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Women stand next to an oil wellhead that since 2004 has been regularly spilling crude oil near the community of Ikot Ada Udo in the Niger Delta. Photo: Kadir van Lohuizen/Science for Human Rights
The Niger Delta has been at the centre of Nigeria’s post‑independence military project from the first coup in 1966 through to the present. To the outside world it remained a forgotten outpost, however, until the 1990s and the rise of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Since then, unequivocal evidence has emerged of how the region and its commerce – primarily the oil industry – has been systematically militarised, with violence by the state, multinationals and local militias deployed as an instrument of governance and intimidation to force the people into total submission.
This militarisation – and resistance to it – has taken place in the context of an ongoing series of struggles over resources. As the dispossessed indigenous communities have continued to demand corporate responsibility, environmental, economic and social justice and proper compensation, their protests have been met with murders, torture, rape, the burning of homes and property and an ever increasing military presence. The outcome is an intensely militarised region ‘secured’ by an unrestrained and unaccountable tripartite force, comprising the Nigerian military, multinational oil companies and local militias.
Women in the Delta
Formal women’s groups have historically been a part of the social and political organisation in the Niger Delta. Though these have tended to be based around cultural activities, they have also provided women-only spaces to organise voices of inclusion and assertion. The establishment and recognition of these organisations has helped provide a strong power base from which to challenge the multinationals.
Women’s resistance in the Delta can be traced back to the early 1990s and the Ogoni movement MOSOP, which was led by the late Ken Saro-Wiwa. Ogoni women formed the Federation of Ogoni Women (FOWA) and were at the forefront of the demands for autonomy and control of resources in Ogoni land. FOWA was instrumental in preventing Shell from returning to Ogoni land after the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged by the Nigerian state along with eight other activists in 1995. By the early 2000s, women in Rivers, Baye lsa and Delta State were organising protests and occupations against environmental destruction, lack of development in their communities and lack of employment by oil companies such as Shell, Chevron, Elf, Mobil and Agip.
Demonstrators protest in Warri
In 2002, 600 women from different generations and ethnic groups – Ijaw, Itsekiri and Ilaje – came together in an alliance with young people in actions against oil firm Chevron. The women led the protest against Chevron at the company’s Escravos facility near Warri. They demanded jobs for their sons and husbands, investment in the local infrastructure and a cleanup of the environmental damage caused by oil exploration. For ten days, refusing to move, they blocked the production of oil. This was a huge achievement because the different ethnic groups had previously been in conflict with each other for many years over the meagre resources handed out by government and oil companies.
Women have often been drawn into political activity as a result of attacks by the Nigerian army’s Joint Task Force (JTF) or repeated intimidation by local militias. In 2009, the Ijaw communities of Gbaramatu were invaded by the JTF using attack helicopters and tanks. Homes and farmlands were destroyed and, fearing for their lives, women ran into the mangrove swamps with their children and the elderly, where they either hid from the soldiers or attempted to make their way to the nearest city of Warri. About 2,000 women were eventually housed in a refugee camp for six months before returning home. In September 2011, hundreds of women from the Gbaramatu communities occupied the Chevron facility at Chanomi Creek, disrupting the laying of pipelines for a liquid gas project. The protests were a response to broken promises, made by both Chevron and the federal government, to provide communities with water and electricity.
In Rumuekpe and Okrika women have organised to protect themselves and their livelihoods following intimidation by local militia, many of whom were found to have been paid by oil companies, including Shell. Rumuekpe is unusual in that there are four oil companies operating in the vicinity of the town, which has resulted in rivalries among the militias, traditional leaders and carpetbaggers all vying for a share of the oil monies.
During a recent visit to the region, I spoke with women activists from Rumekepe. The women told me how militia members paid by oil companies had terrorised the town to the point where everyone was forced to flee, abandoning their homes, property and farms to seek refuge in nearby Port Harcourt. During the period of terror, 60 people were killed.
What is left is a ghost town. On the day I visited, the women were fearful that we were being watched and it was too dangerous for me to stay for any length of time or walk through the town centre. The women made the point that in towns and villages that did not have oil people lived in peace. This confirmed for many that it was the oil, and the oil companies, who were responsible for the violence and militarisation of their town.
The decision by the women to meet me in the abandoned town and speak out was an act of resistance and great courage. Okrika was under double occupation: on the one hand by the JTF soldiers and on the other by local armed militias. The prize is access to oil storage and processing revenues. The result is a community of mainly women, children and the elderly living in fear.
Sitting on oneself
The impact of militarisation has been especially brutal in its impact on the lives of women and girls and resistance to the violence is not always obvious to an outsider. What may initially appear as passivity in these circumstances may actually be a show of strength. For example, ‘sitting on oneself’ – the act of a mature woman standing in quiet dignity – is a silent response to violence and intimidation that can become a very powerful act. Individual actions such as these are ways of managing suffering on a personal level by turning inwards to the self and one’s family.
Much of the organising today takes place around prayer gatherings. Again, this may seem passive, but the church plays a central role in the lives of women and their communities by providing support and opportunities for collective actions that can become radicalised. This happened with the women of Liberia, who were united through the church in their fight for peace.
The success of women’s protests should not be seen solely in terms of the immediate impact on multinational oil companies. We should consider the wider impacts: the politicisation of women and the bringing together of communities such as the Itsekiri and Ijaw women in Delta State, who were driven into manipulated conflicts by the actions of the state and multinationals.
Sokari Ekine is a Nigerian feminist, writer and social justice activist. She blogs at Black Looks