Friday, August 23, 2013

Cameroon Takes Over Bakassi, Dashing Ambazonian and Efik Nationalist Hopes

Up went the Cameroonian flag over the Bakassi Peninsula on Wednesday, to the dismay of separatists and irredentists.
After decades of controversy and conflict, the Republic of Cameroon on August 21st formally took control of the disputed Bakassi Peninsula on its border with the Federal Republic of Nigeria.  This closes the door on the hopes of Nigerian nationalist irredentists, separatists in the peninsula and in the wider “Southern Cameroons” region, and members of the Efik ethnic group whose communities are riven by the international border.

Nigeria had been administering the peninsula since independence when, in 2002, the United NationsInternational Court of Justice (I.C.J.) ruled that the territory would belong to Cameroon.  Both sides had agreed to abide by the I.C.J. decision, whatever it might be, and in 2006 Nigeria ceded the peninsula, angering nationalists.  The issue lay dormant until last year, when a 10-year period during which Nigeria could contest the decision came was nearing its close (developments which were covered extensively in this blog).  Nationalist critics of Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, cried “capitulation,” members of the Efik ethnic group, which straddles the border, demanded that displaced Efiks in Nigeria be allowed to resettle in the peninsula, and Efik nationalists on both sides of the border called for an independent state which would revive the Efiks’ precolonial Calabar Kingdom.

The Calabar Kingdom is still a functioning ceremonial monarchy,
though the Nigerian–Cameroonian border bisects its traditional lands
On the Cameroonian side, this southwestern region of the country had for decades been home to a separatist movement in formerly British-ruled areas.  The original German colony of Kamerun had been divided between the United Kingdom and France after Germany lost the First World War.  At the time of decolonization, the southern part of the British chunk (“Southern Cameroons”) voted to join the newly independent French portion as the Republic of Cameroon, while the predominantly-Muslim chunk of the British sliver voted to join Nigeria.  But Southern Cameroonians, culturally distinct and used to using English rather than French as their lingua franca, chafed under a new 1972 constitution under which the Cameroonian dictatorship erased all regional autonomy.  Separatists declared an independent Republic of Ambazonia in the former Southern Cameroons in 1999 and in 2006 declared a Republic of Ambazania (note slight difference in spelling) which was to include the Bakassi Peninsula as well.  This declaration had the support of displaced Efik and other Bakassians on the Nigerian side, but it had little effect on the ground.  (To complicate matters, the areas on the Nigerian side of the border are part of a possibly future independent state envisioned by Igbo separatists—whose disastrously brief-lived Republic of Biafra in the 1960s included a restive Efik minority.)

But a 2012 declaration of independence by the Republic of Bakassi, though it involved only a radio-station tower on a tiny island off the peninsula’s coast, invited brutal reprisals by the Cameroonian military—not only against the Bakassian separatists but against Ambazonian/Ambazanian separatists more generally.

Separatists in Cameroon wave the flag of Ambazonia
But, declarations of independence aside, this is a time of reckoning for the estimated 90% of the peninsula’s 40,000-some residents who hold only Nigerian passports.  Instead of offering dual citizenship, as Bakassians demand, they are being told they must apply for foreign-resident permits, as though they were immigrants.  This is hardly a sporting attitude on the part of the Cameroonian victors in the dispute, and it is likely to inflame tensions.  While the rest of Nigeria is riven by separatism as well, many fear that the transition to Cameroonian rule might be the beginning, rather than the end, of the dispute over the Bakassi Peninsula.

[You can read more about Bakassi, Ambazonia, and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

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