By Chidi Onyemaizu
Standing at the bank of the river, the Republic of Cameroon coldly stares at Ifiang Ayong, a sleepy riverine community in Bakassi Local Government Area of Cross River State.
In fact, Ifiang Ayong is cut off from the rest of Nigeria in terms of telecommunication network connections. It is not connected to any of the telecom networks operating in Nigeria. Rather, what appears on your mobile phone is MTN Orange- operating from Cameroon.
So, on this misty Friday, May 29,2020, Ifiang Ayong, came alive as dignitaries from all walks of life massed there to witness an epochal and life- changing event.
On the left, adjecent the bank of the river separating Cross River from Cameroon is an ultra-modern Estate comprising 52 units of 2- bedroom bungalows built by governor Ben Ayade.
He did not build it for commercial purposes; the sprawling Estate, fully furnished and complete with essential amenities, is the new home to the displaced Bakassi people who lost their ancestral land, homes and livelihoods to the the Republic of Cameroon in 2002 following the ceding of the Peninsula to the Central Africa country.
The long suffering displaced people who have lived in squalid conditions in a primary School in Akpabuyo for many years, are to own the houses in perpetuity thus bringing their misery to end.
And so, as the displaced Bakassi indigenes arrived Ifiang Ayong to begin a new life, many of them, pointing towards the direction of the river could be heard, marooned in nostalgic murmurings, intermittently reeling out names of what was once their towns and villages, just across the river in Cameroon where tombs and bones of their ancestors still lay
As they called out the names of the settlements they had abandoned and fled into safety in Nigeria, droplets of tears could be seen cascading down cheeks of many of them.
Ecstasy was palpable as they made their way into the Estate. Their emotions were a cyclone of twisting agony borne over the years as vividly exhibited by an octogenarian IDP who could not hide both her joy and agony.
Dressed in a faded white top over a partly torn wrapper, the old woman mutters few words in Efik and then directs a gaze skyward with hands stretched towards a 2- bedroom bungalow opposite.
Suddenly, she breaks into a slow- motion dance, her frail body grudgingly acceding.
Minutes later, she brings the dance to an abrupt stop as her mouth twists in a smile.
Just at that moment, a middle aged woman whispers something to her and both women dissolve into tears.
Some metres away, men, women and children looking gaunt with sunken eyes, clad in faded clothes and armed some decrepit household items swarm round another bungalow.
Voices confessing admiration could be heard but they were not loud enough to drown the compere’s own voice wafting from the public address system announcing the arrival of dignitaries.
It was a day that restored the dignity of a people who had been shabbily treated over the years.
Senator Florence Ita- Giwa, a prominent Bakassi indigene, who has been stridently championing the cause of the displaced people wept as Governor Ayade, assisted by the Obong of Calabar, His Eminence Edidem Ekpo Okon Abasi Otu V, handed over the keys to the buildings to the ecstatic beneficiaries.
Some of the beneficiaries, mostly looking frail, also shed tears of joy as keys to their houses were handed them.
There were more emotional scenes when a key to one of the houses was given to one of the oldest IDP who is also a widow.
She could not contain her joy as Ayade shared a meal with her in her new house in addition to donating N500,000 to her.
Speaking at the event, Ayade expressed delight at the completion of the housing scheme and subsequent delivery to the displaced persons, adding that their suffering has always tugged at his heart.
“My first tears for the people of Bakassi was when I was a senator on the floor of the Nigerian Senate which prompted me to push for a bill for the establishment of social housing and the making of housing for all a right,” said Ayade.
Expressing delight at the realisation of the housing project, the governor said he feels “a sense of fulfillment to see my sons, my aunties, my mothers and fathers who lived in a clustered accomodation in a primary school with mosquitoes feasting on them now moving into their new homes.
“Today, by the grace of God, by the instrumentality of the holy ghost, we are here gathered to celebrate the plethora of opportunities where people will be living in a world class estate.”
The governor bemoaned the loss of the peninsula, saying the ceding did not follow internationally prescribed process.
His words: “Today is not just about the joy to the people of Bakassi, it is the supremacy of the governance of a sensitive people over the failure of the federal government to be responsible for the pain of the people of Bakassi.
“The ceding of Bakassi did not follow any legal authority. It is inconsistent with the provisions of our constitution because the Constitution is very clear that for you to cede any territory of Nigeria you must have a proper plebiscite, you must have the domestication of such ceding and ratified by the National Assembly. Until you do so whatever you have done is null and void.”
Ayade stated that by resettling the returnees in decent houses, their misery has come to an end.
He announced the donation of N50million and other economic incentives to them to enable them earn a living.
“This is the first social housing scheme in Nigeria in absolute terms where the ownership is in perpetuity, where the property is yours to keep forever. We will continue to expand it. This is not a shelter, this is housing. It has amenities, it has power, it has water, it has all the utilities you will need. It has solar lighting, it has the generator and the 3rd grid which is the national grid. But today I am going to assure you that we have acquired boats which are by the water side to enable you do fishing for those who can fish.
“We have also made provisions for a take off grant of N50million to support all of you who live here who want to start small businesses. And the good news here is that I have no elections to run so you can see clearly this is not politics, it is from my heart. But I call on the people of Bakassi to be strong because your kids will grow to become leaders someday and when they grow they will do much more than I have done here today.”
Governor Ayade appealed to President Muhammadu to fulfil his campaign promises to the Bakassi people whom he said have suffered untold neglects in the last 18 years.
Earlier, Senator Giwa who is the Chairman of the resettlement allocation committee said her committee went through a rigorous process to ensure equitable allocation of the houses to the Internally Displaced Persons.
Describing the expansive estate as a “new city in a remote place,” Senator Giwa thanked the governor for fulfilling his promise to Bakassi people.
Chidi Onyemaizu is Senior Special Assistant on Print Media to Governor Ayade