The quest for legal ID by inhabitants of disputed Cameroonian territory Bakassi
Along the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean in southwestern Cameroon lies an oil-rich peninsular called Bakassi, a territory full of history. Once controlled by Nigeria for dozens of years, the disputed area is now under the control of the Cameroonian government. Most of its residents still lack legal ID.
The dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over Bakassi, which saw bloodshed in some border communities in the 1980s and 1990s, was eventually settled following an October 10, 2002 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
This was followed by the subsequent signing of the Green Tree Accord in 2006 in the United States of America between Cameroon’s President Paul Biya and then Nigerian leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, in the presence of the United Nations Secretary General at the time, Kofi Annan. This agreement spelled out how Nigeria would progressively withdraw its authority and troops from communities that make up the peninsula.
Cameroon finally regained full sovereignty over Bakassi on August 14, 2008 in a symbolic ceremony which took place in the Nigerian city of Calabar. But 15 years after that full take-over of authority, Bakassi remains mired in a litany of problems.
Cameroonian authorities estimate that about 90 percent of inhabitants of all Bakassi settlements are Nigerians. While thousands of others departed to Nigeria, these ones chose to stay in the territory.
‘An ID card is something I need’
Apart from biting poverty, underdevelopment and an acute lack of social amenities (many parts of the area don’t have access to potable water, electricity and mobile telecoms services), one of the major problems facing inhabitants of communities in Bakassi is the lack of legal identity documents. The struggle to access foundational identity credentials like birth certificates and national identity cards is real, and a source of worry for some people. Some of the Nigerians living in the area, as well as the minority Cameroonians there, say they want to have identity cards.
“Some Cameroonian government officials came here some time this year  and asked us to give our names. They took our names and our face photos [biometrics]. My details and those of my husband are with them. Many other people here also gave their personal information. They assured us that they want to do us ID cards,” Gift Affiong, a fair-skinned 40-year-old woman living in the community of Jabane II in the Bakassi peninsular tells Biometric Update.
“They said it was part of a plan to issue us Cameroonian ID cards. But since then, we have not heard about anything. An ID card is something I need because I know how important it is.”
“I am a business woman. I sell fish. So, I usually travel from here to other parts of Cameroon and even Nigeria, and I face a lot of difficulties along the way since I don’t have any identification document,” Affiong explains.
The traditional ruler of Jabane II, Chief Asukwo Bassey, confirms that although many people in his village are willing to have Cameroonian ID cards, the credentials are yet to be issued, but he remains optimistic that will happen someday.
“People here do not have ID cards. That is why I keep saying that the Cameroonian government loves us. If they wanted to be strict, all of us won’t be able to stay here. In any case, they have given us assurances that ID cards will be produced for us, and we are patiently waiting.”
In other Bakassi communities like Idabato, many Nigerians, and even Cameroonians living there say they have no ID cards, and that makes life very difficult for them. The experience of those who move out of the territory, especially for business purposes, like Affiong, is not enviable.
Lack of ID cards facilitates crime
Roland Ewane, the government representative (known in Cameroon’s administrative jargon as a divisional officer) in the district of Idabato, tells Biometric Update that some individuals in his administrative area of command say they want ID cards, but there are many others who are reticent about the idea. And the lack of the credential, he says, is part of the reason why crime thrives in his area of command.
Ewane mentions that while there are plans by the government to facilitate the procurement of identity documents by people in the area, local administrators have taken some measures already to provide temporary identification papers for those who engage in formal business and in activities such as fishing. Fishing is the economic mainstay of people in Bakassi and most of the catch is taken to Nigerian markets.
“Our people are principally Nigerians. They do not have ID cards. What they are supposed to have is residence permits but they don’t have. They have been living like that since the hand-over of Bakassi to Cameroon. Those who were born there have been living like that. Even many people here of Cameroonian origin do not have ID cards,” says Ewane.
“So, what we have been struggling to do is to make them get residence permits. It is not easy. A few of them have accepted and they have their residence permits. They are just a handful of them. For the rest, they don’t want it; they don’t even want to be identified.”
On why some of the inhabitants don’t want ID cards, the divisional officer narrates: “One of the reasons for this is that it facilitates crime. Some of them don’t want to be identified in any way. Today, someone tells you his name is Asukwo. Tomorrow, when he commits a crime, he tells you his name is Edet. Some of them who commit crime even move from one settlement to the other without being identified.”
“Of recent, we were doing the collection of taxes and payments for fishing permits. We asked them to bring their passport-sized photographs, but most of them were reticent. However, we insisted and a number of them submitted their photos,” says the civil administrator.
Patrick Aboko, mayor of Kombo-Abedimo, one of the councils in Bakassi, describes the problem of identification in Bakassi as “extremely pathetic.”
“Our first problem here is that we don’t have an identification post. It is extremely pathetic because for you to have an ID card, the nearest ID post which is accessible by my people through the sea is Idenau,” Aboko narrates to Biometric Update. Idenau is a municipality near Limbe, a major city in the Southwest region of Cameroon.
“People have to travel from Akwa [headquarters of Kombo-Abedimo] in Bakassi to Idenau. The transport cost now fluctuates between XAF 15,000 (US$24) and XAF 20,000 (US$33). To obtain an ID card from Idenau, a Cameroonian living in Akwa would have to spend not less than XAF 30,000 (US$49) for transport to and fro.”
Acknowledging the usefulness of an ID document, Aboko remarks: “The ID card is an important document. For those of us who are politicians, we always encourage people to obtain ID cards so that they can register to vote and make their voices heard.”
Cameroon responsible for protecting all people’s rights
While the ICJ ruling which declared Bakassi as belonging to Cameroon called on Nigeria to withdraw all its powers in the area, it held that Nigerians living there are not required to leave the place or change their nationality, except on their own volition.
The ruling also bestowed on Cameroon the responsibility to protect the rights and welfare of the people, and also provide them with the infrastructure and other social amenities needed to make them enjoy their basic human rights.
With this understanding, Joseph Désiré Zebaze, a Cameroonian human rights advocate who consults on legal identity issues, holds that identity is a legal right and the Cameroonian government must take its responsibility with regards to the Bakassi situation.
“Government’s inaction must be condemned. I don’t see any reason why a child, who was born in Bakassi, and who is now 18 years old, should not have an ID card. The lack of action by the government on this matter is a serious infringement on their human rights,” Zebaze tells Biometric Update.
Zebaze, who’s National Coordinator of the Cameroon Network of Human Rights Organizations (RECODH) — a Yaounde-based human rights advocacy group — says it is important for government to do all it takes in order to simplify the issuance of birth certificates and national ID cards to the thousands of people who find themselves in the Bakassi peninsula.
It is not of their choosing that they found themselves in such a place, he noted. It is also not of their making that administrative control over the area has changed hands, but what is more important, according to him, is for the government of Cameroon to facilitate the issuance of these identity documents so that the people can really enjoy their basic rights.
In a position paper published in May 2023 which chronicles problems rocking Cameroon’s national ID system, Zebaze emphasizes that the national ID card is an important document that gives people a sense of belonging.
“The identity card plays an important role in the constitution of national identity. It reinforces the feeling of belonging to a nation. At a time when our national unity is constantly being tested, a state that wants to be modern must correlate the different aspects of its identity in order to adapt to changes generated by the socio-political context,” a portion of the paper reads.
Zebaze also adds that for Nigerians in Bakassi who may be willing to officially pick up Cameroonian citizenship, there is a legal pathway. All that has to be done is for government authorities to tell them what they need to do, and to facilitate the process for them. “No one should be denied identity,” he remarks.
Beyond ID cards, the rights advocate says civil registration must be streamlined in the area so that all children born there can be registered at birth for the eventual issuance of birth certificates, and later ID cards. To him, the issuance of ID cards in Bakassi, like elsewhere in Cameroon, has to begin with a systematic birth registration process.
Since Bakassi officially became a Cameroonian territory, all children born there, even of Nigerian parents, are automatically considered Cameroonian since the country recognises the jus soli principle of nationality. However, intentional efforts must be made, observers say, to ensure that these children enjoy their right to legal identity, which is also vital in guaranteeing them access to a wide array of services later on in their lives.
Like Zebaze, Ewane posits that the government has enormous work to do. In his words, the first thing to do is to set up identification posts in the Bakassi area so that the people there can easily have access to identity-related services.
“I think the government has to do a lot to make them get their identification papers. You may want to know that there is no identification post in the whole of Bakassi. It will be important for these posts to be created in all the sub divisions,” Ewane says.
“Let me talk about by own sub division; I think there is need for an identification post here in Idabato. This will help bring the administration closer to the population. Since the people don’t have any legal documents, they cannot move to Idenau, where there is the nearest identification post to obtain their documents.”
Sharing his views on this, Aboko states: “It is our fervent wish to have an identification post. It is even mentioned in the law that every council area must have an identification post. If it’s not possible to create them in all the councils in Bakassi, the government can create two first.”
“If these services are brought closer to the people, they will feel Cameroon better,” he holds.
Birth registration in Bakassi is very low
The Cameroonian government administers Bakassi through districts (sub divisions) which are headed by divisional officers. There are five districts in all, in which are five municipal councils, namely Bamusso, Idabato, Isangele, Kombo-Abedimo, and Kombo-Itindi.
According to Cameroon’s civil status registration laws, councils have the responsibility to register births. While birth registration is relatively low in a majority of council areas across the country, the situation is worse off in the five municipalities of Bakassi.
The Kombo-Abedimo Mayor says the number of people showing up for birth registration in his municipality is low, but they have never stopped sensitizing the population on the importance of securing birth certificates for their children.
“Our problem is that most of those who are resident in our area are Nigerians who do not have any identification document. Many of them are so reluctant to declare the birth of their children, not to talk of deaths or marriages,” says Aboko.
“We have been preaching to people to understand the importance of birth registration. We have been begging them. I have made sure every civil status document is issued in my council free of charge.”
He says although Cameroon’s law requires every child born in the country to have a birth certificate, the situation in Bakassi is not so smooth. “Unfortunately, in our case, we have a difficulty because with the new disposition of birth registration, the parent of the child must show proof of their nationality. They have to show a national ID card, passport or a residence permit. These are documents which many parents here don’t possess.”
In the Idabato council area, the situation is not very different, the divisional officer confirms.
“The birth rate here is very high, but you don’t know where and when women give birth. The council is faced with a dilemma. The council cannot issue out a birth certificate without a birth declaration. We have done so much sensitization as far as getting birth certificates for their children is concerned,” Ewane explains.
Noting one difficulty hindering birth registration, the official states: “After a period of time, per the law, those who want to obtain birth certificates for their children are supposed to obtain a court declaratory judgement. That entails some financial cost, and many of them are poor. It is a serious problem.”
“On our own part, we have done all the sensitization that is necessary and the people are aware that the very first document a child should have is a birth certificate,” he underlines. In Cameroon, civil registration currently faces a litany of problems including extortion, which a government agency is fighting.
Support from int’l NGOs advocating legal ID is needed
While making proposals on how the question of legal ID in the Bakassi area can be sufficiently addressed, the Idabato administrative leader makes a plea: “Let me appeal to international non-governmental organizations that work on legal ID issues to see how they can come in and assist. If they can come and work with the local administration or the central government to see that these people have access to legal ID documents, it will be a wonderful thing. This will help a lot in building the confidence of the people.”
To the people of the area, Ewane says he has been talking to them and will continue to do so, in order that they can fully recognize the importance of possessing legal identity documents.
“I have been talking to them. I have told them that these ID documents are very important. They should do everything to get them. I have often warned them that a time will come when they will not be allowed to carry out any transactions if they cannot properly identify themselves.”