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Interview: “My Greatest Worry Is The Impassable Road To Bakassi”

Bernard Okalia Bilai, Governor of the South West Region, talks about the situation in Bakassi and the challenges.

One year after complete handover of Bakassi to Cameroon by Nigeria, what is the situation on the ground?

The population there is living in peace. The peaceful co-existence between Cameroonians and other nationals is good. We have not recorded any disturbances and the population there respects Cameroonian authorities, laws and regulations. People are receiving their identification cards after completing their files.

Authorities moved round to sensitise the people on identification and tax issues. The services are open, for example, in Isangele, Akwa, Ngosso, and Idabato. The population is free to apply for identification cards. Those who want to have their cards know the conditions. The cards are being issued in all the Divisional Offices in Bakassi.

Are you aware of clashes between Mosgum fishermen and the local population, especially in Bamusso?

The problem between the Mosgum Cameroonian fishermen and Nigerian fishermen is that the two communities have two different ways of fishing. Nigerians fish with hooks, while Mosgum fish with nets. So, when the former place their hooks and the latter line their nets, the sea waves sometimes blow the nets and the hooks to mix. The first who arrives to harvest the catch finds it difficult to separate the net from the hooks and the only choice would be to cut or destroy the other’s nets or hooks. In so doing, they collect the fish in the counterpart’s net or hook. This creates conflict. Recently it happened and the local authority, the Divisional Officer, had to demarcate the fishing zones for each group of fishermen so that the two fish traps do not mix again. This has helped to keep the fishing methods apart in order to reduce conflicts.

Are they respecting the decision?

We hope they respect it. Anyway, we have instructed the Divisional Officer, the Service of Marine Marchande and the Divisional Service of Fisheries, to make sure that they respect these instructions. This is the only way of avoiding confrontation. Apart from this problem, they don’t have other issues. It is just that they are living thanks to fishing. So when their fishing material is destroyed, they cannot remain indifferent.  

At the beginning of this year, you were very hot about State servants who do not reside in Bakassi. What is the situation now with the absentee civil servants of Bakassi?

They are residing there now. Some of the teachers who refused to go back had their salaries suspended this school year by us. After my tour last year, we promised to post medical doctors to Bakassi and there is one now at Idabato.

What is your latest concern about Bakassi?

My present worry is the impassable state of the road leading to Bakassi. That is the Mundemba-Isangele-Akwa Road. This road is not passable. It remains a preoccupation. I know that the Military Engineering Corps worked on that road not long ago, but maintenance should be given to a contractor who will follow up repairs permanently just like we did with the Kumba-Ekondo Titi-Mundemba stretch of the road.  In the last round of investments in Bakassi, many contracts were poorly done. These structures are already collapsing. We want only people who know the environment to be awarded contracts in Bakassi. Only such contractors can execute projects, taking into account the specificity of the area so that the infrastructure can last longer. For example, the water projects were not properly done. So, they are not functioning. We informed hierarchy so that something should be done to repair them.

Has anything been about the situation yet?

Some water projects have been repaired, but nothing can be done about others. If they were not well implemented, they cannot be repaired. It requires another investment programme. It is the same thing with solar electricity in the area. However, the electricity project at Idabato has been completed by the contractor. What is left is for him to supply fuel. He had to supply more than 10,000 litres of fuel, but because of the bad road, he said he is facing some difficulties. We have instructed him to transport the fuel by sea.

There has been the problem of absence of Cameroon TV and radio signals in Bakassi. Has anything been done about it?

The problem still exists despite efforts by government. Before the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Reunification and Independence, I pleaded with hierarchy. We prepared an investment package, particularly for Mundemba and Ekondo Titi, for the Ministry of Communication. The signals of CRTV Radio and TV covered the area, but immediately after, it appears there was a breakdown of the equipment.

As we speak, it has been reported that signals no more reach Idabato and Isangele. We informed the management of CRTV. They too seemed to be surprised, but it is a fact that signals are no longer received there. We do believe that they will send technicians to the field to correct the problem.  

You mentioned the poor execution of projects in Bakassi and we know that recently, the National Commission on Projects in Bakassi visited the area. What next?

I was not part of the visit nor of the team. The team came from the Prime Minister’s Office in Yaounde. They went to the field. They took note that the situation is not good and that the projects were not well executed. They went back. I believe that they will render account to the Head of Government and that in the next budget for Bakassi, they will be vigilant not to allow any contractor who has never been to Bakassi, who is not used to the marine environment, to win any tenders.

There are contractors who were born in Bakassi. Some are even established there. Some are here in Buea. Some are in the South West. If they are given the opportunity to work there, we can always lay hands on them at any moment. But somebody from far away Yaounde, from the Centre Region, from the North Region or from the Littoral, once he has done what he thinks fit, he simply disappears. The local authorities cannot readily lay hands on him. Such a contractor is not part of the environment to personally face the reality or consequences of his bad job.

It is not that we want to keep everything for the people of the South West or for the people of Bakassi. We simply want people who will stay there, see how the infrastructure they have worked on is functioning. This means those who will be there with the population and can take responsibility for their work. Not those who will disappear once they have signed their papers to collect their money. Such contractors abandon project sites and no longer bother about whatever happens after. We want people who will work with their hearts and minds, knowing that they are part of the society.

What is the situation with the Loum-Kumba-Ekondo Titi-Mundemba road project that is expected to reach Bakassi?

The Minister of Public Works is studying the file. A good percentage of the funds needed is already available. They are sourcing for the rest of the funds. When the funds will be available, he will launch the project. I just want to emphasize that the project is already reality as it has been retained by hierarchy and studies completed.

Is fish from Bakassi now available in Cameroonian markets since the complete handover?

That is a very important issue. Most of the fishermen in the peninsula are not Cameroonians. Access to Bakassi is not easy. It is easy for them to go to Nigeria where the market is open just by the sea side. If they want to come and sell their fish in Mundemba, the road is not passable. If they have to come by sea either to Idenau or Limbe, it is so costly. We have opened a market in Akwa for fishermen.

We opened a market at Isangele, but when the fishermen come with their fish, they wait for buyers. Some retailers or “buyam sellams” who succeed to go there in the dry season offer very low prices because of transport challenges. It is a matter of having a good access road for people to go there. Once the fish market is accessible to most Cameroonians, then we can add other measures to discourage selling fish elsewhere. We plead with Cameroonian business people who have the means like ships to go there and buy the fish and bring to Limbe or to Douala.

The FCFA is still ignored in Bakassi as the people continue to use the Naira. Does the administration view it as a problem?

Yes, it is a very important issue. But it is because of what I have explained. Most of the transactions are with people in Nigerian border towns. A good portion of the population in Bakassi is Nigerian. When the road will be passable and fish market accessible to most Cameroonians, there will be no use for Naira. If Cameroonians buy in Bakassi, they will do so in FCFA. But since those who are buying now are Nigerians, they use their currency. It is not a situation that can be cancelled by a Governor’s decision or instruction. Most of the economic activities in Bakassi are with Nigeria because of lack of accessibility to Cameroonians.

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