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Longer, analytical article.  Cameroon: Environment and natural resources

Summary & Comment: This paper analyses efforts to manage and govern the environment and natural resources in the Bakassi Peninsula. It promotes cooperation and building peace between adversaries and showcases the resolution of the Bakassi crisis. Helpful historical background of the Bakassi Peace Process is given. DN

Author: Maurice Ufon Beseng Date Written: 24 July 2009
Primary Category: Ecology Document Origin: AfricaFiles
Secondary Category: Resource Extraction Source URL: http://www.africafiles.org
Key Words: Cameroon, Bakassi Peninsula, environment , natural resources,

African Charter Article #21: All peoples shall freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources for their exclusive interest, eliminating all forms of foreign economic exploitation. (Click for full text...)

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From conflict over natural resources to cooperation in Bakassi Peninsula: A success story of environmental peacemaking and peacebuilding?



In February 2009, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released its maiden policy report on the role of the environment and natural resources in conflict and peacebuilding. Three main conclusions can be drawn from the arguments presented in the report as follows:

  • That, natural resources and the environment can be strongly implicated in all phases of a conflict lifecycle, where evidence in the past 60 years shows that, 40 percent of conflicts have been fought as a result of natural resources;
  • That, the environment in itself can be a victim as a result of direct and indirect environmental damages and;
  • That, natural resources and environment can contribute to peacebuilding through economic development, employment and sustainable livelihoods.

Amongst other recommendations, the report has called for the integration of natural resources and environmental issues in post-conflict planning and peacebuilding (UNEP, 2009). While this recommendation might be new to many, the past two decades has witnessed fruitful environmental cooperation efforts aimed at resolving both intra and interstate conflicts. From every indication, there has been a slow but steady recognition or integration of environmental and natural resource governance in the fabrics of peacemaking and peacebuilding policy and practice. However, there is still very little knowledge on how it shapes and influences post-conflict peacebuilding outcomes. Even UNEP has called for the need to bring to light case studies that could serve as blueprint in the effort of transforming environmental challenges into opportunities for peaceful environmental cooperation for development.

This paper aims to fill this gap by critically analysing how efforts to manage and govern the environment and natural resources in the Bakassi Peninsula is promoting cooperation and building peace between adversaries and to showcase the resolution of Bakassi crisis as a classy example of environmental peacemaking and peacebuilding in practice. From the foregoing, to better comprehend the issues that fanned the Bakassi crisis and those that have been crucial for shaping the peacebuilding process, I will briefly present a historical background of Bakassi conflict, examine the salient features of the Bakassi Peace Process especially the environmental link and discuss its role in peacebuilding in the area.

The Bakassi Peninsula: A launch pad for conflict and cooperation

Approximately 1000sqkm in size, the Bakassi Peninsula (BP) is located in the extreme eastern end of the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea (GOG). The Peninsula is largely made up of a cluster of low-lying swampy and mangrove-covered islands today estimated to contain some huge deposits of crude oil (Ngang, 2007). It is inhabited mostly by fluctuating number of fishermen and traders originating from surrounding mainland in Nigeria’s Cross River and Akwa Ibom States, and Cameroon’s Ndian Division. Recent estimates put the population between 150000-300000 inhabitants (Ngang, 2007). The so called permanent residents are predominantly of the Efik people who live in the southern part of Peninsula and see themselves as part of Federal Republic of Nigeria (de Koning, 2008). The BP was a disputed piece of territory between Cameroon and Nigeria for decades and a source of sporadic confrontation until recent peace efforts from Cameroon put the crisis in the international scene.  

Internationalising the Bakassi crisis and peace efforts

On the 29th of March 1994, Cameroon asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to settle a dispute over its 1600km long border area with Nigeria, extending from Lake Chad in the North to Gulf of Guinea in the Southwest. The bone of contention was the question of sovereignty over the resource-rich Bakassi Peninsula (BP), islands in the Lake Chad area, and the course of the land and maritime boundary between the two countries (Kirchner, 2001). After eight years of adjudication, the ICJ delivered its verdict on the 10th of October, 2002. The decisions in part were that, sovereignty over the Bakassi Peninsula and some disputed areas in Lake Chad region belongs to Cameroon.

In many ways, while the ruling of the ICJ laid the framework for the ‘Bakassi peace process’, in reality, the ruling was just a part solution to the ‘Bakassi crisis’ that started in 1913. The other part of the solution laid in the expediency in implementing the decision of the ICJ. To facilitate the implementation this decision, the leaders of both Cameroon and Nigeria agreed to set up a Cameroon-Nigeria Mix Commission (CNMC) to consider ways of following up the ICJ ruling and moving the peace process forward. Despite some uncertainties and protest from Nigeria, the commission adopted a series of multilateral measures that led to the final handover of the peninsula to Cameroon in August 2008.

According to the United Nations, the ‘Bakassi Peace Process’ is a  very illustrative and fascinating case study of conflict prevention at work in practice which should serve as a precedent of how to address other border issues that may threatened peace and security. In 2004, the United Nations classified it as one of its top 10 stories which the world should hear more about. Indeed, it exceptionally exemplifies the crucial role of employing multilateral measures in conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding (United Nations, 2004). To me, 2 salient features make the ‘Bakassi story’ unique.  

Firstly, it showed the potential of putting the environment and/or natural resources at the core of peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding and secondly, it exemplifies the commitment of two leaders: Paul Biya (Cameroon) and Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria) to choose peace over greed and national grievance. In fact, their support in the formation of a Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission which today represents an exemplary model for preventive diplomacy and a precious tool for moving from a culture of reaction to a culture of peace has been very crucial in consolidating the peace process.

That not withstanding, despite these efforts, continuous insurgencies and kidnappings in the region especially from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and Niger Delta Defense and Security Council (NDDSC) make the area highly dangerous as a potential return to confrontation is not inevitable.

Understanding the context of the Bakassi conflict: the environment/natural resource link  

Just like in many other conflicts, natural resources and the interest of international actors like Britain, Germany and France are said to have been instrumental in the outbreak of the Bakassi crisis. Reflecting on the role of colonialism on the emergence of many ‘sovereign states’ in contemporary Africa and more particularly, the legacy of Cameroon and Nigeria’s colonial past, the colonially negotiated boundaries they inherited from former colonial masters: Germany, Britain and France is today  haunting them. This reinforces Kyell-Ake Nordquist assertion that, though boundaries provide a condition for state sovereignty, by their relational nature it is an infringement upon that sovereignty. Thus, a boundary can be mirror of internal disputes as well as a root of an interstate dispute in itself (Nordquist, 2001). The latter has been well manifested in the Bakassi area between Cameroon and Nigeria. 

Many studies have traced the origin of the border dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria. Their findings show that, Bakassi became a contested piece of land even among the colonists due to their conflicting interests. I will attempt a chronology of the summary of the main arguments here.

Upon the arrival of European colonialist – Britain - to Nigeria in the mid 19th century, the Bakassi area was under the rule of the King of Old Calabar. However, when the King signed a treaty of protection with the Queen of England on September 10, 1884, he literally ceded his Kingdom to Britain. Worst still, three decades later, the WHOLE of Nigeria fell under British rule in 1914 (Ngang, 2007). Meanwhile in German ‘Kamerun’, the colonial authorities were interested in securing access to huge amount of seafood (especially shrimps) in the water surrounding the Bakassi Peninsula, and in using the waters of the Cross River to easily penetrate the hinterlands of their colony-Kamerun (Ngang, 2007). By doing this, the Germans assured the British that, they would not seek any eastward expansion into British occupied territory. On the other hand, Britain wanted a continuous passage to Calabar which was an important commercial seaport even in today’s eastern Nigeria (Aghemelo and Ibhasebor, 2006).  

Consequently, in a series of agreements between Germany and Britain to establish an exact demarcation of the border between Nigeria and Cameroon, (which did not exist at that time), two main treaties were signed. The first entitled:  ‘The settlement of the Frontier between Nigeria and ‘The Kamerun’ from Yola to the sea, put the Bakassi Peninsular under the jurisdiction of the Germans and a second treaty on ‘The regulation of ‘navigable portion’- of the offshore border of the peninsula went to Britain. Thus from 1914 onwards, British and German maps showed that, the Bakassi peninsula was a German territory, hence part of ‘Kamerun’ since this area was controlled by the Germans (Ngang, 2007).

After Germany lost all her West African colonies at the end of the First World War, ‘Kamerun’ was divided into East and West ‘Cameroon’ administered under a French and British protectorate respectively. A Franco-British declaration of July 1919 placed Bakassi and the rest of ‘British Cameroon’ under British Mandate. Thus, British Cameroon was administered as part of Nigeria respecting the boundaries laid down by the 1913 agreements (Ngang, 2007). Another agreement between both colonialists was signed to further codify the declaration of 1919. For the first time, maps from this period clearly showed the Bakassi peninsula as part of British (Southern) Cameroon.  

At the end of the Second World War, French and British Cameroon became trusteeship territories under the newly formed United Nations Organisation. The agreement creating the trust territories re-endorsed the Anglo-German and Anglo-French treaties relating to the borders between both countries. Maps from this period onwards placed Bakassi under the sovereignty of British Southern Cameroons. After the independence of French Cameroun and Nigeria in 1960, British Southern Cameroons through a referendum joined the newly independent Republic of Cameroun in 1961. Interestingly, there were 21 polling stations in the Bakassi area and 73% of the Bakassi population voted to join Republic of Cameroun (formerly French Cameroun). Meaning that, Bakassi Peninsular was not a contentious issue at independence (Ngang, 2007).  

However, 10 years later, following the discovery of large deposits of oil in the surrounding waters of the Peninsula and speculations that Bakassi itself is swimming on large oil deposits; Nigeria started laying claim of ownership to the Peninsula (Aghemelo and Ibhasebor, 2006).. In this standoff, former Presidents Ahidjou of Cameroon and General Gowon of Nigeria met in 1971 and 1975 to make concessions on the demarcation of the border in what became known as the Maroua Agreement. Unfortunately, after General Gowon was overthrown in a military coup, the successive military leaders (Murtala Mohammed and later Olusegun Obasanjo) sidelined the Maroua agreement.

As it has been argued, Nigeria’s position was that, ‘Britain and Germany the two colonial masters had no locus standi to cede territories and that the agreements was not rectified by any of the parliaments of the two nations’, moreover, the alleged ceding of the Peninsula by General Gowon, was not endorsed by the Supreme Military Council-the law making body of Nigeria at the time (Aghemelo and Ibhasebor, 2006).

Outbreak of Hostilities

As the political wrangling over the rightful ownership of Bakassi Peninsula continued, military tension was building up along opposite borders of the peninsula. From May 1981 to November 2007, there were six different instances of severe military confrontations between Cameroon and Nigeria in and around the Peninsula. After one of such confrontations in February 1994- that resulted in severe casualties and loss of life on both sides, - the Cameroon government took the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague for arbitration (Price, 2006).

The complaint was filled on March 29th, 1994. Eight years after, ICJ ruled thus: that Cameroon had sovereignty over Bakassi determined by the Anglo-German Agreement of March 11, 1913 and the Court requested Nigeria to quickly and unconditionally withdraw all administrative, police and military from the Peninsular within two years, and for Cameroon to withdraw its forces and other administrative services from territories in the lake Chad area which according to the Court ruling belongs to Nigeria (Ngang, 2007). While the ICJ verdict was greeted with fanfare in Cameroon, Nigerian lawyers, citizens, commentators and even some inhabitants of Bakassi were quick to dismiss it through protests, petitions and military build-up in Bakassi. For instance, immediately after the ICJ verdict, Nigeria deployed more troops to Bakassi and took a head count of Nigerians living in the peninsula (de Konings, 2008). Such actions of defiance ushered in the formidable task of seeking peace with nobility.  

Peacemaking: the role of the environment  

Environmental peacemaking means the identification and utilization of opportunities from the natural and human environment, for building bridges of communication and collaboration among parties in a Conflict. With respect to the Bakassi conflict, this has largely played out. The pre-ICJ negotiations did set the pace for environmental peacemaking in Bakassi Peace Process. To a large extent, what actually calm the outbreak of full scale war was the series of environmental concessions made by both presidents when they met for negotiations.

For instance, President Gowon successive meetings with President Ahidjou in April 1971 and June 1975 were to discuss possible amendments to the Anglo-German Agreement of 1913 to negotiate a new boundary line-which will give Nigeria a wider access to sea. President Ahijou responded to Gowon’s request by extending the boundary of the navigable portion. The resulting Maroua Declaration of 1975 became very useful during the ICJ judgement-since it clearly showed that, the Nigerian administration at that time never objected Cameroon’s ownership of Bakassi. However, Nigeria’s demands changed when oil was discovered in the peninsula as their position shifted from an extension of the navigable channel to ownership of the entire peninsula- prompting Cameroon to seek the intervention of the World Court.

The ruling of the ICJ compelled both parties to make a series of land and boundary concessions. For instance, Nigeria was ordered without condition to withdraw its administration and military/police forces from areas of Lake Chad, along the 1600km land boundary from Lake Chad to Bakassi and from Bakassi Peninsula which pursuant to the ICJ ruling was now under Cameroon sovereignty. Cameroon on the other hand had to cede territories to Nigeria along Lake Chad to Bakassi which now belonged to Nigeria. Furthermore, Cameroon pledged to respect the rights of Nigerian citizens living in ceded areas and for Nigerians to continue practising their agricultural and fishing activities without interruption.

However, the ICJ ruling did not imply an automatic end to the crisis. Before the ruling of the ICJ, there was heavy military presence on both sides of Peninsula in the hope that this could support their (Cameroon and Nigeria’s) claim of the Peninsula. But the foresightedness and mediation efforts of Koffi Annan-the former Secretary General of United Nations (UN) and mediator of the crisis proof crucial.  

In anticipation of the verdict of the ICJ, Annan convened Obasanjo and Paul Biya to a meeting in Paris in September 2002. During the meeting, he was able to convince both presidents to commit themselves to respect and implement the court verdict whatever the outcome of the decision. Moreover, Annan was also able to obtain an agreement from both Presidents to establish a mechanism to give effect to the decision. This resulted in the creation of the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission that became the implementing organ of the ICJ verdict. After the first meeting, the former UN Secretary General was able to meet with both head of states in four different occasions to review the progress of the Mix Commission and to preside over the signing of the Greentree Accord (UNOWA, 2008).  

The Green Tree Accord

Signed by the presidents of Cameroon and Nigeria on 12th June, 2006 at Green Tree, New York, the Green Tree Accord reaffirmed the willingness of both countries to peacefully implement the World Court judgement. It set out the modalities of implementation of the ICJ verdict. It practically addressed the burning issues confronting both parties in the conflict. These included: how boundary lines will be drawn, the timeline for handover of peninsula, and the fate of Nigerians living there.

While Nigeria recognizes the sovereignty of Cameroon over the peninsula, the land and maritime boundary between the two countries as delineated by the Court, it also agreed to withdrew all its forces from the peninsula. On the other hand, Nigeria’s fears were addressed when Cameroon pledged to respect the right of Nigerians and other inhabitants living in the peninsula. Article 2 of the Greentree agreement compelled Cameroon to respect the culture, language and belief systems of the Nigerians living in Bakassi, protect their right to continue fishing and agricultural practices in the area, and also to protect their economic and property rights. Moreover, Cameroon is not to subject Nigerians in discriminatory tax drives. 

The Significance of Cameroon-Nigeria Mix Commission

In retrospect, the use of Mix Commissions as one of the mechanisms to settle border dispute is not new. For instance, in the long standing border dispute between Honduras and Nicaragua (1894-1961), the Inter-American Peace Committee Mixed Commission was central in executing the practical solutions of the ICJ judgement (Nordquist, 2008). But, within the African scene and in relation to boundary disputes, the Cameroon-Nigeria Mix Commission is being considered as a novel approach to preventive diplomacy. Of even more significance, is the timing of its creation, its mandate and membership composition.  

Following a proposal from Koffi Annan for both countries to form an organ that will oversee the implementation of the ICJ verdict, the response of both Paul Biya and Obasanjo was overwhelming. The Cameroon-Nigeria Mix Commission was formed one month before the ICJ ruling of 10th October 2002, composed of equal representatives from both countries. It was chaired by a neutral UN special representative- Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah from Mauritania. Its task was (is) to work out ways in implementing the verdict and moving the peace process forward. Its mandate cuts across: the demarcation of land boundary; supervision of withdrawal of civil administration, military and police forces and the transfer of authority; the protection of the rights of the affected population; the promotion of joint economic ventures; and the reactivation of the Lake-Chad  Basin Commission (UNOWA, 2008)

In addition, to realise its various mandates, two sub-commissions and 5 working groups were created to ensure a smooth functioning of the Mixed Commission. This facilitated the work of the Commission as it proposed a series of confidence-building measures to protect and improve the political and economic situation of Nigerians living in Bakassi. These include: the holding of regular meetings between local government authorities, government officials and the presidents of the two countries; devising projects to promote economic enterprises and cross border cooperation; prevention of inflammatory statements or declarations on Bakassi by either nation (UNOWA, 2008).

Environmental peacebuilding in Bakassi Peninsula

Environmental peacebuilding means employing environmental peacemaking activities to transform a conflict towards a more sustainable peaceful relation. With reference to the Bakassi case, agreement in boundary demarcation, cooperation in exploration of oil resources, cooperation in agriculture and fishing activities are helping to transform the relations between the people and countries as a whole.  

The Adoption of a draft ‘Resource Clause’

The so called ‘resource clause’ constitute a series of confidence building mechanisms and other items to be considered for a framework agreement on cross-border cooperation in oil and gas exploration especially for oil fields that straddles or are along the maritime boundary. It should be noted that, to a large extent, Nigeria’s compliance to the ICJ ruling and terms of Green Tree Accord is because of Cameroon accepted to cooperate with Nigeria to explore oil in the peninsula. A move which could help boosts Cameroon’s dwindling oil production from 55000 to about 900000 barrels/day and with Nigeria pocketing a huge chunk of proceeds (UNOWA, 2008).

Boundary Demarcation

Other confidence building measures have been manifested in boundary demarcation where both countries have ceded territories and villages that they have been in charge for decades. According to Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah- former UN representative and chairman of CNMC, Nigeria ceded 33 villages around the Lake Chad area to Cameroon and the entire stretch of communities in the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula while Cameroon ceded 2 villages to Nigeria as a show of compromise. Through the CNMC, both countries have accepted the sites for boundary pillars and coordinates have been adopted to make the boundary demarcation practically outstanding (Africa Research Bulletin, 2007).  

Highway Project

Another concrete confidence-building measure is a multinational highway project linking Nigeria and Cameroon. With support from the African Development Bank, cross-border highway connects Ikom in Nigeria to Mamfe in Cameroon. It is worthy to note that, Nigeria’s section of the highway has been completed, while work is still going on in Cameroonian section. Highly acclaimed by local population, the road project will greatly improve movement and economic cooperation between different communities (de Konings, 2005).  

Agriculture and Fishing

Nigerians and Cameroonians living in Bakassi and along the newly drawn boundary from the Lake Chad to the Peninsula have continued their livelihood activities of fishing and subsistence agriculture. Both countries have pledged to respect the rights of people living in the different ceded territories. The reactivation of the Lake Chad Basin commission is testimony of the willingness of both Cameroon and Nigeria and other countries in Central African sub-region to continue cooperation in managing the water and resources in Lake Chad area.


The actors responsible for the resolution of the Bakassi crisis either consciously or otherwise, have placed environmental and natural resource governance at the centre of the peacemaking and peacebuilding process. Even though other factors such as a strong political will has been responsible for carrying this process forward, the Bakassi case study shows that, environmental practices and a ‘fair’ governance of natural resources are significant variables in peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

However, can the Bakassi example be considered as a model for postconflict environmental peacebuilding? It might be still too early to talk about a sustainable environmental peacebuilding process mindful of the fact that, it is still an on-going process and because of challenges confronting the Bakassi region as a whole. Hence appropriate measures are needed to ensure a sustainable peace effort. At the moment, the Cameroon Nigeria Mixed Commission (CNMC) is using civilian observers to implement its different confidence building measures but a mechanism to sustain the different environmental peace efforts is absent. It is, therefore, important that a ‘green helmet’ force is set aside to respond to any threats to the different environmental peacebuilding measures that have been implemented so far.

*Maurice Ufon Beseng is a Research Associate at the Centre for Peace and
  Reconciliation Studies of Coventry University in the United Kingdom.


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