This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 03 ABUJA 002337
LONDON FOR GURNEY PARIS FOR NEARY
E.O. 12958: DECL: 1.6X5, 1.6X6 TAGS: PREL PBTS MOPS CM FR NI SUBJECT: NIGERIA: PRESIDENT OBASANJO AND A/S KANSTEINER DISCUSS BAKASSI
REF: ABUJA 2268
CLASSIFIED BY AMBASSADOR HOWARD F. JETER. REASON 1.6X5 AND 1.6X6.
1. (C) Summary. During their July 25 meeting at Aso Rock Villa, President Obasanjo and Assistant Secretary Kansteiner discussed major regional conflicts and the potential crisis on Nigeria's southeastern border -- the Bakassi. This cable reports the discussion on Bakassi. Other topics are reported septel.
2. (S) On Bakassi, President Obasanjo asked our help urging Cameroon toward a negotiated "political solution" rather than waiting for a winner-take-all ICJ judgment that might heighten tensions between the two countries. Joining President Obasanjo in the meeting were NSA Aliyu Mohammed, Minister of Cooperation and African Integration Bimbola Ogunkelu, the President's Chief of Staff and MFA Americas Officer Director Basil Ukpong. Ambassador Jeter, Lagos Consul General Hinson-Jones, A/S Senior Special Advisor Jim Dunlap and PolCouns (notetaker) accompanied A/S Kansteiner. End Summary.
Bakassi Is A Problem!
3. (C) During most of this 90-minute meeting, Obasanjo was in relaxed good spirits. But as discussions swung toward Bakassi, the President's look turned to one of deep concern and his speaking cadence became more deliberate, as if to underscore the gravity of the situation.
4. (C) When he was military Head of State, Obasanjo recalled, the border friction with Cameroon was contained and had not assumed the ominous significance it has today. Twenty some years ago, he was able to manage difficulties and maintain good rapport with Cameroon's leader Ahidjo. Successor leaders in both countries, unfortunately, allowed the dispute to percolate. (Comment: Obasanjo offered his personal historical perspective to set the stage for his request to us. In attesting to his own "innocence," he also was casting blame at the military rulers who followed him. Because someone got him into this mess, he feels he has the moral standing to ask someone else -- the United States and others -- to help him out of it. End Comment.)
5. (S) Immediately after his 1999 election, Obasanjo made a goodwill visit to Yaounde. At that time Biya wanted to discuss Bakassi; however, believing the discussion inappropriate since he was not yet inaugurated, Obasanjo demurred, saying he lacked the authority to consult at that time. Once sworn in, he would eagerly talk Bakassi, Obasanjo told the Cameroonian. Obasanjo told Biya that he had come so soon after the election as a goodwill gesture but that he could not discuss such a weighty matter without formally being in office. That his temporary reticence came when the moody Biya was ready to talk might have permanently "turned Biya off" from talking to him, Obasanjo speculated.
6. (S) Since taking office, Obasanjo tried several times to communicate but Biya has rebuffed him and his emissaries at every turn. Believing Cameroon might listen to the French, Obasanjo raised Bakassi with President Chirac, asking the Gallic leader to act as an intermediary. He recalled translating for Chirac a Yoruba adage " that you don't go to court against someone and come back as friends." Obasanjo advised Chirac to take the "African way" by not labeling either party as completely right or absolutely wrong; instead, he counseled the French President to apportion both blame and credit to each side. This way neither side would lose face or gloat completely. Chirac initially accepted the assignment with enthusiasm; however, after talking to Biya, Chirac's enthusiasm waned. Biya, confident of his chances before the ICJ, had turned a stubborn and deaf ear to the French President.
7. (S) Obasanjo and Chirac had their most recent discussion on Bakassi on the margin of the Kananaskis G-8 Summit. During this meeting, Obasanjo stressed a court decision completely negating all Nigerian claims would be very "hard to swallow politically." However, he explained, a "political solution" could be fashioned to make the negative impact more gradual and thus more palatable. Even if Bakassi inhabitants had to change their nationality, a deliberate approach that protected their rights and did not generate upheaval or panic should be explored, Obasanjo told Chirac. At the end of their talks, Obasanjo asked Chirac to intercede once more. Chirac responded that he would raise the matter with Kofi Annan and ask Annan to talk to Obasanjo. (Comment: Apparently, Obasanjo was unable to elicit from Chirac a firm commitment to talk to Biya; if Chirac had committed, Obasanjo probably would have told us. From Obasanjo's own rendition of his last encounter with the French leader, Chirac seemed less than keen on revisiting this matter with Biya. Attempting to pass the baton, Chirac appears to be pushing Kofi Annan into the spot Obasanjo wants Chirac to occupy. End Comment.)
8. (S) In their conversation, Obasanjo told Annan that Nigeria had established a senior level implementation commission to plan how to handle the ICJ decision, whether negative or positive. He stressed to Annan, however, that Nigeria and Cameroon should be working toward a peaceful political solution before the verdict. Annan endorsed the idea, according to Obasanjo. Obasanjo then asked Annan to discuss this approach with Chirac. (Comment: Obasanjo has initiated a diplomatic round-robin that thus far has yielded only half of what he seeks. He talked to Chirac who shuffled him to Annan as the one to see. He conferred with Annan whom he asked to talk to Chirac. Seems the trio agree on a general approach, but Obasanjo does not appear to have successfully convinced either Chirac (again) or Annan (first time) to approach Biya directly. End comment.)
9. (S) Irrespective of the outcome of the ICJ verdict, Obasanjo told Kansteiner, both nations would have to cooperate to implement cardinal aspects of the verdict dealing with boundary demarcation and movement of people. Awkward as it might be, Nigeria was open to talk because it could not wish Cameroon away. Try as he could, Biya "might be able to wish me away but he could not wish Nigeria away," Obasanjo quipped. Obasanjo added that while he wanted to work for a peaceful solution, the GON was receiving reports of increased harassment of Nigerian inhabitants in the Bakassi by Cameroonian authorities. These reports only increased the temperature and could be a source of provocation, the President implied. (Comment: Alluding to his domestic political woes, Obasanjo half-joked that before long Biya's wish to be rid of him might come true. End Comment.)
10. (S) A/S Kansteiner responded the USG wanted Bakassi resolved peacefully; therefore, we would help where possible but our influence with Biya was less than that of France. Kansteiner mentioned new French Foreign Minister de Villepin, although only a few months on the job, had taken a keen interest in things African. Nigeria would likely find France's new top diplomat a helpful interlocutor. Kansteiner offered that we would be willing to raise Bakassi with de Villepin. Perking up somewhat, Obasanjo interjected that working through the French Foreign Minister might be a good avenue to encourage France to re-engage Biya.
11. (S) Immediately before the session with the President, A/S Kansteiner met NSA Aliyu Mohammed where Bakassi was also discussed. Mohammed claimed Nigeria was prepared to forcibly settle Bakassi 20 years ago but President Shagari refused to go to war. Since then, there had been numerous flare-ups regarding the peninsula. With the advent of the Obasanjo Administration, Mohammed claimed the GON had done its utmost to talk to Biya. However, the Cameroonian, smug in the belief that he has the stronger legal case, rebuffed every Nigerian overture. Mohammed recalled going to London with a letter from President Obasanjo to hand to Biya, only to discover that Biya had scotched the rendezvous at the last minute, even though the two were staying at the same hotel. After summarizing Obasanjo's efforts with Chirac and Annan, Mohammed stressed the GON wanted to be engaged in negotiations with Cameroon quickly in order to resolve the matter by November, the month the Nigerians project the ICJ will render its decision.
12. (S) Clearly, President Obasanjo and his foreign policy team are deeply concerned about Bakassi. Obasanjo did not explicitly state Nigeria would go to war if it lost the ICJ case and if Biya remains steadfastly intransigent. However, with the President twice stressing his hope for a "peaceful political solution," the implication is inescapable that a Nigerian military response is possible should Biya continue to refuse to engage. To a degree, some of these dire insinuations may be to stoke the USG, the French and others to intercede. Nevertheless, this is not simply a negotiating tactic. Nigerian concern is real that domestic pressures might compel a military response if Cameroon overplays its hand by refusing even the possibility of negotiations.
13. (S) To lessen the possibility of military action, Biya and Obasanjo should talk. Herein, lies the rub. While Obasanjo might have gotten sympathetic hearings from Annan and Chirac, neither apparently committed to directly asking Biya to soften. Obasanjo is now asking the USG to approach Biya as well as to persuade the French to do so. Biya will be a very difficult sell. While we defer to the opinion of our colleagues in Yaounde regarding Biya's modes and moods, convincing him to negotiate will likely take a lot more than a subtle nudge. What advantage does he derive by removing from the game the ICJ trump card he currently holds in order for the Nigerians to have their desire for a reshuffled deck? For negotiations to have a chance, it appears the parties would have to agree that the expected outcome of the ICJ opinion should be the "informal basis," the starting point for apportioning the relative rights, claims and duties of the two sides in a compromise arrangement on the Bakassi.
14. (S) Ambassador Jeter has briefed French Ambassador Simon on the Obasanjo-Kansteiner discussion of Bakassi. Simon was grateful and agreed with the proposed approach of us engaging Foreign Minister de Villepin. Simon is a close friend of de Villepin and thinks the Foreign Minister will try to be helpful. Simon also believes Chirac has more influence with Biya than anyone else; nonetheless, Simon is uncertain that Biya will listen to anyone, including his respected mentor. JETER