Apart from hunger and ill health ravaging the camps of displaced Bakassi indigenes, TEMITAYO FAMUTIMI uncovers the story of a 12-year-old girl whose refugee father has pushed into servitude
In the dusty village of Akwa Ikot Eyo Edem, Akpabuyo Local Government Area of Cross River State, Edet Okon sat down in front of St. Mark Primary School.
Sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor on one of the blocks of classrooms he now calls his home, the 40-year-old father of three leaned forward to exchange pleasantries with this correspondent.
Okon’s immediate family members and 963 other households had fled their ancestral homes in Efut Obot Ikot in the ceded Bakassi Peninsula in March 2013.
In the beginning
They escaped the alleged sacking of their villages and fishing posts by Cameroonian gendermanes in which some Bakassi indigenes reportedly lost their lives, while scores sustained varying degrees of life-threatening injuries.
The onslaught followed the Federal Government’s handing over of the ceded Bakassi Peninsular to Cameroon in 2007, in compliance with a 2002 International Court of Justice judgment.
After having travelled by boat and foot over several kilometers to safety, they took shelter in two of the three blocks of classrooms at St. Mark Primary School, and another classroom block at Community Secondary School in the same Akwa Ikot Eyo Edem community.
Okon, like his fellow displaced Bakassi indigenes, left behind all his property and means of livelihood, majorly fishing nets and boats, as they ran for dear life.
The Cross River State Government took responsibility for their feeding since they relocated from Bakassi. But since September 2014, relief materials, including food stuffs, have not been provided for the hundreds of displaced indigenes camped in the two schools.
The camps had literally been turned into a melting pot for hungry and largely sick refugees, many of who now live on handouts from churches and local farmers in the community.
His daughter now a collateral
Okon, who joined our correspondent on a tour of the overcrowded refugee camps, appeared less bothered about the life of squalor they now lead.
The fisherman lost his first daughter, Blessing, to the cold hands of death in September 2013, after battling with blood cancer for five months.
But Okon’s agony did not end with Blessing’s death. Indeed, he now lives in the pool of the anguish of a man who has to practically sell his child into slavery. To raise funds for the series of medical tests, drugs, feeding and hospital bills incurred by Blessing, he opted to secure loans from someone to save her dying daughter.
With no property to guarantee the loan, Okon gave up his second daughter, Mary, as collateral to secure the sum of N600, 000 given to him in installments.
Our correspondent gathered that the creditor is a civil servant based in Calabar.
“I was desperate to save Blessing from dying. Her situation had become critical at that time. That was the only thing I could do to salvage the situation. I am heartbroken,” Okon said, as his voice faded off, breaking down in tears.
As tears rolled down his cheeks, he recalled the day he ‘sold’ her daughter into servitude.
“I don’t know what came over me. It was sheer desperation I gave out my daughter so that the man would accept to give us the money,” Okon added, fighting back regrets of what many are likely to regard as condemnable.
Our correspondent reached out to the intermediary, Daniel Ufot. He helped Okon to negotiate the N600, 000 loan from the creditor. On getting to the residence of the 59-year-old Ufot, who lives some five kilometres away from the camp, our correspondent found Mary in his residence.
Ufot explained that some plain-cloth security operatives keeping watch on the camp had asked him to bring Mary from Calabar to meet with his father who he had not seen in 19 months.
“I do not know Okon from Adam. But since I’m an expert in money lending, I offered to help him after having learnt of his predicament on how he had been battling to save the life of his daughter.
“But unfortunately, he could not provide any form of collateral to secure the loan. But the creditor, in his magnanimity, agreed to have her daughter as collateral since she was the only valuable ‘thing’ he could offer,” Ufot said.
In a chat with this correspondent, Mary, who was a junior secondary school 2 pupil before they left Bakassi in March, 2013, has since dropped out of school following their displacement from the oil rich peninsular. She shared horrible tales of inhuman treatment in the hands of her father’s creditor.
Every morning, Mary hawks bottle water on the streets of Calabar, where, incidentally, Mary Slessor stopped the killing of twins. Observers may also spot the irony in the name of the legendary missionary and the enslaved Mary Okon. She added that on any day she failed to exhaust the sales of her wares, her new guardians descended heavily on her, beating her mercilessly in the process.
“The man my father is owing has three female children and some other relatives are also putting up with us in the house. They normally give me a revenue target of N1, 000 daily.
“And sometimes when the market is bad and I don’t finish selling the water, they beat me up. They treat me very badly. I eat only once in a day and that is in the morning.
“I wash all their clothes, including the ladies’ pants, and do other house chores, too. And if I hesitate on washing their pants, they get infuriated and throw objects at me at will. I will not feel happy if I go back there,” she narrated.
Yet, Ufot insisted that he only brought Mary to meet with his father as a respite since he had not set his eyes on her for about 19 months.
“There are no signs that they would be repaying the loan. I only obeyed the instruction of the security men. She will be on her way back to the creditor’s place in Calabar,” Ufot said.
When contacted, the Refugee Camp Leader, Etim Ene, confirmed to our correspondent on the telephone on Monday that Mary has indeed returned to the creditor in Calabar.
Ene said, “Mary has been taken to the creditor’s house in Calabar South. He was taken away by the guarantor, on December 2.”
Efforts by our correspondent to trace the address of the creditor, whose name is given as Asuquo Etim, said to be residing on Atimbo Road, Calabar South Local Government Area, was abortive. The creditor is said to be an employee of the Cross River State Urban Development Agency.
Ufot had earlier refused to allow Mary to travel with our correspondent to her master’s residence for fear of the unknown.
Mary’s mother was away in the farm during a visit by The Punch.
Nursing mother feeds on garri
The expectation of a baby often brings excitement and joy. But for displaced Bakassi indigenes camped in dilapidated and overcrowded classrooms in Akwa Ikot Eyo Edem village, the birth of a newborn baby cause them anxiety and sorrow.
Thirty five-year-old Nkese Peter gave birth to her fifth child, Bright, on September 27 in the camp. On sensing the economic burden the new-born baby would have on the finances of the poor family, Nkese’s husband, Simon, a Bakassi fisherman before their displacement, tried to make ends meet by taking to small scale farming.
But bad yields, occasioned by his inexperience with the agricultural activity, had made him record successive losses. Compounding their woes is the alleged failure of the Cross River State Government to provide the camps with food and other relief materials for three months running.
To keep body and soul together, Nkese, a nursing mother, now survives on garri daily. Yet, medical experts are of the opinion that a staple food like garri would do little in boosting the production of milk, a newborn is expected to feed on.
“Feeding is my major challenge. I’m facing hunger. I eat once in a day and that is garri, which I drink once in a day. The simple question I want to ask the authorities is: When are they coming to see us and resettle us? We are really suffering. We need assistance; we are not finding it easy staying here,” the distraught mother of five said in an emotion-laden voice.
Like mother, like son
Following a request by our correspondent, the only resident nurse in the camp, Patricia Asuquo, agreed to examine Nkese and Bright.
“They are both anaemic,” the medical official declared, as she pulled their lower eyelids down one after the other.
Facing two months old Bright, whose body was covered with rashes, Asuquo explained that the poor nutrition of her mother was telling greatly on his feeding and resistance to “little illnesses and body reactions.”
“The baby is not sucking any nutrients from the mother. The mother is malnourished herself, so what do we expect from the child?” Asuquo lamented.
The medical official who is in the employ of the state government explained that the poor nutrition of the displaced persons, coupled with the poor sanitary and unhealthy condition of the camp, was dealing a devastating blow to their health.
Health centre without drugs
Yet, the health centre which the nurse solely oversees had run out of drugs as of December 1 when our correspondent visited there. The only drugs she dispensed were Paracetamol and Vitamin C to patients suffering various ailments such as pneumonia, typhoid and malaria fever.
“There is no drug, there is no food. My job was easier when there were drugs. Many of their children have rashes and poxes but there are no anti-biotics to treat them. The situation is that bad.
“I think they need to experience a better life than this. Many of those suffering ailments simply lie down helplessly,” she added as she took our correspondent on an inspection of the health centre.
While expressing concern over the condition under which they live, the nurse lamented that attending to over 3,000 displaced persons in the two camps was overwhelming.
One of her major challenges, she added, was the fact that she had not had a break since 2013 when she was posted to oversee the provision of primary health care to them.
“I’m overwhelmed. That is my challenge. As a health staffer, I am supposed to run shifts and have some off days. But since I resume here in 2013, I work from morning till evening and at times I spend the night in the stuffy health centre. No offs, no shifts, no leave, no inconvenient allowances. The way they abandoned them, they have also abandoned me,” Asuquo said.
A 69-year-old widow, Bassey Eyo, lamenting the untoward hardship she had been going through since she returned from the ceded Bakassi peninsular, asked if it was fair for them to be on the receiving end of “utter neglect.”
“I have enough firewood to cook but there are no foodstuffs. How long would I continue to sleep on empty stomach?” she asked, bursting into tears.
Leader of the Bakassi returnees in the camp, Mr. Etim Ene, said the aged in the camp now “look haggard occasioned by hunger and want.”
According to him, the young returnees desperate to eke out a living are now being recruited by politicians as thugs.
“It is running into months now since food was distributed to us in this camp. Many of us have become sick due to poor nutrition. The sick ones among us go to the various churches for feeding and healing.
“It is saddening that the state government has totally abandoned the people of Bakassi. No help from the agencies. The hunger is much especially among the elderly ones.”
But the authorities are always quick to boast having resettled and rehabilitated many Bakassi returnees while also claiming to have equipped them with skills capable of making them self-reliant.
‘We are also hungry’
However, hundreds of returnees at the Obutong and Ikot Efiom resettlement centres, Bakassi Local Government Area, disagreed with the authorities during a visit by our correspondent.
The returnees in the two resettlement centres were the first set of displaced indigenes that left the ceded territories in October 2009.
They moved into the mini-flats in the resettlement centres built by the Cross River State Government in January 2010.
In spite of what many would describe as a kind gesture from the government, the “resettled” returnees described themselves as “political orphans.”
General Coordinator of the two centres, Prince Aston Joseph, said, “I hate to hear that we have been resettled. They provided over 2,800 households with 343 mini-flats and they call that resettlement.
“Bakassi people are fishermen and we marry more than one wife and give birth to a large number of children. They allocated us empty houses with no facilities. The only property given to each household is a single bed.
“Can you imagine how a family with between eight to 15 children will share a bed? When we moved in here in 2010, they only fed us for three months and since then, they abandoned us.
“No food, no rehabilitation, no resettlement. Their talk of empowerment is untrue. They only brought forms for skill acquisition and we filled and returned to them but we haven’t heard from them ever since. None of the skill acquisition programmes has been implemented here.”
Death by starvation
Lamenting the toll of hunger on the Bakassi indigenes, secretary of the returnee association in the two resettlement centres, Linus Asuquo-Essien, said one of them died of starvation in September.
The deceased, 38-year-old Edet Archibong, was said to have been complaining of starvation for weeks and had been living on food donations from his co-returnees.
“We complained to the Bakassi Local Government officials and the state government about the state of affairs with Archibong but they did not respond. People were tired of fending for him so he was left alone.
“At a point he took ill and his condition deteriorated in August. Those people who used to support him thought he had Ebola and everyone distanced themselves from him. The government officials refused to come and we lost him in the process.
“We requested that the government people should arrange for his burial, but they refused to heed our call. We had to procure gloves and we did the interment ourselves,” Asuquo-Essien explained at the site where Archibong’s remains were interred.
But the Cross River State Government said it remained committed to providing the displaced Bakassi indigenes with “mass care” and prioritising their “basic needs”.
Officials at the Governor’s Office, however, noted that it was true that the displaced Bakassi people housed in schools-turned camps in Akpabuyo Local Government Area had stopped receiving food and other relief materials since September.
‘No food for Bakassi refugees anymore’
Director General State Emergency Management Agency in the Cross River Governor’s Office, Vincent Aqua, blamed the development on the resolve of the state government to replace the distribution of food and relief materials with “conditional cash transfer of N5,000” to each household.
“We decided to replace it (foodstuffs and relief materials) with conditional cash transfer. It is easier and it helps them more as they can determine what they want to do with the money they are given.
“The Cross River State Ministry of Social Welfare is where the conditional cash transfer is domiciled and they are working out the modalities and any moment from now they would start getting it,” Aqua said.
He argued that he was aware the Bakassi returnees’ health would have been deteriorating due to starvation. “They could have a drop in their health status in very recent times. But their health condition is not too bad,” he added.
According to the SEMA DG, the Bakassi returnees in Obutong and Ikot Efiom resettlement centres have been resettled and would no longer enjoy the distribution of relief materials.
“We can no longer give food to people at the resettlement centre. They have been given accommodation and equipped with skills and empowerment tools. You cannot begin to carry out rehabilitation for people who have been resettled by the government,” he said.
Waiting for the UN
While thousands of Bakassi indigenes have since relocated from the ceded territories and returned to Nigeria to pick up the pieces of their lives after their displacement, hopes of reintegration have continued to elude them.
Sadly, as thousands of them look forward to being economically empowered and become financially self-reliant, there are no accurate statistics of the number of displaced indigenes who have yet to be resettled.
Aqua acknowledged that there was “no clear cut programme” that has been put forward for the resettlement of thousands of Bakassi refugees who have yet to be catered for.
“We have not compiled their statistics. When there is a programme we will begin to compile data to fit into the plan,” he added.
Noting that Cross River State had been carrying out “humanitarian disaster management” which runs into millions of naira, the SEMA DG lamented that the Federal Government had done little to alleviate the suffering of the Bakassi indigenes.
He explained that the state government was now looking up to the United Nations to help resettle the thousands of displaced indigenes with a view to giving them a new life.
“There is an indication that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is interested in the resettlement of the Bakassi people.
“We hope that by next year (2015) they (UNHCR) will begin to discuss with us about resettlement. We also hope that by next year the Federal Government would move towards their proper resettlement,” Aqua stated.
When contacted on the efforts by the Federal Government to permanently resettle the Bakassi refugees, Director of Press and Public Relations, Federal Ministry of the Interior, Alhaji Ade Yusuf, said, “I don’t have any information about that. If I find out, I will get back to you.”
But the National Emergency Management Agency explained that it was not aware that Bakassi returnees in housed in refugee camps and resettlement centres were starving.
NEMA South South Zonal Coordinator, Mr. Ben Oghena, told our correspondent that the Federal Government through the agency had over the years distributed “quantum of relief materials” to the returnees.
“The Cross River State government has not told us that they have been overwhelmed. They should tell us. Then we can see how we can support what the state government is doing,” Oghena stated.
Noting that NEMA had not been treating the plight of the refugees with levity, the NEMA boss observed that the agency in collaboration with relevant government agencies were looking at “permanent solutions” to the problems of the Bakassi people.
“It’s (Bakassi returnees displacement) taking too long and it’s the state (Cross River) and their local government can tell us what the plan is. The land where they will be resettled must be provided by them because it is not the Federal Government that will do that,” he added.
In 1994, the Republic of Cameroon led by its President Paul Biya, brought a case before the International Court of Justice to rule on the sovereignty of the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsular.
Before then, there had been decades of border skirmishes and palpable tension between Nigeria and Cameroon which almost degenerated into a war in 1980.
After eight years of legal tussle at The Hague, Netherlands, the ICJ in its judgment dated October 10, 2002, ruled that “sovereignty over the Bakassi Peninsula lies with Cameroon.”
The caveat, which followed the ICJ verdict, was that the judgment was “final, without appeal and binding for the parties (Nigeria and Cameroon).”
On August 14, 2008, Nigeria formally handed over the oil rich peninsular to Cameroon, withdrawing troops from the hitherto disputed region whose population are predominantly Nigerians of the Annang, Efut, Efik and Ibibio ethnic stocks.[Punch]