillar construction in the area”.
Since this statement, there has been no public revelation of the findings from the announced investigation.
But were the initial reports entirely true or false? Were ninety-seven or any number of Nigerian fishermen killed or injured?
It was these questions that triggered our investigative journey, one which far exceeded their scope, spanning instead the larger inclusive question of the post-handover Bakassi resettlement.
The Bakassi Journey
‘Ramblings’ of a half-sober cook in the fog of night
As we made our way quietly to Cross River State from Akwa Ibom at night, the body numb from the strains of long travel, but the mind still engaged with reflections on the onerous task of an extensive Bakassi investigation, a fellow passenger interrupted the thought process with scattered, curious comments.
Okah seemed barely sober; his breath had the pungent smell of alcohol only just consumed, and his garrulity on subjects he may otherwise have been more discreet about on a journey in the thick of night where almost no one cared, all but confirmed the dominance of his subconscious.
“I am a cook”, Okah started, then went on what seemed an endless chatter about nothing, until he said, “I am just coming from Tompolo’s house”, a statement that piqued the interest of the team and prompted a quick exchange of glances as if to say, “take note”.
Okah continued, narrating how he went to cook at Tompolo’s house event as the representative staff of the contracted company owned by his ‘connected’ female boss.
He went on to describe Tompolo as a strongman, a force to be reckoned with in Nigeria.
Okah quickly moved on to another personality— Sen Florence Ita-Giwa.
He said, “God has blessed that woman”, referring to her famed oil well and great wealth.
Of another rich woman, he spoke effusively, concluding, “She is a giver”.
Before we could process this information and its relationship with the bit about Tompolo, Okah got to perhaps the most interesting of the night’s absorbing revelations.
He said, “I was at Kachikwu’s house in Port Harcourt to cook some time ago”, referring to the current Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu.
Okah Continued, “That man like life o. His house is huge. He camps several girls in that house.
“Whenever he comes around, he just gives signed cheques to each of the girls”.
Following this, Okah got distracted by a female passenger who was alighting, as they exchanged curses.
Efforts to get him to reveal more or provide more details were unsuccessful as we alighted soon enough but not without a quick, useful conversation.
Into ‘The City of Light’
As we journeyed to Bakassi Local Government from Calabar, driven by a retired military officer, on a trip punctuated by military checkpoints, border police inspection stops, and a road stretch damaged in portions, a large inscription caught our eye.
‘THIS IS AKPABUYO- The City of Light’ read the bold inscription on the city gate as we made our way into Akpabuyo Local Government Area.
Akpabuyo is where Ikang used to be under before being carved out to form the new Bakassi Local Government in order to accommodate the returnees following the ceding of Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon.
Akpabuyo is also home to the Ikpa-Nkaya displaced persons camp for Bakassi returnees, where the governor has promised to complete, in partnership with a third sector development organization, a 5,000-unit two-bedroom apartments.
The phrase, ‘The City of Light’, provoked some thought. Could there be some reflective basis for this ‘saintly’ choice? Or was it literal, referring to a unique situation of uninterrupted power supply in a country otherwise challenged by the scourge of darkness?
These were questions that begged for answers; and ones which were pursued when the opportunity came but without success. It stayed a mystery.
The area was littered with churches. On both sides of the long stretch of the tarred road, churches of different denominations could be seen. It was as if they were in competition for space. Could this be the reason for the city’s inscription?
There were also schools and a few health centres visible along the road.
We journeyed on, pondering on what to likely expect upon arrival at our target destination – Ikang in Bakassi Local Government.
Touchdown: Reconnaissance, first shots
As we arrived at the bustling Ikang market in Bakassi amidst rain showers, we quickly made enquiries regarding an accommodation central to our target areas from which to operate.
Our trip to the recommended hotel on bike gave the first hint of what movement around the operating base would be for the most part – narrow, winding, swampy, uneven grounds triggering jumpy rides.
Once at the strategic base close to Ikang’s famous busy Anasa Beach, we set out for reconnaissance armed with audio-visual recording and photo capture gadgets.
Anasa Beach: A melting pot
The road to the Anasa Beach was especially bad. It was almost unpassable. The narrow, untarred, swampy and sinking route was home to high traffic.
Daily, several trucks bearing large, mostly, plastic containers filled with petrol and kerosene traversed the road. It is a common trade between Nigerian and Cameroonian traders. While most of the containers end up in the boats heading to Cameroon, boatloads of other items, especially rice, made their way back to the Nigerian side.
These were not the only items that burdened the road. Bags of periwinkles, a common sight at the beach, borne by barely-mobile trucks frequented the road.
At the beach itself, people of different ethnic and national origins from different locations, including some Bakassi returnees, converge to work or transact business.
Fishing boats could be seen anchored on the edge of the beach, while some fishermen could be seen at work on the water, off the Atlantic Ocean, overlooking Cameroon on the other side.
At the beach we found people, including a Bakassi returnee, itching to air their views, as if long-starved of an opportunity share deeply felt opinions on the burdens of life via a medium that offered some hope of impact. For the most part, they lamented multiple taxation and government neglect as they grappled to sustain themselves and their families from the beach’s commercial offerings.
‘Too many confusing taxes, we are suffering’
Flanked by Iman, the Bakassi returnee, and Emma, a worker at Anasa Beach, Bassey, a lively and opinionated youth who trades in periwinkles, identified multiple taxation as one major challenge impeding profitable business at the beach.
He said, “Every day we see different officials with different titles presenting different papers to collect taxes and levies.
“Inland Waterways and others; it gets confusing. Everyone brings their own document to collect levies. This is a real problem. We are suffering”.
Emma quickly interjected, adding that the multiple taxation made it difficult to cope with their only source of livelihood— the periwinkle trade. He wondered why in the absence of alternative occupational opportunities, a situation he blamed on government failure, officials of government still considered it appropriate to deprive them of the little they were able to create for themselves.
He lamented, “Look around; just look around”, turning to the directions he pointed, as if to direct our attention to the anxious faces of some traders and workers, the rickety sheds that stood defenceless against the rains, and the swampy grounds that made walking and working a real challenge.
He did not have to say much more. His message was simple: Abandoned to plot their own survival, their supposed original benefactors, nay servants, still cast hurdles before them; a double jeopardy.
Angered by the terrible state of the road, Bassey pulled no punches as he laid the blame squarely on the feet of corrupt government officials.
He claimed that local officials deliberately sabotaged the fixing of the Bakassi road because the terms for its construction did not suit their corrupt demands. He claimed that there had been offers to do some fix on the road but that some officials had frustrated the efforts, employing technicalities which only served as cover for their ulterior motives.
He mentioned how the Chairman, Councilor and other officials were standing in the way of a motorable road.
Bassey particularly bemoaned the fact that haulage vehicles broke down daily along the road because of its terrible state, noting that it made business difficult.
“We dey under suffering”, he said in pidgin, “motor spoil everyday; all haulage vehicle spoil everyday”; “we don’t benefit anything”, he concluded.
Cameroonians move freely here, why do they frustrate us there?
The youths expressed their views on what they called the unfair and unjustified treatment meted out on Nigerians, especially fishermen, operating on the Cameroonian axis of the peninsula since its ceding.
They singled out heavy taxation as the biggest sore point between Bakassi fishermen and Cameroonian authorities especially the local paramilitary enforcement outfit—the gendarmes.
They wondered why Cameroonians who frequented the new Bakassi had almost unfettered access to both their target trading territory and even far beyond, why Nigerians across the border faced serious restrictions, burdened by several permits, and constantly under the threat of brute force when hefty demands were not speedily agreed to.
Bassey warned that the strained relations and the ensuing clashes between the Nigerian fishermen and the enforcement authorities would only degenerate as long as the burdensome taxation regime remained.
Iman joined Bassey in claiming that many of the fishermen had been chased back because they could not meet up with the new levies.
Bassey said the new levies comprised, “Fishing hook, N70,000; engine boat, 150,000”, as Iman quickly interjected that some fishermen did not even make beyond N10,000 in a month.
“If President (Buhari) want us to be in peace, we want President to talk to Paul Biya because they are working hand in hand”, adding that other problems would emerge if he did not act fast.
He mentioned that acts such as these perceived as repressive and unjust were the reason for the resort to militancy by some Bakassi indigenes.
A passer-by Cameroonian interjects, calls for tempered rhetoric
While stood before the camera boldly and passionately airing their views, a Cameroonian who was one of the many Cameroonians who frequented the beach to trade, stood by to listen in to the conversations before interjecting.
He reminded the youths that were on camera and that could have some repercussions. “You know this is satellite”, he warned.
“Don’t be so harsh”, he advised.
The youths know him. Bassey quickly pointed out that he is a Cameroonian and that understandably, he would not want the image of his country to be damaged.
He then jocularly invited him to join in. An offer our Cameroonian guest turned down before taking off.
We extended a protected interview to our guest, his identity shielded, for him to provide his own perspective to things, but he also declined this offer too.
When asked if he had a different view, he simply said if he expressed his views, he would be considered biased by the Nigerian beach traders.
All through, he seemed really interested and concerned about the issues being discussed but ultimately, his fear of possible repercussions got the better of him. And this fear we went on to discover was a common feature among the people on a subject deemed so sensitive.
Some gave justification for their palpable fear of public expression of critical opinions on the Bakassi issue. They alleged systematic tracking and victimization of notable critical voices.
They had a seeming ambivalent disposition towards the media; it was their best friend, they felt, but also their worst enemy at times, where necessary discretion was ignored.
I’m suffering; the ‘N5,000 returnee allowance’ has not come in years
It was Iman who first mentioned a certain N5,000 meant for returnees from the federal government. By the time we had interviewed a few Bakassi returnees, it had already become recurring theme.
Iman said that he had been heavily reliant on the allowance since his fishing equipment was confiscated and thrown away by local law enforcement in Cameroon over failure to meet new levies.
He lamented that since the government stopped the payment without explanation some years ago, he had found it extremely difficult to take care of his family.
Iman said the periwinkle trade could barely cater to their needs. The stoppage of the allowance was for him the most painful part of the failed resettlement programme.
“Tell government make dem give us returnee money”, he pleaded, noting painfully that there was no real work available.
He placed the blame squarely at the president’s feet, using an analogy, “If as the head of something, your boy go do something, dem go say na you”, Iman concluded.
Meeting the prized asset— a returnee-camp-leader-guide
Moses Bassey, a soft-spoken young man with commanding influence, was to be our guide.
Our contacts had recommended him. And before long, we knew why. He desire to bring the issues of the returnees to the fore was immediately decipherable. He was passionate. He was earnest. But he was also very strategic.
It was not hard to understand how this unassuming young man of diminutive frame was leader in one of the returnee camps, and a coordinator of the returnees.
As we interacted, he laid out a clear plan including key interviews and strategic locations. He was going to take us directly to the people and the places at the centre of the investigation.
He was trusted; and this made access possible.
A fierce encounter with military personnel
While conducting interviews at Anasa Beach, a team of ununiformed military personnel stormed the scene and disrupted the process.
They challenged our right to proceed without security clearance from them given what they considered the sensitive security state of the area.
We interacted with them and off we went to their jetty to meet with their commanding officer, but not without an insurance— stealth coverage of the encounter.
A blessing in disguise
The trip to the jetty and the interaction with the commanding officer, a young lieutenant, turned out to be a truly revealing encounter. It provided the opportunity to understand the state of security in the area, and the forces at play.
His officers explained who we were and why they had brought us to him. They confirmed what we suspected—they were embarking on their regular undercover intelligence gathering around the area when they observed our activity on the beach.
The lieutenant explained how the area was only now being deescalated from the threats of sea piracy and militancy, noting that they had responsibility over people in the area, more so guests whose whereabouts would be demanded of them should anything untoward happen.
He singled out the threat of kidnapping as perhaps the most credible threat we faced as visiting journalists, advising coordination with them on such missions.
Overall, it was, as we judged it, important, albeit risky, to have taken those revealing interviews without first submitting to the oft-encumbering and limiting instrumentalities of security bureaucracy.
The police summon the team too
A police officer had been to the beach too. He told us we needed police clearance and protection to undertake such a mission.
We were clear about our understanding of the rights of the free press. We also made it clear that no such mission was embarked upon without due diligence.
Nevertheless, following the meeting at the military jetty, we proceeded to the police station, all the while in company of our guide who led the way.
At the station, an officer’s ‘liberal’ perspective on the issues
While we waited for the Divisional Police Officer (DPO), the officer who attended to us was great company.
He spoke extensively about the issues. From the ceding of the Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon and the challenged resettlement effort, to the problem of militancy, he spoke freely, not as a security official, but as a citizen seemingly pained by the unfortunate plight of a people.
He even expressed a rather ‘unsecurity-like’ perspective— he rationalized the resort to militant struggle.
Politics was also not left out of his almost-endless multi-layered analysis. He struck one as a person who felt confined by the uniform, burdened by a code of silence as a man with an acutely opinionated and critical mind.
When the DPO arrived, obviously not briefed prior, he wondered why we had to come see him, appearing a bit uncomfortable upon hearing press.
The encounter was brief. He gave us his support and we exchanged contacts.
Tomorrow (15th Friday, 2017)– Read how Bakassi people went from land owners to settlers in the second part of this story
Investigative Team: Chinedu Chidi (Assistant Editor)
Akin Obakeye (Audio-Visual Producer)
Moses Bassey (Investigation guide/Camp leader)
***This investigative project by Ripples Nigeria was conducted in partnership with the Ripples Centre for Data and Investigative Journalism.
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