By Joachim Arrey
Prior to the dispute that pit Cameroon against Nigeria, the border region of Bakassi was unknown to many Cameroonians. The name Bakassi sounded as an extra-terrestrial name. The government of Cameroon which is notorious for leaving its border regions underdeveloped paid very little or no attention to such a remote area as Bakassi. Nigerians basically constructed schools in the region and the Nigerian population there increased tremendously over the years because of the great fishing and farming potential Bakassi had and still has.
Today, there are no roads that can enable the average resident of Bakassi to identify himself with Cameroon. Given Nigeria’s easy access to Bakassi and considering that the livelihood of the people of that region depended on Nigeria, which is more developed economically, the many Nigerians and the few Cameroonians living in that area started to feel more emotionally attached to Nigeria.
The Bakassi Lessons
While successive governments in Yaounde were neglecting the people of Bakassi, Mother Nature and God were silently colluding to make Bakassi known to the entire world, especially at the International Court of Justice. Though Nigeria was silently investing in Cameroon, its desire was not to annex the region. After all, the region was too impoverished to be acquired. Besides, Nigeria’s teeming population was already a huge burden to the Nigerian government. So, adding Bakassi, another poor region, to its list of problems was something the government of Nigeria was not contemplating prior to the discovery of oil.
Notwithstanding, this perspective of things had to change when God and Nature agreed that the ideal way to make that region important was to endow it with ‘black gold”, a dark rich substance that is very much cherished by the entire world and for which many have lost their lives. When the hidden treasures of Bakassi started revealing themselves to the world, both Cameroon and Nigeria decided to move in to ensure that Bakassi’s riches were theirs. Unfortunately for Cameroon, Nigeria which had a military and police presence in the region annexed Bakassi to the dismay of the Yaounde government. Nigeria’s biceps and triceps were too huge for Cameroon to take military action. The best it could do was to rush to The Hague with tons of documents to complain about a neighbor who was showing tender caring love to Cameroon’s citizens.
Many observers thought the unfortunate Bakassi situation would be an eye-opener to the government of Cameroon which has the nasty habit of neglecting its rural areas, especially the areas bordering neighboring countries. Many would have thought Cameroon would learn lessons from the Bakassi situation. Unfortunately, the government’s neglect of rural areas in Cameroon has continued unchecked and intentionally.
Akwaya in the shadows of Bakassi
Another such region that has been cut off from Cameroon, and which depends entirely on Nigeria is Akwaya. Akwaya, home to thousands of industrious Manyu sons and daughters, is another border region that has, since independence, been neglected by the government of Cameroon. The people of Akwaya use the Naira, which is Nigeria’s legal tender to carry out their business transactions. As for roads, they simply do not exist over there, even the dusty and muddy type. Many Akwaya kids, who have never been to Nigeria, do not know how a car looks like.
In order to reach the sub-division’s capital, many Cameroonians who have to go there against their wishes, will first of all, go through Nigeria where they are subjected to all forms of torture by Nigerian immigration officials seeking to enrich themselves through intimidation and bribery. Once in Nigeria, they now take a car to any Cameroonian village in the sub-division.
The region is blessed with many small rivers, which require some small bridges, and since there is no road to Akwaya from Cameroon, Cameroonian officials do not find it necessary to construct bridges over these streams. Any Cameroonian who wants to go to Akwaya and who does not want to be harassed by Nigerian immigration officials, usually has to cover the long distance on foot.
My own dad has covered the distance on many occasions when he was transferred as a headmaster. Each time he returned to the town of Mamfe to visit his family, he always ended up in the hospital because his legs were always too sore for his liking. That is the fate of many Akwaya residents.
Besides the absence of roads in that sub-division, Akwaya lacks the basic telecommunication facilities that can link it to the entire country. There are no telephones, the only television images residents of Akwaya receive are blurry images from Nigerian television stations. It will be hard for anybody to argue against the fact that residents of Akwaya would be happier being part of Nigeria.
Time to Open Our Eyes
The government of Cameroon should understand that long years of inhuman neglect of Akwaya might serve as another invitation to Nigeria to annex another part of Cameroon. Will the government of Cameroon let Akwaya to go the way of Bakassi before it learns that this region deserves to be opened up and linked to the rest of the country? Won’t it be nice for the government of Cameroon to learn the lessons that Bakassi has taught them?
It is important that Cameroon be able to control and, should the need arise, defend its land, sea and air approaches. In an unstable world, Cameroonian interests and values could be threatened by transgressions of international law and order, a disregard of the international community's decisions, human rights violations and the disruption of foreign trade. Cameroon must not overlook the lessons learnt from the Bakassi Peninsula.
Joachim Arrey is a Democracy, Development and Human Rights Advocate in Toronto, Canada.