Prince Bola Ajibola is rated as one of the 50 most influential Muslims in the world. Ajibola is a former head of the Nigerian High Commission in London and the president and founder of the Islamic Movement for Africa; served as the vice chairman of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague between 1991 and 1994 and served as the Attorney General and Minister of Justice in Nigeria. Most recently he founded the Crescent University, in Abeokuta, Nigeria.
Interestingly, a Nigerian, Prince Bola Ajibola, was one of the 17 judges who presided over the matter at the World Court, and he also led the delegation of Nigeria to that commission.
In this interview, the 82-year-old Ajibola, shares his experience as a former judge in the World Court and gave insight into why Nigeria lost Bakassi to Cameroon.
Just only three Nigerians have served in the World Court, how did you get the nomination?
Yes, I think about three of us; Teslim Elias, Dadi Onyeama and myself have served in the court. Adolphus Karibi-White served at the International Criminal Court. Before getting to that seat, there were challenges. To get to that status, you need to have very good character. Being brilliant is not enough; there is need for sound character and one must be prompt, which is very important to people in other parts of the world. On how I got there or how the nomination happened, that might require writing a book, because you cannot boast of having the ability, capability or the know-how of getting to a place like that, regardless of your knowledge. You could possibly try but there wasn’t a definite way to it. If you are thinking of being employed by a bank, you could possibly have started by studying Banking in the university, and possibly have the feeling that that could get you to any bank. That is normal, natural and possible. But to get to the International Court of Justice, two plus two may not give you four. It could be one, two or even 20. After the death of Elias, who was then the president of the court, someone mentioned it to me but I told the person I wasn’t too ambitious. Elias died on August 14, 1991 and after that, they were looking for someone who could stand for the election to replace him. One day, Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji came to our office at the Ministry of Justice and told me to be up and doing with regards to the post of a judge at the World Court that had become vacant and that we must be part of the election. I was the Minister then. So, I called someone in my office, known as Deinde, and told him to prepare a letter for the CJN, Mohammed Bello. I felt he was the right person to go there. I said he should offer the CJN if he would be interested to go to the World Court. Deinde went back to his office and wrote that I was the most qualified to go to the World Court and he wrote extensively on my achievements and why I was qualified. That was not what I sent him. At that time, I was in the International Law Commission, which is always where they get the materials to go to the court from. I got the paper he prepared, not knowing what he wrote, and headed for the office of the Chief Justice. I was about getting there when I opened the paper and saw that he wrote about me instead of a letter of offer to the CJN. I kept the paper and discussed the matter with the CJN verbally and I told him why he should be the one to go. He said I was the right person to go to the court and he said he would mention it to the President (Gen. Ibrahim Babangida) and he did. That was how we started. The struggle was very tough, but thank God for His grace. Like I said earlier, I thank God for the role I was able to play while I was there.
Do you recall other notable experiences you had there?
Before I got there, I had been involved in a lot of adjudicatory and judicial matters all over the world, particularly Paris, for international arbitration matters. And, from that time, I have learnt the European’s adherence to time and the way they worship time. To them, time determines who is in the third world, who is in the backward world and who is in the world. They never considered us to be part of anything. As far as they are concerned, we are from undeveloped countries because of our attitude to time. It was when we started making noise that they started describing us as developing countries. In fact, in their books, we are under-developed countries. And they started judging us from our attitude to time. Let the people know that fact. I knew that from the beginning of my services among them. Therefore, I was never late to any of their assignments and meetings. The most serious part of this matter came while I became a judge of the ICJ. For example, they would write to us that there would be a meeting of the judges at a certain time and we should all come in and attend the meeting at 9:15am. Usually, I would get there precisely at 9:15am. People need to take note of all these things so that they don’t go and mess up when they get there. I was always getting there at that time and they would all have been seated and discussing the matter of the day. I would then see myself as someone coming late. But in the midst of them, there was one I had chosen to be my good friend and mentor, from China. I went to meet him and I asked what was happening because I knew I was never late, yet, before I arrived and before the time they set for the meeting, they would have started the meeting. I asked him if they gave themselves another time, different from my own. He was 90 then and I was still running close to be 60, so he said as far as the court was concerned, 9:15am meant 9:00am because you must be there before the time on your letter, urging you to be there 15 minutes before, and as a matter of fact, if you want to keep the time of the court, you must be there before 9:00am, and not later than 9:15am. That was what he told me. He said that happened to be one of the reasons why Europeans do refer to us as people from under-developed world because to them, we had not developed. He said with such late-coming, somebody else could have seen such a person as being unreliable, undependable, unreasonable when it comes to keeping to time, and that would militate against anything they had to do with you in that court or outside it. The second meeting after that time, they noticed that I had got the message. They never told me anything, they just smiled about it, but I knew that they got the idea that I must have been told by someone what the meaning of 9:15 was. From that time on, I was always there at 9:00am. So, it was an interesting time.
It’s been 14 years since the International Court of Justice gave the judgement that ceded Bakassi to Cameroon and you happened to be one of the judges that adjudicated on the matter. What comes to your mind when you remember that episode?
Let us thank God and people with conscience and good understanding that Nigeria handled the matter the way it did. And I thank God that I played that singular role for Nigeria. In my life, I won’t forget it; never. When I look at some activities going on in Nigeria now, I keep congratulating myself from within. I’m not in the habit of relaying it or playing back the record, because it was a terrible time; an unfortunate time, but I did my best as a true and conscientious, reasonable Nigerian, saving this nation. I had that opportunity of saving this nation and I did.
Some people feel Nigeria should not have lost that case because it had been in occupation of that land for long and a number of the residents there are Nigerians. What made Nigeria to lose that case?
All the documents and evidence before the court were all pointing to the ownership of that place as being part of Cameroon. Also, our people in Nigeria had also said that we did not own Bakassi. In fact, our then Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Teslim Elias, also made a statement that Bakassi was not part of Nigeria. That was our own minister. But even before our minister said that, Jaja Wachuku, who was then our Foreign Affairs minister, already said it two years after we got our independence; 1962, that Bakassi was part and parcel of Cameroon. They had all said so, but that was not all. Our maps all indicated that all that area of Bakassi was not part of Nigeria. It was after Cameroon had taken the matter to court and we had already started going to court that we changed our map. The original map that we had about that area was carved into Cameroon. So, those were also issues. Years ago, Germany bought that part of Bakassi and when the land was being partitioned, after taking care of Germany out of the whole enclave, it fell into the hand of France and France ceded it to Cameroon. That was it, and that was part of what was contained in the judgement that was given in favour of Cameroon at that time. But a lot of all those were argued in favour of Nigeria, against Cameroon, when I wrote my dissenting judgement.
Not everybody knew you wrote a dissenting judgement. What was your position?
I wrote my own dissenting judgement against the judgement of the majority of my colleagues in the court. I made it clear in my judgement that in the judgement the court gave on Burkina Faso, if you have possession for a certain period of time, you are as good as having the ownership of the place. That was my position and I told the rest of my colleagues who all favoured Bakassi land as belonging to Cameroon. But 17 of us sat and about two or three of us gave dissenting opinions. We were in the minority and it wasn’t a number that could make it. That is the dead end of it, unfortunately. When we were asked to give an explanation on our positions, it would just be a short statement.
You once said that Nigeria has a lot to be thankful for in that case despite losing Bakassi. What is there to be happy about?
Judgement was given at the International Court of Justice against our holding on to Bakassi but the judgement of the World Court was generally in our favour, except of course the matter of Bakassi. But Bakassi was not the only matter Cameroon brought before the court against Nigeria. There were about six major issues brought to the court by Cameroon, including criminal offence; that Nigeria unjustifiably took over its land. That was defeated, I mean Nigeria won. Again, they fought us on some land inside Nigeria which they had seized and occupied in the eastern part, which we got back. Also, there was the very toughly contested issue of maritime boundary in which they tried to acquire a large portion of southern Nigeria into Cameroon, but they also failed in that because we really fought that seriously and we won that too and the land was retrieved from them. So, as a matter of fact, we gained because they lost most of these matters; four out of five, but the issue of Bakassi was a different kettle of fish. In Bakassi, there are still the remnants of Cameroonians staying there and part of that area was at that time occupied by Nigerians. So, Cameroon was still in possession and that also explains why those in that part of Nigeria still have some representations in some quarters, due to the strip of land that is within Nigeria. There is no problem about that and Cameroon is not even claiming that. It is what Nigeria calls its own Bakassi.
People have also expressed some concern that the part Nigeria lost to Cameroon is an oil-rich region. Isn’t that painful?
It is all nonsense to say that Nigeria lost to Cameroon. What did Nigeria lose to Cameroon? According to the Latin phrase, ‘Nemo dat quod non habet,’ meaning you cannot lose what you don’t have. Bakassi was never yours. Your own people like those I mentioned earlier said it wasn’t yours. Why should you take to yourself what does not belong to you. But apart from all that, if you look at my judgement, I still argued with a case from Burkina Faso, which came to our court, and relying on that, I said having the possession should be able to confer on us the ownership of that part of Cameroon. Quite seriously speaking, that wasn’t an opinion shared by all the other judges of the court. It was just a minority position and that was why it was a dissenting judgement.
Some people feel Nigeria was hasty in giving up the land, and that it could have delayed it. What could have happened if we hadn’t done that?
The fact is that, perhaps till now, we would still have been at war with Cameroon. All that someone like me and others did was not to allow such a thing to happen. We would have been at war. We prevented that, with all the roles that we played with others, having regard to the committee we initiated in Nigeria as part of the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission. That was what prevented it.
There were reports that Cameroon had already procured some weapons from Russia to use in engaging Nigeria. Do you think it was that bad?
It was not only Russia. Precisely what is now going on in Syria is exactly the situation we would have been in here, all along, and perhaps till now. Because not only Russia, China, France and Malaysia were with Cameroon, some other countries were standing in-between, watching when the whole matter would start. In fact, when we got to America, I went to Washington on this matter and the authorities in America at that time were really astounded that the war had not started, and they told me that the war would soon start in that place. That was it. We tried our best to prevent the war from happening and it did not happen. It would not have been a war between ourselves; it would have been a war between Nigeria, on one side, and Cameroon, China, Malaysia, France and Russia on the other side. Where would Nigeria have been? We would have been exactly another Syria. We would have been ruined. But with the commission that was set up, that did not happen. This country was saved from total war, an annihilating war, a kind of Armageddon, a kind of endless war that would have engulfed everybody here because the nations that would have fought the war were there waiting. They have done it with the spring wars. They went to Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and now they are dealing death and destruction on Syria. Their motive is simple, to destroy and obliterate the whole of these nations, all in the North and all Islamic nations and testing their new weapons just to ensure absolute destruction. So, we were able to prevent that.
It seems Nigeria has not given up on that loss and so much has been said on whether the judgement can be appealed or not. What is the true situation?
There is no room for appeal at the International Court of Justice. What is given is given and cannot be undone. You may ask the court to explain the judgement it already gave. That is how definite the judgement of the court is. They don’t sit on appeal on their matter; it is never allowed. They could review or explain, but they will never set up an appellate body to decide again what has already been decided, and whatever judgement had already been given is final and binding. That judgement that was given on October 10, 2002 is final and there is nothing we can do about it.
You once said even if Nigeria wants to apply to the court to review or explain the judgement, there are also stringent conditions. What about that?
Yes, there are stringent conditions, but the court will only strictly interpret the content of its judgement, which is the decision of the majority.
A number of the affected residents of Bakassi are from Cross River and Akwa Ibom states. Now that they are in Cameroon, do they have free entry into Nigeria?
I think they have the right to come to Nigeria and the right to be Nigerians in Nigeria. Let me tell you certain things about this situation. Nigeria is big, within Africa. On the upper part, we have Niger Republic, and close to that upper part towards the east, we have Chad. In the south, we have Equatorial Guinea and we were able to settle our problems with Equatorial Guinea. We also had problems with Chad but we were able to settle the area whereby the eastern part went to Chad and the western part of it came to Nigeria. But a lot of the boundary land from Chad up to the South in Equatorial Guinea had already been occupied and taken by Cameroon, but we were able to get all that ceded back to Nigeria. So, the people who were deprived of their land before then were able to have their land back. That was the good effect of the commission that tried to ensure peace between Cameroon and Nigeria and we did that excellently well.
NB: This interview was first published in the Punch Newspaper.