The Bakassi Peninsula’s Declaration of Independence

The movement for an independent western Cameroon, discussed yesterday, is peaceful, legalistic, and generally ignored. Within the purported territory of Ambazonia, however, lies a much smaller but more militant and consequential self-declared state. The would-be Democratic Republic of Bakassi covers a 250-square-mile (665 square kilometers) swampy peninsula, inhabited by 150,000 to 300,000 people. It lies near some of western Africa’s main oilfields, and it may be blessed – or cursed – with oil. Bakassi also boasts some of the continent’s best fisheries. Although its militants are not particularly numerous or well-armed, they have evidently made common cause with Nigeria’s potent rebel group know as MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), and they pose a security challenge in a strategic sector of the West African coastline.

The Bakassi conflict stems from the imprecise nature of the German-British colonial boundary in the geomorphically unstable coastal wetlands. In the nineteenth century, the Peninsula was part of the indigenous Kingdom of Calabar, which Britain annexed to its Nigerian colony in 1884. A later British-German agreement evidently made Bakassi a German territory, but Britain continued to administer it through Calabar. Any German claim to the peninsula passed to Britain at the end of World War I, and the precise location of the boundary was moot until southern British Cameroons opted for union with (former-French) Cameroon in 1961. Nigeria retained administrative control, but oil discoveries in the vicinity raised the stakes and roused Cameroon’s attention. By 1982, the two countries were threatening war. Cameroon subsequently turned to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ruled in its favor in 2002. Nigeria fumed, but transferred Bakassi to the Cameroonian government in 2008.

That was not the end of the matter, however. The people of the peninsula did not want to join Cameroon, and threatened violence if their desires were ignored. Their anger also turned to Nigeria, which they saw as abandoning them. Bakassi leaders proclaimed independence twice: in 2006, and again in 2008. Nigeria has offered land to the disgruntled inhabitants in “New Bakassi” on its side of the border, but that inland location does not appeal to the fisherfolk of the region. A small-scale insurgency has resulted.

Violence is also common on the Nigerian side of the border, a region plagued by disputes over resources, environmental degradation, and ethnic strife. Over the past decade, an often-mentioned force in southeastern Nigeria is the “Bakassi Boys,” vigilante toughs who are often accused of criminal activities themselves. The relationship between the Boys and the secession movement on the Bakassi Peninsula remains shadowy. Meanwhile, southeastern Nigeria struggles with refugees from the peninsula. On July 1, 2010, the Nigerian Bulletin announced that the government of the Nigerian state of Cross River “would remain steadfast in seeking plausible ways of socially and economically resettling the traumatised people of Bakassi, [but] the returnees should brace up and face the challenges of committing themselves to ventures that could elevate their status.”

The Bakassi Peninsula remains a troubled place, both onshore and off. In July 2010, EarthTimes added piracy to its problems: “Attacks are on the rise in the Atlantic ocean near the Bakassi Peninsula, with pirates looking to rob boats rather than hold crews to ransom, as is the case off Somalia.” Bakassi’s tribulations are even beginning to catch the attention of the international community. In the same month, the European Union announced that it would “invest 4 million euros … in the Bakassi peninsula in Cameroon for the development of basic infrastructures.”

(Thanks again to Matthew McDevitt for his assistance with this post)


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