The plights of Bakassi returnees were compounded last week as members of their host community reportedly attacked, dispossessed and forced them out of their farms, and seized their yields and stores.
Fifty-eight-year-old Madam Makamba Effiom, a widow, was one of the women manhandled and kicked out of the farm settlement.
“I had a small poultry with a good number of chickens. I also planted some water melons. But the people of Ikpa Nkanya Eyo Edem village, where the government gave us a farm settlement, came and beat me and other Bakassi returnees mercilessly.
“They forced every one of us out of the settlement where we had thought would become our home, and would provide us a source of livelihood after we were dislocated from our original Bakassi fishing settlement now in Cameroon,” she lamented.
Another affected returnee is Aret Cobham who is in her late 60s. She too lost several melon plants and cucumbers.
“It has been another round of frustrations and pains. This time from our own people. The bodily pains they have inflicted on us have been excruciating. But that really is not worrisome. Just when we thought we would gain financial freedom as a result of farm produce, our landlords thought that we are going to become richer and more comfortable than them.
“Look at me, will my sufferings continue endlessly? We were chased away from our fishing port in Bakassi. And when Ayade (former Cross River Governor) built us an estate and we thought we could find peace, they came and destroyed everything,” she said while fighting to hold back her tears.
A good number of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) alleged that they have again been displaced and asked to leave the government acquired farm settlement in Ikpa Nkanya Eyo Edem village.
Recounting the ordeals of the IDPs to journalists, the leader of the returnees, Chief Etim Okon Ene, said “We have lost the following in the recent attack: 10,000 stands of water melon plants, 200,000 stands of peppers nursery, 10,000 stands of cucumbers, 5,000 stands of pepper farm (harvested), 100 stands of paw-paw damaged, 1,000 stands of plantain harvested by them.
“Damages at our garri mill include Fryer, Presser, Grinding machine, Shifter, damages of shelter.
“At our Poultry Store/Fertilizer Store, we lost 3,000 bags of farm yard manure from chicken, 100 birds, 200 cartons of insecticide among others,” he enumerated.
Ene said he was in Calabar to seek the state government’s intervention on their current predicament as he alleged that the host community destroyed their 10-hectare farm.
He explained that the Bakassi returnees were attacked and driven out from their farmland by the indigenes of Ikpa Nkanya Eyo Edem community who are their host.
The camp leader hinted that their hosts became aggrieved, furious and possibly jealous because the returnees had received training on greenhouse farming with the support of the United Nations.
He said as a result of the training facilitated by an NGO ‘Care for Social Welfare’ and other support, their crops were doing well to the envy of the host community.
Chief Ene also explained that trouble started when the host community demanded to be included in the farm project.
The host alleged that “the state government did not pay them compensation for the farm they acquired for the Bakassi returnees.
“In fact, some leaders of the host community, upon realising that the farm project has become a reality, sought to stop the project. They demanded 30 per cent inclusion even though 5 per cent inclusion was given for their women who were part of the training of 200 Bakassi women by the UN Programme on Women Household Empowerment Project.”
Ene disclosed that he was arrested and incarcerated on alleged trumped-up charges of conspiracy to murder in the leadership tussle of the host community of which neither him nor their leader was a party. He said his brief absence gave the host impetus to halt the farm project.
“When I was not around, they went further to use communal authority and vigilante groups to stall the project, pursue and scatter our people, kill the ones they catch, break our stores, cart away everything, destroy our makeshift oil mills and cassava processing mills, stealing everything in sight.
“They also sought to redirect the project from our settlement to their own side of the community as well as banning our people from every farming activity; our only means of subsistence.
“Our prayer is for the state government to intervene to enable us to go back to our farms, the source of our food and sustenance,” he said.
The returnees’ leader further disclosed that they had since registered as a cooperative called Bakassi Returnees Less Privileged Multi-Purpose Co-operative Society Limited which helped them to get donor support from different bodies.
Ene said: “The state government under the administration of former Governor Ben Ayade built and furnished 50 units of 2-bedroom flats as estate for Bakassi returnees in Ifiang.
“It was handed over to us and we had some flats being occupied by up to ten families in one building. Unfortunately for us, the Ifiang people vandalized the entire estate in the guise of ‘End SARS Protest’ in 2020 and we had to return to the settlement that was acquired by the state government in Ikpa Nkanya.”
Ene pointed out that their experience has shown that the host community is not comfortable with the attention their plight has attracted from donor agencies.
According to him, the host often struggles with any palliatives or monetary assistance from governments, groups or international donor agencies with them, thereby leaving them empty in some instances.
“As a people whose only means of livelihood is farming as we no longer have access to the sea for fishing, we are very mindful of our activities in order not to incur the wrath of the host community,” he noted.
The IDPs also want the government to help beef up security in the camp, including provision of solar powered street lights, security posts and surveillance.
However, in an interview, one of the host community leaders, Chief Enebong Asuquo, alleged that the Bakassi returnees spread beyond their allotted portions and refused to abide by community rules.
Asuquo denied that they attacked or drove them out of their community.
“We know the implications of such actions. We could not have done that. Perhaps one or two incidents occurred and it has become generalised.
“It is not also true that we struggled palliatives with them,” he said.
The Public Relation Officer of the Cross River Police Command, Irene Ugbo, when contacted said the police have not been officially briefed about the allegation of attacks or maltreatment of the Bakassi returnees.