I must confess, reading the headlines on the International Court of Justice ruling on the Bakassi peninsula left me winded. For some inexplicable reason, I felt quite hurt. I love Nigeria deeply, too deeply to be a patriot of the ‘my country right or wrong’ ilk. And so I was amazed at how poignantly I identified with the Nigerian military commander in Bakassi who said on BBC, “This is the saddest day of my professional career”. Somehow, as the case had dragged on over the years, one had come to believe that victory was going to be ours whenever a decision was finally taken. This optimism was in the face of occasional dire warnings from people like Wole Soyinka who asserted that Nigeria had a very shaky, if any case at all. I, and I guess most Nigerians ignored him. Were we not the Giant of Africa? With our burgeoning oil wealth, we could afford the best lawyers; the best legal advice-Cameroon would be no match for us. People like Senator Florence Ita-Giwa regularly appeared on the pages of newspapers explaining how inextricably Bakassi was linked to Nigeria, earning her the sobriquet Mama Bakassi.
Now the chickens have come home to roost and we are left reeling in shock. We have undertaken to abide by the decision of the International Court, and so must hand over a chunk of “our” territory, with all the implications. From all indications, the people of Bakassi are largely Efik speaking and therefore their natural home would be in the Cross River State of Nigeria. Are they then to abandon their homes and landed property? What would be the effect on the economy of Cross River State to have an influx of refugees?
Reactions to the ruling in Nigeria have been largely predictable. The Federal government speaking tongue-in-cheek is obviously keeping its options open. It appears the government has been taken by as much surprise as the rest of us, ordinary citizens. Which is strange, the Bakassi matter having dragged on so long, one would have thought that certain strategic and contingency planning would have been in place. From the citizenry, the reaction has varied from the sublime to the ridiculous. The National Association of Nigerian Students has vowed to defend Bakassi with their blood if need be. Other individuals and associations have also issued war-mongering threats. Others have heaped blame and abuse on General Gowon for “signing away” our patrimony. Gowon himself appears taken aback by the turn of events. Some of my Igbo compatriots have felt that it is comeuppance for the Nigerian state having bartered away Bakassi to prosecute an unjust war. There have been suggestions of a joint bi-national commission to administer the area. Others have urged Nigeria to abide by its word of honour given to Kofi Annan to accept the decision of the International Courts.
I am no lawyer, but it appears to me that the Bakassi judgement relied heavily on colonial treaties, many of which we know, by contemporary standards were not worth the parchment they were inscribed on. And yet, across the entire continent of Africa, all the countries as we know them today, from the Cape to the Sahara are built on such agreements, flimsy as they are. Repudiating any of these treaties could trigger off greater chaos, as ethnic nationalities jostle for positioning. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel an inadequacy in relying solely on flawed documents and agreements. Perhaps, a sovereign international African conference ought to be convened to sort these issues out.
Meanwhile, something needs to be done. I don’t think this is the time for tough talk. It is time to eat humble pie, something we Nigerians are not good at. But we must put aside our pride, accept the judgement and approach the Cameroonians to negotiate favourable terms. That is the cold but potent reality.