Peacefully, Nigerian women win changes from big oil

Last Thursday, women blocked the entrances of two oil company facilities, the latest in a month of protests.

The town museum in Calabar, southern Nigeria, contains a striking section on a 1929 Niger Delta protest known as the "women's war." The conflict, which stemmed from opposition to British colonial rule, escalated after villagers in the Owerri province clashed with a mission teacher carrying out a tax assessment. Local women sent folded fresh palm leaves to neighboring communities as a signal to begin attacks against buildings symbolizing the imperial presence.

"The white men should return to their own country," says a piece of contemporary propaganda quoted at the museum, "so that the land in the area may remain as it was many years before the advent of the white man."

More than 70 years later, the women of the oil-rich delta are stirring once more. On Thursday, hundreds of women blocked the gates of ChevronTexaco and Shell offices in the southern port of Warri. For several hours, workers at the two locations were kept from entering or leaving the facilities. By Friday, the protest had ended peacefully.

This protest was the latest in a month of all-women demonstrations that began July 8 with a 10-day siege of ChevronTexaco's offices in Escravos. Observers say that protests by women are becoming the most effective tool to force social improvements by US multinational oil companies doing business in Africa.

The Escravos women, who ranged in age between 30 to 90, used a potent tactic: they threatened to take their clothes off. Public nudity would have embarrassed the expatriates among the terminal's more than 1,000 workers and caused a deeper sense of shame for many Nigerian employees.

"By the time the women bare their chests and go around, people are really in trouble," says Bolanle Awe, one of the founders of the Women's Research and Documentation Centre at Nigeria's University of Ibadan. "It's a curse on whoever the ruler is."

The tactics and determination of the Escravos women helped persuade Chevron to send senior executives to negotiate concessions. The company agreed to employ more local people, invest in electricity supply and other infrastructure projects, and assist the villagers in setting up poultry and fish farms to supply the terminal's cafeteria. The social gains apparently secured by the Escravos women contrast with the frequent violent and fruitless clashes that have taken place between young men and the police and army.

"They knew if the women went the authorities wouldn't use force," says one person familiar with the local villages. "That's what they were betting on."

The protests often reflect widespread frustration among delta people at the disconnect between the wealth springing from their land and the lack of local development. Nigeria, one of the world's top 10 oil producers, has earned some $250 billion in oil revenues over the past four decades. The squandering of the money because of governmental corruption, together with the pollution and disruption often caused by the oil companies, has nurtured a deep sense of popular bitterness.

The protests echo a tradition of female dissent in the delta that stretches well beyond the anti-imperial demonstrations of the late 1920s. The trend has spawned at least one book – "Nigerian Women Mobilized" (University of California, Berkeley, 1982) – an account of women's political activity in southern Nigeria from 1900 to 1965. The author, Nina Emma Mba, said protest has occurred on both individual and collective levels, within and across communal boundaries, and has involved both peaceful and violent methods.

"Generally their political activity has in- cluded only women," she wrote. "[It] has been informed by a shared consciousness of being a disadvantaged sex with special interests."

The activism of southern Nigerian women may have further roots in religious and commercial practices. Graham Furniss, professor of African languages and literature at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, notes that the south of the country has a greater focus on market trading by women and a lower concentration of Muslims than the north. "In an Islamic society, the role of women tends to be quite different, particularly in a public arena such as markets," Professor Furniss says. "It's not that they aren't organized and don't have views – but they wouldn't necessarily have the public presence that's necessary for concerted, open political action."

The flurry of female radicalism is far removed from the coordinated, Internet-assisted campaigns against multinationals in industrialized countries. The villages around the Escravos terminal have no access to telephones or computers. Travel is difficult and costly as well; a trip from Escravos to Warri takes three hours by boat and costs $6, a week's pay for the average Nigerian.

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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