A publication showing the Effiat Mbo Mangrove island.

Abasifreke Effiong

The future of the 16 Akwa Ibom communities of Effiat Mbo, in Mbo local government area, at Nigeria’s maritime boundary with Cameroon has not had a mention by those campaigning either to be President of Nigeria or Governor of Akwa Ibom State. The existence of these Nigerian communities is threatened by illegal annexation activities by the republic of Cameroon. Yet, it is not an issue to these campaigners. The people are leaving the big issues to dwell on trivialities. The attempt to illegally annex the Mbo mangrove island by Cameroon has been a major issue in the news since 2014.

These communities (Ine Ekoi, Abana Ntuen, Aqua Ine Ibekwe, Atabong, Amamong, Ibiono, Utan Ibekwe, Ishie, Utan Ine Itung, Atabong East, Atabong West, Ine Mbo, Ine Odiong, Ibiono Utan Itung and Akwa Ine Utan Itung) make up the Effiat Mbo mangrove island. They lay off the west coast of Rio Del Ray (known as Akwa Akpa Yafe by Mbo people), the internationally recognised maritime boundary between Nigeria and Cameroon. Bakassi peninsula which was ceded to Cameroon in 2002 by the International Court of Justice lays to the East.

The Nigerian government is aware of the threats her citizens living in the mangrove island are facing. Indigenes of Akwa Ibom State seeking to be Governor should be even more aware. But no one is talking about it. Will the state continue to act in a knee-jerk manner until foreigners takeover the area and its abundant oil and gas resources? Information available from over 24 years of hydrographic and geological studies of the area by an indigenous maritime survey company, Crude Formations and Survey, indicate that the area has abundant oil and gas reserves with over 2600 oil wells in its territorial waters currently drilled illegally for Cameroon by Elf and Addax. The Bakassi peninsula ceded to Cameroon is rocky and mountainous, and does not have oil, the company said.

In January 2015, the House of Representatives then led by Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, as Speaker, received a motion on the illegal annexation of these Mbo communities, sponsored by Mr Robinson Uwak, who represented Oron federal constituency. At the state, the House of Assembly then led by Hon. Aniekan Uko, received a motion on the issue sponsored by Mr Samuel Ufuo, who represented Mbo state constituency at the time. The motion was referred to the House committee on boundary and conflict resolution.

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Following those public discussions, this writer did a report where residents of the area spoke extensively on the illegal activities of Cameroon in the Mbo mangrove. The report was published in major national dailies and was reviewed on major morning news progrmames. Thereafter, Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari and President Paul Biya of Cameroon met. At the meeting in Abuja on May 4, 2016, Buhari assured Cameroon that Nigeria has fully accepted the ICJ judgment ‘but the technical aspect of the international waters had yet to be fully determined’. Sadly, that diplomatic meet did not speak directly to the issue of illegal annexation of the Mbo mangrove island, probably because some of those who were
discussing the issue on big national screens confused it with Bakassi peninsula. The confusion has continued. Akwa Ibom people who are directly affected seem to have gone to sleep.

Let me make a distinction here. Some people mistake the mangrove island to mean the same area as the ceded Bakassi peninsula. They are not the same. For emphasis, the mangrove island lays west off Rio Del Ray, while Bakassi peninsula lays East of the river (Rio Del Ray). The Mbo mangrove island was not under contention during the Bakassi peninsula debacle.

For further clarity, the ICJ judgment which was based on the 1913 Anglo-German treaties, articles XVlll – XX delineate the Bakassi peninsula and places sovereignty under Cameroon. The judgment did not extend that sovereignty to areas delineated by articles XXI and XXII where the Mbo mangrove island lays. So, Cameroon is attempting to illegally annex a new area from Akwa Ibom land to itself. The mangrove lay fully and wholly within Akwa Ibom state on the map of the state creation and wholly in Nigeria going by the delineation pronounced by the ICJ.

Privileged individuals in the state have sabotaged private attempts to open up in-depth discussions on the illegal activities of Cameroonian authorities in the Mbo mangrove island. They have also stampeded attempts to expand studies in the area by advancing all sorts of misinformation owing to their lack of knowledge of the area and issues, access to relevant historical documents, understanding the ICJ judgment and sheer unwillingness and desire to know and stand by the truth, their state and nation. Yet, they will not allow people who genuinely know and are willing to guide public understanding on the issue to do so. Akwa Ibom people must be fully aware of the facts and have evidences to be able to protect that piece of nature’s awesome gift hidden offshore thousands of nautical miles away from Ibaka. The state must not lose Mbo mangrove island in like manner which the Bakassi peninsula was lost.

Akwa Ibom state should prioritize the demand for a proper and full demarcation of Nigeria’s maritime boundary with Cameroon to the President and National Assembly. Nigeria will not act if Akwa Ibom does not act. If you don’t spotlight your issue, nobody will see or hear it. Nigeria might act wrongly if Akwa Ibom doesn’t act rightly. To act right, Akwa Ibom must have a faculty of very patriotic indigenes who have done intensive, broad-spectrum study of the area, who have evidence and understand that Mbo mangrove island is in Akwa Ibom. The faculty shouldn’t harbour people who claim to know more than they actually know on this issue. Having a faculty should precede the demand.

Akwa Ibom state will not lose any of its oil wells to another state by this demand. The Director of studies/survey at Crude Formations and Survey, Mr. Godwin Ekpo, has cautioned that allowing the illegal annexation of the Mbo mangrove island by Cameroon will block Nigeria’s direct access to the southern atlantic ocean and the tripartite zone between Nigeria, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. It is this tripartite that creates the Gulf of Guinea which is used frequently as a reference feature by the Akwa Ibom state government for the proposed Ibaka deep seaport. Losing the island will narrow Nigeria’s maritime line down to Ibaka. The manifest implications of this to Akwa Ibom would be that, if the state still sites its proposed deep seaport at Ibaka, vessels coming in from Asian countries that would queue up on the sea for clearing will have a smaller space within Nigeria’s territorial waters, so they will be queuing into an area that would be under the sovereignty of Cameroon.

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Mr Ekpo said Cameroon has produced a new map of the maritime boundary with Nigeria wherein it criminally renamed Bakassi peninsula as “Erong peninsula” and the illegally annexed Efiat Mbo mangrove island as “Bakassi pennisula”. The Nigerian communities on the island have been renamed on the Cameroon map which this writer sighted in 2016.

Akwa Ibom State and the Nigerian governments have been laissez-faire about activities in its maritime border. For instance, it took a private organisation – Crude Formations and Survey – to raise the alarm when Cameroon removed pillar 113A in a bid to possibly alter the coordinates 113 and 113A.

It will be thoughtful if the governorship candidates of the seven major political parties who will be participating in the 2023 Akwa Ibom governorship debate coming up on Sunday 29th January, spare a moment to speak on the future of these threatened communities in Mbo mangrove island. The debate according to the organisers will be broadcast live on all radio and television stations in the state. It’s such a good platform to speak directly to residents of the mangrove island. Though the island is a hard-to-reach area, radio signals from some of the stations in the state are received there.