Africa: "When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers."

When Nigeria handed over a disputed peninsula to Cameroon last year, it looked a lot like a happy ending -- a war averted and, in the words of the United Nations secretary general, "a model for negotiated settlements of border disputes." But as a recent BBC radio broadcast showed, even a "model" solution can leave displaced people feeling trampled.

I bring this up not to criticize the International Court of Justice ruling or the subsequent settlement which gave the Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon and caused 300,000 Nigerians to leave their homes and livelihoods. After all, one of the very real alternatives was war. Rather, I'm sharing this story because it's a reminder that we need to have some humility about just how imperfect the best-case scenarios of diplomacy and international justice can be for the people who end up living with the practical consequences of a peace treaty, a court ruling, a relocation, or the redrawing of a map.


"When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. We are the grass. We are suffering a lot," a lifelong Bakassi fisherman now trying to make his way as a landlocked farmer told the BBC's Sam Olukoya.

I heard Olukoya's radio documentary about the displaced Bakassi Nigerians via the October 3, 2009 edition of the African Perspective podcast. Sadly, in what amounts to a genuine oddity in the Internet age, the full story seems to have vanished from the BBC web site. The site does have this summary. If I ever find a working link to the actual radio piece, I will post it here on my Global Pedestrian blog.

In the meantime, that quote from the radio piece keeps knocking around in my brain: "When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers."

We live in a world where today's suffering grass can become tomorrow's insurgency or even tomorrow's terrorism. One hopes that the fighting elephants will keep the grass in mind more and more in the years to come.

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