Twenty years after Nigeria lost the Bakassi Peninsular to the Republic of Cameroon at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), The Hague, Netherlands, it is yet to expunge the names of Bakassi villages or wards, which are now in Cameroon, from its map.
In like manner, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) still maintains the old Bakassi wards in its Atlas and Directory of Registration Areas (RAs). As a result, thousands of Bakassi people, who were relocated to new settlements within Nigeria, have remained disenfranchised for years with no law legalising the new RAs as wards in Nigeria.
The affected wards in the old Bakassi, which are now in Cameroon and still exist on Nigeria’s maps and INEC’s Atlas and Directory illegally are Abana, Akpa Nkanya, Akwa, Ambai Eba, Amoto, Archibong Town, Antai Ema, Efut Iwang, Ekpot Abia and Odiong.
Following the ceding of the main Bakassi to Cameroon, the Cross River State government had, in an attempt to legalise the said wards in Nigeria, and ensure that elections are conducted there, enacted a law, creating three Ikang wards of Bakassi, through Law Number 7, 2007 of Cross River State.
But INEC failed to recognise the wards as replacements for the lost wards based on a Supreme Court judgment, which set aside Law Number 7 of the state, rendering it null and void.
The electoral umpire subsequently disallowed elections in the new wards created by the state from Akpabuyo Local Council under the New Bakassi, as provided for in the said law.
INEC had argued that the new wards under the New Bakassi were unconstitutional hence no election could take place there except under Akpabuyo, as no state House of Assembly has the constitutional power to create, alter or delineate state constituency and compel the Commission to obey same.
Contacted for INEC’s stance on the issue, the National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye, maintained that by virtue of the 1999 constitution (as amended), INEC does not create wards. He disclosed that rather, the states’ independent electoral commission has been vested with the authority to create wards.
“Before the coming into force of the 1999 constitution, it was the responsibility of the commission to create wards but after the coming into effect of that constitution, the power to create additional wards now resides with SIEC. The power we have is to create constituencies,” he said.
On the Supreme Court judgment and INEC’s failure to recognise the three new wards created by Cross River State, he noted that the time of filing the case and when the judgment was delivered must be taken into consideration.
“There is a supreme court authority that makes it clear that the creation of wards, with the coming into force of the 1999 constitution, now resides with the States’ Independent National Electoral Commission. Moreover, INEC does not conduct elections based onwards. We conduct elections based on the electoral constituency. In fact, we don’t call them wards but Registration Areas, which is the first layer of our collation of results. Nobody is elected from those places, it is just for the purpose of administrative convenience.
“It is the SIEC that can recognise those wards for the purposes of councillorship and local council election. For the 2023 election, INEC does not conduct elections inwards. We only conduct area council elections in the FCT,” Okoye said.
In the aftermath, the people of Bakassi are now rallying for a referendum to address a number of concerns that they have lived with ever since, determine their fate, and fashion the way out of the quagmire. Some of those concerns include their disenfranchisement, absence of law protecting their lost villages and wards, the inability of the international community and the United Nations (UN) to keep to June 12, 2006, Green Tree Agreement (GTA), and the loss of their means of livelihood and total neglect by Nigeria.
The former Chairman, Bakassi Local Council, Chief Emmanuel Etene, in an interaction with The Guardian said that since Nigeria lost Bakassi 20 years ago at the ICJ, the people were still at square one.
“I have not really seen any improvement in the lives of Bakassi people. Well, we have been allocated a place for settlement, but it is not well with us. INEC and the Nigerian government have not given us a place.
“The Cross River State government relocated Bakassi to the present location of the three Ikang wards. In INEC’s Atlas, however, Bakassi is still as it was in those days, retaining those traditional names. Recall that here in Akpabuyo, three Ikang wards have been given to Bakassi by the state law, which INEC still recognises as the three local wards in Akpabuyo Local Council. So, when we do elections, we do for the three Ikang wards and then our own 10 wards.
“So politically, it becomes a bit cumbersome because some people in Bakassi (Code 03) may be voting for a House of Assembly member, that is the primary constituency, thinking they are voting for somebody to represent them while they are actually voting for somebody in Akpabuyo (Code 04).”
Etene explained that INEC’s position is strengthened by the fact that it is not bound by the Cross River State law. “INEC maintains that the National Assembly needs to enact a law that Akpabuyo could now increase from seven to 10 wards and the three Ikang wards can be integrated into the 10 wards of Bakassi,” he said, bemoaning the fact that the National Assembly, up till date, was also yet not ratify the treaty (GTA). “What indigenes seek now is a new template for Bakassi because we are still using the old template,” he added.
On what should be done to get out of the quagmire, Etene called on the National Assembly to secure Bakassi by amendment or by enacting a new law or ratifying the treaty. “For now, it is just like super-imposing the old Bakassi on the existing people in the present location (Akpabuyo) and this creates a lot of problems. It is almost like we are now trying to displace them and definitely, there is bound to be friction.
“The current situation is affecting us because we do not have a constituency that we can call our own. For instance, we are operating in the former riverine area and Akpabuyo Local Council, which we share a position with still retains its own Akpabuyo constituency. What we need is proper integration with the people that we came to meet. We need a place the riverine people can call theirs. It is not there and these things must be done holistically. What law are we using? There is the Cross River Law that demarcated the wards using numerical wards 1 to 10, but INEC is saying otherwise.”
Nigeria’s former Ambassador to Uganda, Etubom Nya Asuquo, in his response, said that it was unfortunate that he had left the National Assembly before the issue of Bakassi came up, stressing that if he was still at the legislature, things could not have taken the turn they took. “The truth of the matter is that our people both at the National Assembly and even the Bakassi people were more interested in money than doing anything for their people,” he said.
He blamed the Federal Government and the National Assembly for the poor handling of the matter, saying: “They were dilly-dallying until events had happened before they started shouting. And even with the shouting, they were getting money for the rehabilitation of the Bakassi people. Go and see if there’s any rehabilitation. The people have not been fair to the Bakassi people and by people, I mean those who are their leaders.”
A Senatorial aspirant for Cross River South Senatorial, which Bakassi is part of, Mr. Victor Effiom Ekpo also bemoaned the turn of events.
According to him, Governor Ben Ayade tried to put one or two structures in place, but criminals under the guise of #EndSARS vandalised the place. “We are going to go into renegotiation with the landlords in those communities to see how we can settle those who refused to join Cameroon. We are going to set up a committee and see how we can attract the Federal Government to at least do the needful.
“The agreement should be ratified because when you talk about what happened before and the present state of things, it’s no longer the same and that is the essence of saying I will set up a new committee so that we look into the main problem of the Bakassi people. I am going to partner with the executive because it’s the executive that will work with the international community to get all these things done.”
Asuquo noted that at the time, Cross Riverians planned to go on appeal but didn’t have such powers to appeal the World Court judgment. He said it was the responsibility of the Federal Government to do that but it refused, for reasons best known to it.
“We will try to see if there would be a window for a referendum because you can’t forcefully make your people move to another country against their will.
“By referendum, I mean that we will call the people of Bakassi and make sure people living there should have a say and right as human beings. The Federal Government of Nigeria and the Cameroonians did not take the people into consideration and so we will see how we can pass a law on the floor of the House to find their input and give the people living there a choice to belong to either Nigeria or Cameroon,” he said.
The Chairman of the Cross River National Assembly Caucus, Senator Gershom Bassey, however, disclosed that the Bakassi issue had always been on the front burner in the Senate as it was referred to two committees – Judiciary and Finance – for proper scrutiny.
“Given that the treaty ceding the Bakassi is yet to be ratified by the National Assembly means all hope is not lost,” he noted.
Bassey, who is the Senator representing Cross River South Senatorial District, told The Guardian that his position is that the National Assembly should not ratify the agreement, saying, “It is important the matter remains open until we have a state and federal government that is ready to revisit the issues with the sincerity and seriousness it deserves, one that will bring the full might of government to the matter so it can be resolved in favour of the Bakassi people and Cross River state.”
On what should be done to the Bakassi people who lost their ancestral home, Bassey who is aspiring to be the next governor of the state said: “Bakassi should be declared a special economic zone with a federal allocation to address all the economic challenges that have been the direct result of the seeding of the territory to Cameroon without the permission of the inhabitants of the original Bakassi.”
He added: “There are burning issues regarding the continental shelf, which directly affects Bakassi. I intend to follow this to its logical conclusion. But more directly, the wind of change and prosperity that will engulf Cross River state during my administration will blow like a tornado in Bakassi, bringing them economic empowerment, freedom and emancipation.”
Making clarification on the Bakassi matter, the former Cross River State Resident Electoral Commissioner, Dr. Frankland Briyai Hansard said: “The state cannot delineate for INEC or the Federal Government as this is the exclusive right of the National Assembly. Recall that the Supreme Court, in the last paragraph of its judgment, set aside Law Number 7 of the Cross River state government.”
By implication, Hansard said the law is “null and void and as it is now INEC cannot do election in Bakassi with regards to the newly created wards based on the Supreme Court judgment.”