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Nigerian Women's Protest Wins Oil Company Attention
20 July 2002
In the best traditions of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, several hundred Nigerian women took a nonviolent stand for their country. Ranging in age from 25 to 90 - some with infants strapped to their backs - the women held a successful sit-in at a ChevronTexaco Escravos facility in Nigeria's oil-rich delta.
Without firing a shot or injuring a soul, they shut down an operation that produces a half million barrels of oil a day. In the end, they accomplished what their men could not, and what their government should have done long ago.
Nearly two weeks ago, about 600 women took an estimated 1,000 oil workers hostage by occupying the control room, docks and landing areas of the island facility and blocking all arrivals and departures. When company executives initially balked at demands, the mostly elderly women threatened to strip naked, which in their culture is a method of shaming others.
Apparently that, and the thought of having to forcibly remove or open fire on old women and children, created some kind of breakthrough. Under an agreement struck this week, the women ended their 10-day occupation in exchange for jobs for their sons and help building clinics, schools and farms. Chalk up one more victory for the power of peaceful protest - and one for using chauvinism to everyone's advantage.
In Nigeria, occupations and protests of this sort are common. Tribal communities that see the black gold flowing away from their area to enrich others regularly storm facilities to demand investments, jobs and compensation for pollution. In the past, native men have kidnapped, but rarely harmed, oil workers. Government police and oil-company security didn't hesitate to use force to quell such attempts by male protesters.
Conflict between oil firms and Nigerian locals attracted international attention in the mid-1990s, when violent protests by the small Ogoni tribe forced the Shell company to abandon wells on their land. The late dictator Gen. Sani Abacha responded in 1995 by hanging nine Ogoni leaders, including writer and environmental activist Ken Saro Wiwa, and drew global outrage.
Nigeria's current government is elected, but it too uses harsh methods to protect the oil facilities while collecting millions from Shell, Exxon and ChevronTexaco. Although delta oil brings in more than 80 percent of Nigeria's hard currency, the region's 7 million residents are among the poorest in the nation.
Every day, the locals live in squalor in the shadows of plants that look like paradise. They watch black gold flow from their backyards to enrich others, while they have no access to the fruits of those profits. Even more insulting are the exorbitant prices residents pay for petrol to fuel small lamps and stoves. Hundreds have been killed or injured in explosions as desperate citizens try to siphon oil from pipelines.
Female-led protests have now spread to other parts of the delta and are showing signs of some ethnic rivalries. But no matter what their tribe, the women are right. They do not seek handouts; rather they rightly want to share in their nation's oil wealth through self-sufficiency. The oil companies and the Nigerian government should invest more in education, health, employment and infrastructure.
Published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune © 2002 Star Tribune