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By Gilbert da Costa
Abuja
07 August 2006

Hundreds of residents of Nigeria's disputed Bakassi peninsula have held an "independence" ceremony to highlight opposition to the government's plan to hand over the oil-rich region to Cameroon.

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Nigeria
A group of Bakassi residents, mostly youths, declared the independent "Democratic Republic of Bakassi" Sunday. The ceremony was designed as a signal to the government of growing opposition to the transfer plan, and what residents say are inadequate proposals for those who wish to remain Nigerian citizens.

Nigerian troops are to begin pulling out of the area this month, paving the way for a full transfer within two years.

Under an agreement reached by the leaders of Cameroon and Nigeria last June, those living in the area can choose to leave the territory, or stay and become Cameroonian citizens, or Nigerians residing in Cameroonian territory.

Most of the area's 300,000 residents have rejected these options, and would prefer the status quo to remain. The Bakassi Self Determination Movement, which convened the so-called independence ceremony on Sunday, said it had no choice but to take the destiny of the embattled people in hand.

Femi Falana, a Lagos-based lawyer, who has filed a legal challenge to the proposed handover on behalf of the Bakassi people, says a declaration of independence is justified because, he says, the handover deal is illegal.

"A treaty cannot have the force of law in Nigeria, unless it has been enacted into law by the National Assembly," he said. "Secondly, Bakassi local government remains part of Nigeria under the constitution. Furthermore, these people are saying, there has been no alternative arrangement s for them, in terms of accommodation and schools for their children and the rest of them. And, so, I think, to that extent, I think, they have the right to declare where they want to belong to."

An Abuja court will this week begin hearing the legal challenge filed last month by Falana. Bakassi residents are asking the court to declare the handover a violation of the Nigerian constitution.

In 2002, the International Court of Justice ruled that the oil-rich peninsula belonged to Cameroon. The Nigerian government, which accepted the verdict, has come under profound criticism especially from the Nigerians residing on the peninsula.

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