(Vanguard of Sunday, October 20, 2002)
History is the most unassailable witness to the stuff of promises are made of. They are kept more in the breach than the observance. To man, the wages of sin, which broken promises are, is no longer death. It is the key to longer life. What matters is the end, not the means with which you achieved it. It could be fair, it could be most foul. But if the end brings a smile to your face, then bravo.
The one who believed your sweet talk or took your signature on that piece of paper seriously was a fool, wasn’t he? If promises were meant to be kept, would the 419ners have made it this big? Would courts be patronized? Would politicians have won elections? Would Christmas be interesting if those gifts smuggled into the little bed of the trusting ones had not been said to have dropped from heaven?
There are material and spiritual aspects to the outcome of promises. Material because of the interests affected by keeping or breaking the promises. In which case, circumstances beyond the control of those to be bound by the promises had intervened to occasion the breach. In the spiritual sense, promises broken risk a binding that must be redeemed in due time, now or much later. And the future nature of the binding may give the short-sighted and emotional an illusion of reprieve – that there is time enough to atone for your sins.
But what is material and what is spiritual about Bakassi? What is mater is the land. What is spiritual is the people. The International Court of Justice at the Hague anchored its ruling on a piece of territory, not on the people who inhabit it. The people on that land – they are Nigerians – have been there for as long as their memory can take them, and definitely before the British came and signed a treaty with the Kings and Chiefs of Calabar in 1884.
But in 1913, Britain and Germany exchanged notes in which Britain purported to have handed over the land to Germany. If Britain was courting the favour of Germany because of a world war that was looming and which no one knew the outcome of, then we can now appreciate how far desperate situations can lead to desperate cures. Germany did lose the war and the League of Nations handed over Cameroon to Britain and France to mange. That part of Cameroon that was under the administration of Nigeria was the Peninsula which Britain had given to Germany.
If Western Cameroon had not voted to merge with French Cameroon when they had an opportunity to choose where they would like to go at independence, the question of Bakassi would not have arisen today. But even after Western Cameroon had made its choice and had been merged with French Cameroon, the territory in question was still inhabited by Nigerians.
What we are being told by the World’s highest court is that the situation of 1913 must be binding on us, not the treaty of 1884; and not the fact that volumes of water had passed under the bridge since 1913. It was a year after that 1913 that Nigeria as we know today came into being through amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates.
Between 1914 and 1945, the whole face of the world changed. Empires fell and new power centres emerged. The map of Europe was fully redrawn, both physically and ideologically. Socialism and communism had established a solid base in a Europe that had been proud of its capitalist operation. What Karl Marx wrote in England in the 18th Century developed wings in the first half of the 20th century and flew to Eastern Europe and China. And so, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and many other communist leaders changed the face of the world and the thoughts of millions of its inhabitants.
The victims of the new orientation were the promises made in the past by powers that were in charge once upon a time. From the ashes of the world wars of 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945 rose movements which were propelled by the thoughts and visions of a new world order of thoughts and rulership. These thoughts gathered momentum and began, as if propelled from On High, to shatter the dreams of colonizers who had boasted that they ruled an empire where the sun would never set.
Boundaries began to crumble, and strong views about ownership and possession began to mellow. The panicky addressing of the Independence Question by many colonial masters was not proof of large-heartedness, but a rethinking of relationships that the hard facts of the day dictated. That independence movements were “granted” political freedom by their colonizers thus reflected the “wind of change” which only the foolhardy could defy, with dire consequences.
Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and the formation of the OAU which recently tried to redefine its mission, there was no doubt that colonial boundaries cut across nationalities. But where any area has been in occupation and control of any country, there has been a great deal of easing of tension by permitting the situation to remain. Africa is not the only part of the world affected.
The land Israel occupies today was there in 1948 but was not controlled by Israel. The fact today, whether we like it or not, is that Israel is. So present is Israel in the land it was a stranger in, during the Second World War, that it today calls the shots right there, in the Middle East. It is true that history helps in resolving issues. But the facts of the present must count in making the resolution practicable, meaningful and fulfilling.
Bakassi today is neither under the control of Cameroon nor is it inhabited by Cameroonians. Our own people, Nigerians, constitute the population of Bakassi. It is our dear Ita-Giwa constituency because it falls within the senatorial district she represents.
I must go back to the place of promises in the ordering of affairs of men and nations. On the Bakassi Question, two promises can be identified – the one credited to gen. Yakubu Gowon, our head of state and military ruler between 1966 and 1975. He was alleged to have signed away Bakassi as a thank-you gift to Cameroon for helping us close the borders to the rampaging Biafrians during the war. Gowon has denied doing any such thing. The second promise was credited to our President Olusegun Obasanjo who was said to have agreed with Cameroon’s President Biya in France that both countries would abide by the ruling of the World Court. Our President has not denied this commitment. But the fact is that the promises of Gowon and Obasanjo cannot be kept.
Gowon had no personal property to give to anyone. If giving away Bakassi was binding because Gowon performed the cat as Head of State, taking it back by Abacha was also binding because he performed the act as Head of State. And if Ojukwu is to be believed, Gowon was not in charge of the piece of territory he purportedly signed away! How can you give away what you are not in control of, and what does not belong to you?
As to the promise made by President Obasanjo, there would be honour in accepting the verdict if it had been rounded. Here is a verdict that looked at the land and not the people that lived on it; a verdict that depended on history, but was selective in which of two historical facts would ground its decision. And here was a decision that ignored possession as ninety per cent of ownership.
If our people have been in the disputed area since the 18th century, and the British reached an agreement with them in 1884, and our government has invested in the area and has citizens there to protect, the best that can happen in considering the situation is for Nigeria and Cameroon to sit together and discuss the Bakassi as good neighbours. War cannot resolve the situation because the only way war can arise is if Cameroon wants to expel Nigeria from the land it has occupied for a long time.
As to Nigeria withdrawing its presence, and abandoning its people, that would be a very bitter pill to swallow. And no Nigerian will accept that. Nigeria cannot leave Bakassi or any other inch of territory under its control. We just have to push this for all our neighbours to be well briefed.
(Published in Vol. 1 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 463 – 466; Lagos, 2003).