More than a decade after displacement, Nigerian returnees remain homeless
Corruption and fingerpointing stall resettlement
By Linus Unah
Resources dedicated and then diverted, as returnees struggle to survive
EKPRI-IKANG, NIGERIA--IN THE FAR CORNER OF SOUTHERN NIGERIA'S CROSS RIVER STATE SIT 42 NEW APARTMENTS, BUILT BY FEDERAL AUTHORITIES FOR NIGERIANS WHO RETURNED TO THEIR COUNTRY FOLLOWING SETTLEMENT OF A BORDER DISPUTE WITH NEIGHBORING CAMEROON THIRTEEN YEARS AGO.
Although the flats were completed in 2019, none of the returnees from the disputed Bakassi region live in them.
“The flats have been taken over by community youths, political party members and hoodlums,” said Aston Inyang, a leader of the Bakassi returnees. The community complained to government officials, who visited and collected names in June. Still, Inyang said, “nothing has changed.” No Bakassi returnee has received a home.
The returnees left the Bakassi region in 2008, after Nigeria formally relinquished a claim on the oil-rich peninsula in Western Cameroon. Hundreds of thousands moved back to Nigeria, relying on assurances that federal authorities would see to their welfare, shelter and livelihoods.
Years later, thousands of them remain in limbo, yet to be resettled and reintegrated.
Children who came as two-year-olds have become teenagers, teens have grown into adults and adults are now becoming fathers and mothers in mostly makeshift camps.
The camps are marked by hardship: poverty, hunger, filth, disease, and death.
At the heart of the problem is the sole focus on building new homes for returnees in Cross River state, where most returnees landed upon their arrival in Nigeria, with little attention paid to their day-to-day needs. In addition, relief materials meant for refugees rarely reach them, while their children struggle to access decent education.
These houses, built in Cross River State for returnees, were instead taken over by locals. Not a single Bakassi family lives in these houses. (Photo by Linus Unah.)
Returnees who later moved back to their ancestral states in southern Nigeria, including Akwa Ibom, Delta, Rivers, Ondo and Bayelsa states were left largely to their own devices.
Godknows Igali, who was the Nigerian consulate-general from 1999 to 2005, said federal authorities did not listen to advice asking them to ensure funds were allocated to different states rather than solely to Cross River.
Shantytown dwellings of the Bakassi returnees. (Photo by Cleopas Doubra.)
“Money should have been given to the government of Akwa Ibom, the government of Bayelsa, like a kind of counterpart funding and I mentioned this thing over and over, but the federal government doesn’t listen,” Igali said.
Innocent Efoghe, south-south zonal coordinator of the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons (NCFRMI), said he is aware that the newly-built flats in Ekpri-Ikang village are yet to be allocated to the “right people”–Bakassi returnees.
“If a complex has been built for returnees to live in and they happen not to be the people there, the national commission for refugees has no option but to exit all those who are there,” Efoghe said.
But his prescription, stern as it sounds, is not entirely new when it comes to addressing the corruption that plagued the resettlement of Bakassi people, and neither are the political maneuverings that have stalled almost every opportunity to resettle and reintegrate the returnees. Several resettlement committees have tried to address this resettlement conundrum without success.
Some Bakassi political leaders accuse each other of “fraud” over funds allocated to resettle Nigerians who left the peninsula, and six local politicians and activists interviewed for this story say there was an overarching lack of accountability, starting with “heavy secrecy” around how much the federal government allocated for Bakassi reintegration, where it was spent, and for what purposes.
“There will be a time when the crisis that will erupt in this camp will be beyond control,”
In late September 2008, Nigeria’s federal authorities allocated $17 million (then around 2 billion naira) to Cross River state authorities to build a permanent settlement some 20 miles from the peninsula, in a “new” Bakassi local government area which was quickly carved out in early 2007 to resettle Nigerians returning from Bakassi peninsula.
Only about 300 houses were built by 2010 and families living there now complain that they had to accommodate as many people as possible to ensure nearly everyone received a place to lay their head. For example, in one case, two families with over a dozen children are squeezed into a two-bedroom flat.
Innocent Asuquo Bassey, one of the camp leaders in Bakassi local council, said around 3,000 households live in the camps.
“The issue of Bakassi [settlement] is yet to be fully resolved because we are still suffering and some of our people had to go back to the peninsula again,” Bassey said, blaming politicians and local leaders whom he believes are “the real problem of [the] Bakassi.”
“There will be a time when the crisis that will erupt in this camp will be beyond control,” he warned, saying the camp has not received “any relief materials for over three years now.”
Government officials interviewed say the UN, which brokered the deal to hand over the area to Cameroon, should have ensured that the returnees were resettled and given support to start afresh.
A resident of the makeshift camp at Yenagoa. (Photo by Cleopas Doubra.)
Children of the returnees in a makeshift school at Yenagoa. (Photo by Cleopas Doubra.)
Okoi Obono-Obla, former chair of the Special Presidential Panel for the Recovery of Public Property, said “a lot of money” was provided for the resettlement of the returnees, especially during the Olusegun Obasanjo-led administration (1999-2007) when Cross River state was led by Donald Duke.
Obono-Obla filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2012 to ascertain the official budget for resettlement of the returning Bakassi. It took four years for the court to dismiss the case without making “any pronouncements on some of the issues raised.”
“This was what we were trying to establish in the case we file: how much was actually given to the Cross River state government,” he said. “The [returnees] say that the money was never used for what they were budgeted for.”
In 2017, plans for a large housing program fueled exhilaration among the displaced Bakassi. The Africa Nations Development Program (ANDP), along with Cross River state authorities, promised to build 5,000 housing units at Ikpa Nkanya village in Akpabuyo town, some 10 miles away from Calabar.
At the site, concrete blocks and a handful of abandoned buildings without roofing are the only signs that a project ever was started there.
Ifeanyichukwu Eze, country director of ANDP, blamed bureaucratic delays and said “bringing the money into” Nigeria to start work was problematic, due to the numerous government bodies they needed to clear the money with, including the Central Bank of Nigeria, the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development.
Eze said contractors would have returned to the site in April last year but for lockdowns caused by COVID-19 pandemic and promised that construction will begin again “soon.”
Ani Esin, former local government chairman of the Bakassi community in Cross River state, said “mismanagement is always there in the Nigerian context” and that politics inevitably affected the resettlement of Bakassi returnees.
Delays over resettlement have historically triggered the emergence of militant groups, including the Bakassi Strike Force, which said it would cause trouble until the federal government fulfills all of the promises it made to the returnees.
The militant group, which thrived on sea piracy and kidnappings, surrendered its weapons to the military in December 2018 after it agreed to an amnesty program with federal and state authorities.
Politicians, activists, journalists and Bakassi chiefs familiar with the situation in Cross River agree that even though some of what was sent for resettlement was diverted, it was not nearly enough to deal with the large-scale problem of displacement and loss of livelihoods created by the ICJ ruling.
Today, the returnees are scattered across southern Nigeria: from Akwa Ibom and Cross River state, both of which are near the peninsula, to Bayelsa, Rivers and Ondo states.
In some states like Rivers, Delta and Ondo, not much is heard of returnees who moved there upon their return to Nigeria, especially as some of them had given up any hopes of receiving federal help and have found ways to move on with their life.
“We only hear in the news media that Bakassi people have received some help,” said Muri Ekpo Eyo, the head of the Efut Inwang clan in Bakassi, laughing ruefully. “We have never felt that help [and] that is why we are still suffering as displaced people.”
Jeremiah Jerry-Wemba, community leader of the Bakassi in Yenagoa. (Photo by Cleopas Doubra.)
Makeshift school of the Bakassi returnees in Yenagoa. (Photo by Cleopas Doubra.)
“The bane of it all is mismanagement, misappropriation, corruption,” Ekpo said. “The closer you are to the source, the more you will benefit. Everything was done haphazardly. People were seeking to capture opportunities.”
During the peak of the displacement, at least 100,000 who returned from Bakassi sheltered in makeshift camps in Akwa Ibom, which is about 65 miles away from Cross River and closer to the peninsula.
In 2017, the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons said it had registered more than 7,200 Bakassi returnees in Akwa Ibom in nine camps. This only represents a fragment of the displaced population, many of whom had reintegrated into other communities or found something else to do to survive since federal help wasn’t forthcoming, Inyang said.
In Bayelsa state, about 215 miles (350km) west of Cross River, Jeremiah Jerry-Wemi said most Bakassi people in Yenagoa returned as early as August 2006, two years before the formal agreement with Cameroon.
“Most of us forfeited [personal belongings such as fishing boats] because the ship that came to bring us back couldn’t contain properties and everything,” said Jerry-Wemi, the leader of about 3,200 families currently camping in Yenagoa. “Some people came with just the clothes they had on them.”
In September 2006, Bayelsa state authorities hurriedly built a makeshift camp ahead of the visit of then-president Olusegun Obasanjo, said Jerry-Wemi, 45.
At that time, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) estimated that the number of returnees from Bayelsa state was over 10,000 in October 2006, but the The New Humanitarian quoted officials saying there were about 4,000 people from Bayelsa state camped in tent cities in Yenagoa in September 2006, since their return.
Almost immediately following the presidential visit, the state started resettling returnees to their villages and providing a one-time payment of 10,000 naira ($76 then) for resettlement and transportation back to their communities.
“Most people did not even receive [the one-time payment] because at that time, you know, hoodlums came when they were distributing the money and scattered the whole place so many people ran,” Jerry-Wemi remembered. Fewer than half the eligible returnees, he said, received what meager stipends they were due.
Samuel Numonengi, former chair of the Nigeria Union of Journalists in Bayelsa, who reported widely about the issue, said “most of the people did not know where they really came from” upon their return because some were born in Cameroon and this would naturally stall efforts to resettle them without proper planning.
The makeshift camp in Yenagoa is surrounded by shacks covered by corrugated roofing and wood. Open defecation is rife amidst a dearth of basic sanitation and hygiene facilities. The only running water in the camp was installed by a local church in April 2019.
“There is no food,” “hunger has killed me,” two old women shouted repeatedly to a reporter and cameraman who walked by their shack.
“Since 2006, when we came here, it has been hunger, sickness, no food, everything [terrible] is here,” shouted one of the women, again and again. She had not eaten all day, she said, and was battling hypertension, a stomach ulcer and a mini-stroke.
Stephen Shool, the secretary of the Yenagoa camp, nodded sympathetically, and tried to reassure the women.
“Even a well-trained dog cannot survive here, but we are surviving,” Shool said angrily.
Jerry-Wemi said malaria, typhoid fever and malnutrition are common among young and old alike in the camp.
“[In 2019] alone, we lost more than 10 adults; this year we have lost like four adults to illness,” he said, emphasizing adults to show they have lost count of babies and children who, he said, die “more frequently due to our terrible condition here.”
Lucy Benimo. (Photo by Cleopas Doubra.)
“If they were taken to the hospital and given proper treatment” they might have survived, he said. “Most people here, when they feel sick, there is no money to take them to the hospital.”
Survival has become a consuming battle for the returnees. In Yenagoa, children and women scavenge through dumpsites to sort out plastic bottles which they wash and sell to recyclers who purchase eight 75-centiliter bottles (26-ounce) for 20 naira ($0.05). Men scrape by as daily-wage laborers at construction sites.
Fifty-year-old Lucy Benimo, who runs a small store inside the Yenagoa camp, accused the government of “abandoning” them and said politicians only remember them during elections.
“After voting them [in] they will forget us,” Benimo said.
Happiness Benimo, who had hoped to attend law school. (Photo by Cleopas Doubra.)
Benimo remembered how her husband grew disillusioned about their condition in Yenagoa. He packed his bags and set out in search of better opportunities elsewhere.
“Since he left in 2016, he hasn’t returned,” she said, lowering her voice.
A mother of four, Benimo said her last child, Happiness, was only three years old when they moved to Yenagoa in 2006, but she’s 18 now and has completed secondary school.
Happiness wants to study law, but after receiving an offer to study social science education at Niger Delta University in Bayelsa in 2019, she did not matriculate for lack of funds.
“My mother suffered to pay my school fees and we hardly have enough food,” she said, averting her mother’s gaze. “I felt bad that some of my friends are in the university but I am still in this camp.”
Her mother, Lucy, is asking for empowerment programs to help households survive amid severe hardship and hunger.
“We need empowerment from the government to train our children because it [doesn’t make] sense to be ‘refugees’ in our own country,” Benimo said. “We need empowerment,” she remarked, “but please, the government should not just train us and dump us; train us and empower us with materials to start.”
Benimo is not alone. In the face of growing delays over resettlement and reintegration, Bakassi returnees have resorted to begging for job training programs that could offer a path to survival.
The National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons has been organizing training for returnees in fishery, agriculture, barbing, and soap making. But at least 20 Bakassi displaced people interviewed across Bayelsa, Cross River and Akwa Ibom complained that the support is merely scratching the surface and doesn’t get to half of those who need them.
Bakassi returnees also complain about relief materials, including those from the national commission, being diverted.
In 2018, NCFRMI supplied relief items to Bakassi returnees in Eket town in Akwa Ibom state. They included 120 sewing machines and hundreds of scissors, machine lubricating oil, measuring tapes, sewing machine threads, bathing soap, detergent, sanitary pads, toothpaste, toothbrushes, towels, and mosquito nets. The commission provided bulk quantities of medications including antibiotics like Cipro and Ampiclox syrup and capsules, the anti-parasitic medication Lumartem, Paracetamol syrup and tablets, folic acid, multivitamins and other drugs.
But Attah Edem Akanimo, one of the leaders of the Bakassi returnee camp in Eket, said that the camp leader and the local government officials “hijacked those materials” and only shared a portion of that with the displaced people.
The local government held onto the items rather than distribute them to returnees, Akanimo said. (Local government officials said they couldn’t distribute the materials without “clearance from relevant authorities” in Uyo, the state capital).
“It took more than one year before the materials were shared and that was why some materials went missing,” said Arthur Amos, then youth leader of the Bakassi camp in Eket.
“On the day the materials were distributed, because it was in the open field in the local government secretariat, a large crowd, including market people, motorcycle taxi drivers and passersby rushed into the distribution site and picked whatever items they could carry,” the youth leaders told me. “The crowd overpowered us, and most Bakassi people did not get anything.”
Akanimo also said that out of the 120 sewing machines sent to Eket, “we only saw 87 machines,” and added that the medications supplied were all missing.
He further claimed that the former vice chairman and later chairman of Eket local government, Nsikan John, tried to bribe him when he asked further questions about the missing items.
“He took me to the Assurance Hotel [in Eket town] and he offered me money,” Akanimo claimed.
John denied ever trying to bribe him and said he handed the relief materials over to the leaders of the Bakassi returnees, including Akanimo, to share with “their people because the materials were meant for the displaced people of Bakassi.”
Efoghe of NCFRMI said he has heard of “several stories” of diversion of relief materials, including the incident in Eket, but added that “I was not the zonal coordinator when it happened [and] I wouldn’t be able to say anything to that.”
Ekpo Ekpo Bassey, the state representative of the Bakassi at Cross River House of Assembly, said it is important to provide adequate resettlement and reintegration for the Bakassi people so that they “would not feel the pain of having lost their territory, their resources, their artifacts, and their historical origin or place of their birth.”
Yenagoa camp in Bayelsa state, Nigeria. (Photo by Cleopas Doubra.)
Bassey is calling for a Bakassi Rehabilitation Commission to assess the needs of the people, understand their challenges, and come up with “permanent solutions” to the crisis.
He said the commission should be led by the people who are knowledgeable about the people affected.
Meanwhile, Inyang, national coordinator of Bakassi returnees, said the frustration of refugees is growing as each promise of help seems to be overtaken by “selfishness, corruption and greed.”
“There’ll be a time when the people will rise and fight for themselves, because when the people are pushed to the wall, they will resist,” he said.
“I want to sound it to the public, I’ll sound it and sound it again, because if they want us to carry weapons, then we are ready if that is a better solution,” he warned. “It appears that those that make noise and carry weapons are those that the government looks into their welfare.”
Linus Unah is a journalist based in Nigeria, who has reported on global health, conflict, development and conservation for many outlets, including The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Mongabay and The New Humanitarian.