- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 19, 2002

IKANG, Nigeria Tension was high on Nigeria's disputed border with Cameroon yesterday as local leaders from an oil-rich peninsula threatened to declare independence.

Last week the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that Bakassi Peninsula belongs to Cameroon and urged Nigeria to withdraw its troops and administrators from the region.

But yesterday the region's main political figures vowed to fight to defend the territory and to secede from Nigeria if the government decides to abide by the court ruling.

"We will not hesitate to pull out of Nigeria and seek self-determination if Nigeria allows our lands to be taken away from us," said Florence Ita-Giwa, the region's senator.

Bakassi's traditional leader, Chief Etim Archibong, said an appeal had been made to the people to remain calm while leaders work out the best way to resolve the crisis.

"But, rather than lose our sovereignty, we will fight with the last drop of our blood," he warned. "If Nigeria cannot protect us, we will declare a Republic of Bakassi."

The Oct. 10 World Court ruling brought an end to an eight-year legal battle between the West African giant Nigeria, and its smaller Central African neighbor, Cameroon.

Both claimed sovereignty over the 400-square-mile peninsula and, more important, over the oil exploration and fishing rights in the Gulf of Guinea around its coastline.

The peninsula itself is a low-lying strip of coastal swamp, forming the southernmost tip of Cross River State, Nigeria's far southeastern extremity.

The court's ruling was based on a 1913 treaty between Britain and Germany, then colonial rulers of Nigeria and Cameroon.

The fishing community that lives in Bakassi regards itself as part of the Efik people of southeastern Nigeria and the traditional kingdom of Calabar.

The Bakassi region, which has in recent years seen several clashes between Nigerian and Cameroonian forces, is highly militarized.

Nigerian soldiers yesterday prevented journalists from leaving Ikang on the Nigerian mainland by boat to travel to Bakassi, citing security concerns.

There was a large military presence in the town and some local people spoke of armored vehicles being deployed to the area.

Since the court ruling the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo has said simply that it will study the judgment carefully and has appealed for calm.

Mr. Obasanjo is due to seek re-election within the next few months and analysts say he will be unwilling to back down over the sensitive issue before election day.

Diplomats in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, said the international community expects Nigeria to honor a commitment it gave last month to respect the ruling, but that Mr. Obasanjo will be given time to resolve the issue without stoking tension.

The people of Bakassi, however, see the ruling as a sellout of their birthright.

"If we allow the Cameroonians to take our inheritance, posterity will not forgive us. If dialogue does not solve it, I think war will," said Patrick Edem Archibong, 43, a businessman.

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