August 12, 2006

Nigeria pulls troops from Bakassi

By Tume Ahemba

BORO CAMP, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigeria has pulled thousands
of troops out of the Bakassi peninsula ahead of a Monday
deadline for a complete withdrawal, but many residents said
they would resist a handover to Cameroon.

The International Court of Justice ruled in 2002 that
Nigeria should turn over Bakassi, which has offshore oil
deposits and is rich in fisheries, to its eastern neighbor
after a decades-long dispute that nearly brought the two to war
in 1981.

But many residents of the three islands that make up the
peninsula have vowed to resist the handover. Last week a group
of youths foisted blue and white flags across the region and
proclaimed the secession of a "Democratic Republic of Bakassi."

Nigerian soldiers had removed most of the flags when they
took the media to witness their withdrawal on Friday, but
discontent was widespread.

"This is our ancestral land and we will all die protecting
it rather than allow the Cameroonians take over the place,"
said Godfrey Usoh, a petty trader at Boro Camp, as the last
batch of Nigerian soldiers boarded their boat back to the

Nigeria says up to 300,000 people live in Bakassi, but the
United Nations has said the population varies from 25,000 to
250,000 depending on the season, as fisherman flock there at
certain times of the year.


Following the 2002 court judgment, the two nations spent
two years exchanging small areas of territory along their land
border north of Bakassi until September 2004 when the peninsula
itself was first due to change hands.

Nigeria cited "technical difficulties" for missing that
deadline, and after two years of stalemate agreed at a meeting
in the United Nations on June 12 to pull out within 60 days.

Residents have the choice of adopting Cameroonian
citizenship, remaining Nigerian nationals in Cameroon, or
relocating to an alternative site nearby in Nigeria.

Nigeria is expected to hand over the government of northern
Bakassi on Monday after the whole peninsula, measuring 3,000
square km (1,200 square miles), is demilitarized.

But Nigeria will maintain administrative control of
southern Bakassi for the next two years, after which the area
will be in a state of flux for another five years before it
will be finally handed over to Cameroon, senior Nigerian
military officers said.

"There is the possibility that Nigerian residents in the
peninsula could precipitate crisis through restive acts," said
Major General Stephen Guar, commander of Nigeria's Joint Task
Force for Bakassi.

"Most of them are not predisposed to be relocated."

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said in June that the
people's culture, fishing rights and customary land rights
would be protected under Cameroonian administration.

Hundreds of Nigerian police are expected to replace the
3,000 troops in the territory during the transition period, but
were yet to be deployed on Friday.

Meanwhile, Cameroonian soldiers have already taken over
Ibekwe village, one of several positions vacated by Nigerian
troops, raising tension among the local population who accused
them of harassment and extortion.