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.

Related Articles

Human skeletal stem cells isolated in breakthrough discovery

It's a development that could one day lead to much better treatments for osteoporosis, joint damage, and bone fractures.

Image: Nissim Benvenisty
Surprising Science
  • Scientists have isolated skeletal stem cells in adult and fetal bones for the first time.
  • These cells could one day help treat damaged bone and cartilage.
  • The team was able to grow skeletal stem cells from cells found within liposuctioned fat.
Keep reading Show less

How exercise helps your gut bacteria

Gut bacteria play an important role in how you feel and think and how well your body fights off disease. New research shows that exercise can give your gut bacteria a boost.

National Institutes of Health
Surprising Science
  • Two studies from the University of Illinois show that gut bacteria can be changed by exercise alone.
  • Our understanding of how gut bacteria impacts our overall health is an emerging field, and this research sheds light on the many different ways exercise affects your body.
  • Exercising to improve your gut bacteria will prevent diseases and encourage brain health.
Keep reading Show less

Giving octopuses ecstasy reveals surprising link to humans

A groundbreaking new study shows that octopuses seemed to exhibit uncharacteristically social behavior when given MDMA, the psychedelic drug commonly known as ecstasy.

Image: damn_unique via Flickr
Surprising Science
  • Octopuses, like humans, have genes that seem to code for serotonin transporters.
  • Scientists gave MDMA to octopuses to see whether those genes translated into a binding site for serotonin, which regulates emotions and behavior in humans
  • Octopuses, which are typically asocial creatures, seem to get friendlier while on MDMA, suggesting humans have more in common with the strange invertebrates than previously thought
Keep reading Show less