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20 Years After ICJ’s Ruling on Bakassi: Language Barrier Stalls Boundary Demarcation

20 Years After ICJ’s Ruling on Bakassi: Language Barrier Stalls Boundary Demarcation

Two decades after Nigeria ceded the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon following a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, Switzerland; the federal government has approached international experts for the interpretation of the ruling, particularly as it affects both countries’ understanding and interpretations of the textual rendering used in the ruling.

The problem, Blueprint gathered, is largely due to the use of language in the ruling as the textual renderings made available to the two countries in two different languages have yielded divergent comprehension and reactions.

Whereas the version of the ruling sent to Nigeria is in English language, that given to the Cameroon is rendered in French language, a development that has generated discrepancies in their understanding and interpretations as a result of differences in textual rendering.

Dependable sources said Nigeria’s understanding and interpretation of certain English words and phrases employed in the ruling by the ICJ differs greatly from Cameroon’s understanding and interpretations of the French version of the same decision, which ultimately threw up completely varying applications from both nations.

Accordingly, Cameroon, based on their understanding of aspects of the ruling, has opted to define border lines using its understanding of certain features as rendered in the French text as her legitimate portion and had undertaken to claim the same by attempting to place pillars for onward demarcation of such places.

But Nigeria has repeatedly resisted such claims, insisting that the areas in question – which are eight in number – are her bonafide portions based on the ICJ ruling and rightly should not be encroached upon.

NBC DG speaks

Confirming textual confusion as an hindrance to the implementation of the ICJ ruling to the letter, Director General National Boundary Commission (NBC) Surveyor Adamu Adaji said: “Basically, sometimes, some of the terminologies used in English text may differ from those used in the French text, and has generally resulted in conflicting understanding and interpretations from both countries. So, we have had that controversy.

“It is not only Nigeria but both countries differ in their understanding and interpretations of some of the texts. Sometimes, the disparity in the language – French and the English texts – allow misunderstanding to creep in.

“That is why we have sought the assistance of an international expert to interpret the ruling. Nigeria has requested the assistance of Williams Robinson in this regard and we are hoping some features mentioned in the ruling of the ICJ will be clarified for better understanding and interpretation of the two nations.”

Adaji further said Nigeria insisted on the physical inspection of the scenes and features on ground as mentioned in the ICJ ruling, saying some of these would clearly establish ownership of the areas in contention.

Areas of conflicting interpretations

Twenty of such areas of discrepancies were observed and deliberated upon by the United Nations Cameroon- Nigeria Mixed Commission. And at the 33rd session of the meeting, 16 of these conflicting areas were thrashed and agreed upon, with four others pending. One of such contentious areas is Koja in Mubi local government area of Adamawa state where an attempt was made by a contractor led by a UN team, to place pillars for subsequent demarcation exercise. The attempt led to riotous protest by the villagers.

Aside from Koja, the other areas with conflicting understanding of the ICJ ruling are Ligague/Sale Road, Mada/Gourougourou Road, both in Borno state, Mabas Village, Rhumsike Village, Anglo/German Pillars.

Accordingly, the UN had, following Nigeria’s request, directed that marking of border lines, placement of pillars, and delineation of these areas be suspended pending clarification and resolution of observed discrepancies.

The NBC boss said: “These are sectors of the boundary that are still outstanding. We have agreed on what we have to do, some of which would require a visit to the site by the mixed commission’s demarcation sub-commission team under the auspices of the UN. We will be on the ground to see some of the features that were mentioned in the judgment for us to see how we can come to terms and finally agree on the correct interpretation of the judgment.

“Some features are mentioned, and we intend to go physical on ground because some of these areas were skipped previously because of security challenges in those areas,” saying until these are resolved, embarking on demarcation exercise would be futile.

Alleged invasion of Koja

Confirming an attempt to embark on placement of pillars and subsequent demarcation exercise at Koja comprising eight villages in Mubi local government area of Adamawa state, which had generated riotous resistance from indigenes, the NBC said the exercise was conducted in error because Koja was one of the areas under border demarcation restriction.

Alarm by villagers

A contractor, led by a UN team, had gone there to carry out some exercise in connection with pillar placement. He, was however, strongly resisted by the indigenes who thought Cameroon had invaded Nigeria and rightly raised the alarm. “The contractor was awarded a contract to replace pillars in about nine or so of the pillars to assist in defining the demarcation of the boundary. Of course, the contractor would want to carry out his assignment. But unknown to the contractor that the area had been segmented and we had agreed that it should be left outside whatever we want to do now, until he is properly informed.

“Now, the issue of Koja is one area that has been isolated as a yet- to-be resolved disagreement area. So, it was a mistake on the part of the team that went on ground to even attempt to place pillars in that sector. It was the attempt to replace pillars that agitated the communities and they rioted. So it was not an invasion, we should not call it invasion,” Adaji said.

“The Nigeria-Cameroon border is defined by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and both countries were in the process of implementing the decisions of the ICJ. It is surprising that some people termed what happened recently as invasion. It is not an invasion, because the Cameroonian government will not for any reason want to invade Nigeria and vice versa.

“It is worthy to note that the story of invasion is not true. We are at the moment implementing the decisions of the ICJ by placing pillars to ensure that the boundary is visible and recognizable,” he further added.

Nigeria demands Cameroon concession

Last November (2021), Nigeria had asked the Cameroonian government to make some compromise in its ongoing boundary demarcation issue with her.

Attorney-General of the Federation Abubakar Malami (SAN), who led the Nigerian team to the 33rd Session of the United Nations Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission (CNMC) in Yaoundé, Cameroon, had assured the Cameroonian government of Nigeria’s readiness to bring lasting solution to the dispute.

“There is no doubt that it has been a long walk to peace, but for us, it is still better than war between brothers over land and or maritime boundary disputes.

“I look forward to seeing genuine strides recorded by both states in the submitted SCD report to the CNMC encapsulated in international best practice tools of horse trading, give and take, esprit de corps, fraternity and brotherhood where there would be ‘no Victor no Vanquished’.

“Nigeria has demonstrated special concessions in the engagement that gave rise to the success recorded. We remain committed and urge for reciprocity,” Malami had said, noting further “we as participants, must do all we could as brothers to foster unbreakable peace to our Affected Populations.”

Similarly, Cameroon had made a request which could result in Nigeria losing not only a few portions of her landmass but some parts of many local government areas largely from Adamawa, Borno and Cross River, among others. The areas of dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon include the Bakassi Peninsula and stretches up to Lake Chad areas.

On numerous occasions, the Cameroonian military had forcefully attempted to claim these areas leading to an altercation with the Nigeria Military in 1994 under late General Sani Abacha regime.

Consequently, Cameroon, which had met unexpected crushing resistance, sought solace from the ICJ and received a favourable ruling in 2002, while implementation of the flag hoisting in the ceded areas began in 2004.

Since then, conflicting understanding and interpretations as well as demand for compromise across board have hindered speedy conclusion of the implementation of the ruling.


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