Protests in the Nigerian Delta: Women's Tactics Stymie Oil Grant

by Isioma Daniel

Armed only with lists of urgent community needs, women who shut ChevronTexaco ports and oil flow stations will do it again if promises aren't kept.

The conflict between multinational oil companies and the inhabitants of the Niger Delta has raged for more than 30 years. But women added a new dimension this year with a shutdown of ChevronTexaco oil flow operations. The women forced concessions from Chevron, and today they stand ready to renew their occupation if the corporation fails to honor its agreements. "If Chevron doesn't do as it has promised, we are determined to return," promised a woman from the Ijaw community.

The protests began when women from the Itsekiri tribe in Delta State, Nigeria, wrote to Chevron insisting on better living conditions and employment for their youth. Infuriated by the lack of response, 150 women from six communities - Ugborodu, Ogidigben, Ajudigho, Imaghaho, Madogho and Iyala - marched silently and unarmed on July 6 and took over Chevron's Escravos export facility. Women from as young as 30 to as old as 90 sung solidarity songs as they camped out on the oil platform.

Their action was calculated. They first seized a boat at the Escravos export terminal and later divided into separate groups and occupied the airstrip, the helicopter pad, the oil storage area, and the docks. More than 700 Nigerian and expatriate employees of the company were trapped in the facility. Planes and helicopters were unable to land, and boats were unable to dock and unload fresh supplies to the terminal.

For over a decade, oil exploration has disrupted the ecological order of the Niger Delta. Oil spills from the drilling ruin marine life for these fishing communities, and continuous cutting of trees to create more wells depletes the lush rainforest. While the rest of the world prospers from the oil, poverty and frustration has kindled riots and skirmishes among the Niger Delta tribes. Disruptions of oil operations are common in the region as impoverished residents accuse oil companies and their government partners of neglect despite the huge oil wealth pumped from their land. But this is the first such action taken exclusively by women.

The women deliberately left their husbands, brothers, and sons out of the protest. "Our men would have discouraged us because they would be afraid for our lives," said Beauty Warejuwei, a leader from the Okoyitoru community. "They have been fighting without success and so we said it is the turn of we the women to fight." Earlier armed attacks by men on oil facilities and abductions of oil workers have mostly led to defeat and more violence. "If our boys and men come, Chevron will say we want to fight them," said Alice Oyuhe, an executive member of the Escravos Women's Coalition.

"Before Chevron came to this land many years ago, we the people used to kill fish and crayfish. We could kill shrimps and big fishes in the creeks, said an Itsekiri woman. She believes that the gas Chevron burns causes deaths in her community. "We don't even have a hospital," she protested.

"Today, many children are useless in the town because we have no money to educate them, the woman continued. "How can you live without being able to educate your child? So we women said we are going to confront them."

The women took advantage of the patriarchal attitudes of their society and of the organization they were battling. Chevron has used armed forces to quell similar protests and takeovers, but its armed security men had never received any training on how to contain an invading army of women singing solidarity songs. "The women demonstrated some political sophistication by adopting a tactic which made nonsense of the government's military option," said Mike Agarna, a political analyst. "The government, on its part, was only too aware of the political consequences of attacking unarmed women with the whole world watching." The women also effectively invoked a local taboo - they threatened to take off their clothes if the security officers attacked them.

At the end of the Chevron Escravos 1 0-day occupation, they reached a formal agreement with Chevron. If the company keeps its promise over the next five years, at least 25 of the women will be offered jobs and the company will build schools and provide clean water, electricity, and a community center for the people.

Encouraged by the success of their Itsekiri counterparts, more than 2,000 Ijaw women continued the onslaught on Chevron's Abiteye flow station and three other Chevron flow stations. The demands were the same-jobs, electricity, potable water, and education. At the end of another I 0-day occupation, Chevron and the Ijaw kingdoms of Gbaramatu and Egbemaa signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The MOU promised building of a cottage industry at Oporaza, increase in scholarship bursaries to the communities, resuscitation of the Benikrukru fish and poultry farm, financing for microcredit projects, and at least 10 jobs per year for the next five years for people representing each of the communities in the two kingdoms. Signing the agreement on behalf of their communities were five women, known simply as Philomenal Abulu, Felicia, Doris, and Felicia. It is too early to assess progress on the MOU goals or the promises made to the Itsekiri women. But the women plan to monitor Chevron and government efforts closely. "We have nothing to lose," declared a determined Ijaw woman.


photo by Saurabh Das AP/Wide World


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