Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Nigeria and Cameroon: haunted by colonial borders

The border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon is likely to drag on after the border commission said it needs more than $24 billion to complete its final demarcation exercise on the 1,600 km land and maritime boundaries between the countries. The Nigerian commission representative said that the original budget of $12 billion (donated by the UK, Germany, France, the EU, the Nigerian and Cameroonian governments) is insufficient and they need “more than double that amount of money” to finish the job. The areas of dispute between the countries are the Bakassi Peninsula, the Lake Chad area and the maritime boundary.

The Cameroon - Nigeria Mixed Commission was the creation of the UN to resolve the dispute after a 2002 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the land and maritime boundary between the two countries. At the centre of the dispute lies the Bakassi Peninsula. The peninsula is a tiny landstrip of mangrove swamp and consisting of a series of fluvial islands covering approximately 50 square kilometres. It is inhabited by some dozens of villages. Both sides claim ownership over its rich fishing waters in the Gulf of Guinea and its possible oil reserves.

The origins (pdf) of the dispute date back to colonial times. In 1884 Britain justified its takeover of the region by signing a Treaty of Protection with the Obong of Calabar. Britain promised the Obong and his people the protection of the British armed forces in return for fealty to the crown. Over the course of the 30 years Britain and Germany formalised the borders of their African possessions. By 1913 the countries had precisely marked the demarcation of the Anglo-German Boundary between Nigeria and Kamerun from Yola to the Cross River. Britain ceded the Bakassi peninsula to Germany in return for port access via the offshore border.

When World War I broke out, Britain invaded German Kamerun and the country became spoils of war in the Versailles Treaty. The country was split up into British and French mandates. Britain gained Southern Cameroon and Bakassi which it administered contiguously with Nigeria though it never formally merged the entities. After World War II, the UN ratified the 1913 borders once more. French Cameroons became independent in 1960 as did British Nigeria. The people of the Bakassi were left in legal limbo by the two new countries either side of it. While some residents wanted complete independence, the UN held a plebiscite that offered only union with Nigeria or Cameroon.

And so in 1961 anglophone Southern British Cameroon was merged with francophone Cameroon. Nigeria confirmed the result and installed a consul in Buea, former capital of British Cameroon. The situation changed after Biafra, the Eastern-most province of Nigeria, declared its independence. Nigeria regained control in 1970 after a bitter three year civil war. While Nigeria was busy fighting, Cameroon began exploring in the oil rich waters off Bakassi. The two countries established a boundary commission to establish which waters belonged to Cameroon and which belonged to Nigeria. Negotiations dragged on through the 1970s.

But despite an agreement in 1975 the border remained fluid. It was in effect a double jurisdiction for decades. Both states used force to collect taxes and relocate inhabitants to zones controlled by them. Border skirmishes were common. Reports of abductions, looting and torture were rife carried out by both Cameroonian gendarmes and the Nigerian army. After Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha sent troops to Bakassi in 1994, Cameroon took its sovereignty claim to the ICJ. The case took eight years to resolve.

In 2002 the ICJ ruled on the matter. It ruled in favour of Cameroon based on the 1913 colonial border between Britain and Germany. The two heads of state agreed to abide by the decision. Then Nigerian President Obasanjo hailed the agreement as “a great achievement in conflict prevention, which practically reflects its cost effectiveness when compared to the alternative of conflict resolution”.

But Obasanjo went home to find outrage over the decision and Nigeria has since dragged its heels. At the time UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted the “stunning” cost-effectiveness of the Mixed Commission. With the project only one third complete and a possible end cost of $36 billion, Annan’s successor Ban-Ki Moon is unlikely to share the joy.

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