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
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