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.”
Culled from Biometrics Update