President Goodluck Jonathan was right to have resisted pressures from certain quarters to ask for a review of the October 10 2002 decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, taking oil-rich Bakassi peninsula away from Nigeria and giving it to neighbouring Cameroun. Our only quarrel with him is he equivocated on a very sensitive matter that required of him firmness.
First, when he addressed the first ever Plenary Session of the United Nations devoted to rule of law, in New York, President Jonathan declared Nigeria’s “unwavering commitment” to implementing the ICJ decision. Two days later, and back home, he was literally arm-twisted by the National Assembly to reconsider his position. He was apparently swayed by the lawmakers’ claim that they had “new and fresh evidence” to force the court to revaluate its decision.
Persuaded, President Jonathan, after a meeting with the leadership of the National Assembly, raised an eight-man committee to advise him on what to do. As it turned out, the so-called fresh evidence was the “discovery” that the National Assembly did not domesticate the judgement of the ICJ as required under the Vienna Convention on treaties. But whose fault was it? Ours, of course. A case that was raised to such a dizzying height of patriotism collapsed just as quickly.
That we had no chance of getting the ICJ to change its decision was confirmed by two teams the federal government recruited – one made up of governors of Akwa Ibom and Cross River States, leaders of the National Assembly, the SGF, justice and foreign affairs ministers as well as DG, National Boundary Commission, and the second comprising international legal consultants. While the government team discovered that Nigeria had no new evidence to present to the ICJ, the legal consultants believed that an application for a review of the 2002 judgement would not only fail, it “will be diplomatically damaging to Nigeria.”
We at Peoples Daily knew that other than give the impression that the government hadn’t given up on Bakassi, the naming of the two panels would not fundamentally alter an already bad case. First, we left it too late in the day to reopen the matter; we had a 10-year window to return to the ICJ decision but didn’t until just two days to the judgement becoming status –barred. What difference had proponents of a review hoped to make in that short time? None whatsoever.
The very factors that made us lose Bakassi in the first place are still there, some very much our own making. First, the notes exchanged between and treaties signed by Britain, Germany and France during the 1884-5 Berlin Conference that broke up Africa into European ‘spheres of influence’ that put Bakassi in what was to become independent Cameroun, a “fact” accepted by the ICJ. Two, the Charter establishing the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to present AU, accepted the immutability of colonial boundaries; this has not changed till today. Three, a report done by late Justice Teslim Elias, before he became Nigeria’s attorney-general, made it very clear that the disputed peninsula was Cameroun’s, not ours. And four, Nigeria did not begin to change all the maps showing its boundary with Cameroun and placing Bakassi in the territory of the latter until 1994 when Cameroun took its claim to the peninsula to the ICJ.
Prince Bola Ajibola, a former Nigerian attorney general and minister of justice, sat on the ICJ panel that decided the Bakassi matter between our country and Cameroun. Ten years on, and at 78, he does not believe we had a good case. “All (we) are now doing is belated and overtaken by events. What (we) ought to have done was to have put (our) house in order before even independence and immediately after independence.” We didn’t and today we have lost the peninsula – for good!
However, this is not to suggest that Nigerians there should be abandoned to their fate. Indeed, the Green Tree Agreement that Nigeria and Cameroun signed at the instance of the UN says Nigerians in Bakassi, though now under Camerounian jurisdiction, must enjoy their inalienable right to protection under the law. We enjoin in the Federal Government to closely monitor developments on the peninsula to ensure Nigerians do not suffer any injustice.