- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

YAOUNDE, Cameroon

At first glance, the Bakassi Peninsula hardly looks worth fighting over.xxxxx This sparsely populated swamp in a corner of the Gulf of Guinea consists mostly of mangrove thickets, dotted with seasonal fishing outposts. But don’t be deceived: There’s gold in them thar swamps — black gold.

At a time when gasoline costs more than $3 a gallon in much of the United States, American oil executives and diplomats are intensely interested in the 250-square-mile Bakassi Peninsula and its offshore oil and gas deposits.

Like many Africa watchers, the petroleum industry is keeping an eye on the scheduled return of the peninsula from violence-ridden Nigeria to Cameroon next month.

The Bakassi area has much of Cameroon’s declared 215 million barrels of proven reserves of crude oil and 208 billion cubic yards of natural gas. But the peninsula, taken over by Nigeria in a 1994 invasion, has not been fully developed and control of offshore royalties has not yet reverted to Cameroon.

Oilmen and nongovernmental organizations had been concerned that violence and terrorism in Nigeria could hinder development in the region if Nigeria dragged its feet in complying with a 2002 ruling by the International Court of Justice at The Hague and a timetable by the United Nations for transferring the peninsula.

Deal negotiated

The decades-long dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon over control of the Bakassi Peninsula was settled this week when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan brokered an agreement to ensure the return of the peninsula to Cameroon.

Nigerian troops have 60 days to leave the peninsula. The deal could mark a turning point in the resolution of African border disputes, which in recent years have led to tribal and ethnic conflicts.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo praised the Bakassi agreement as an example of conflict prevention. Cameroonian President Paul Biya called the deal “a definitive conclusion.”

This month, Nigerian gunmen kidnapped eight foreign workers, including an American, from an oil platform about 40 miles offshore. Pipeline sabotage and attacks by militants in Nigeria’s interior are common.

The Bakassi Peninsula also harbors dozens of rare species of animals and plants, leading Conservation International to designate the region one of the planet’s 25 remaining biological “hot spots.” Environmentalists, including Britain’s Prince Charles, are closely following developments on the Peninsula.

Nigeria’s reluctance

The Bakassi dispute goes back to 1913, when Germany, Britain and France demarcated the 1,056-mile border between Nigeria and Cameroon from Lake Chad in the north to the Gulf of Guinea in the south.

In the following years, Nigeria, Cameroon and, to a lesser extent, Equatorial Guinea engaged in occasional skirmishes that displaced several villages in the area. For most of the past century, the Bakassi region was under Cameroon’s control, until Nigeria invaded 12 years ago.

When the International Court of Justice ruled that the peninsula belongs to Cameroon, Nigeria began taking steps to comply. It participated in the Nigeria-Cameroon Mixed Commission, set up by Mr. Annan to implement the court decision. Mr. Annan called the U.N. initiative a potential model for resolving African territorial disputes.

Before this week’s breakthrough, Nigeria had been equivocating about yielding the peninsula to Cameroon in July.

At a May 4 meeting in Yaounde, Amadou Ali, vice prime minister of Cameroon, appealed to ambassadors of the European Union to bolster the lagging efforts of the Mixed Commission and its leader, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, a Mauritanian appointed by Mr. Annan.

Compared with Cameroon, oil-rich Nigeria is the goliath of the region, with nearly twice the land area of Cameroon and eight times its population of 17 million. Foreign oil companies, including Total of France, which pumps 70 percent of Cameroon’s oil output, have invested billions of dollars in Nigeria’s oil facilities.

Mr. Obasanjo is scheduled to step down next year, putting a premium on the peaceful transfer of the Bakassi before Nigeria’s elections.

Hope in Cameroon

The fate of the Bakassi Peninsula loomed large in Cameroon’s sense of national identity and its hopes for economic development. Cameroon’s economy is based mainly on agriculture and forestry, and more than half its people live in poverty.

Amid the turbulence in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta, Cameroon has been happy to promote its reputation as the regional peacemaker, best suited to develop the peninsula’s resources. Its people belong to scores of ethnic groups and speak more than 200 languages. Plus, as the Yaounde government is fond of pointing out, 3 million Nigerians live peacefully in Cameroon.

But Cameroon has struggled with government corruption. For perhaps the first time, its government has undertaken a campaign to root out corruption.

The halls of Mr. Ali’s Justice Ministry are covered with posters urging government employees and citizens to denounce fraudulent colleagues.

“The Fight Against Corruption is Everyone’s Business,” one poster proclaims. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” declares another. The International Monetary Fund recently awarded part of a debt-relief agreement to Cameroon in recognition of the nation’s anti-corruption efforts.

Transfer as test

Mr. Ali has ambitious goals for the Bakassi transfer, viewing it as a test of the government’s ability to preserve habitat while reducing poverty. He hopes that Cameroon will use the transfer to show that international law can prevail in African politics at a time when the continent is beset with regional disputes, despotic governments and faltering attempts to reduce poverty and disease.

In an interview at his office in Yaounde before he accompanied Mr. Biya to the signing of the accord, Mr. Ali insisted that “Bakassi is not ultimately about oil — it’s about historical accuracy and the sovereignty of our national borders.”

Holding a well-thumbed original of the U.N.-delineated maps of his country’s border with Nigeria, he added that Cameroon is a “child of the United Nations.”

“Certain things like giving oil royalties to Nigeria in the Bakassi are not negotiable,” he said.

It’s far from clear whether the Bakassi transfer will be smooth, but the mood in Yaounde is positive, if somewhat guarded.

The governor of Cameroon’s Southwest Province is tentatively scheduled to assume administrative control of the peninsula next month.

Meanwhile, a committee of Bakassi residents has been created to reintegrate the peninsula and resettle villagers uprooted by Nigeria’s invasion. In the not-too-distant future, this forgotten swampland may have an opportunity to thrive.

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