Nigerian women beat Big Oil: But success comes amid rising persecution by religious fundamentalists

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For almost half a century, multinational Goliaths like ChevronTexaco and Shell have pumped black gold and billions of dollars in profits out of the Niger Delta of southern Nigeria, at a tremendous cost to the people who live there. Gas flares, leaks and spills, and acid rain from giant oil operations have fouled the land, air and water, causing illness and death, and have also destroyed livelihoods once made from fishing and farming.

Over the years, this has fueled bitter protest, including frequent takeovers of oil facilities by male Nigerians. But the occupations have usually ended in one of two ways: with the federal government sending in police and military troops to violently put them down, or with protesters agreeing to leave in exchange for money. As a result, nothing has changed.

On July 8, however, the pattern was broken.

Catching ChevronTexaco by surprise and making world headlines, 600 women marched on the company’s multi-million-dollar main export terminal at the community of Escravos. The facility includes docks, an airfield, a gas plant and a tank farm.

Ranging in age from 30 to 90 and mainly from the Itsekiri tribe, the women peacefully took over the site, prevented an international workforce of 700 people from leaving, and brought operations to a standstill for 10 days. Their occupation forced Chevron executives to sign papers that commit the corporation to providing jobs, electricity, water and other necessities for surrounding communities.

This takeover was followed by one on July 18, which lasted for a week and involved even more women, primarily from the Ijaw tribe. They occupied several pumping stations that feed the main terminal from about 50 miles away and won an agreement with Chevron officials on a list of demands that included jobs, business loans, schools and hospitals.

In August women again took the offense, picketing the headquarters of ChevronTexaco and Shell. Police and troops were called in, protesters were beaten and one, according to a Nigerian daily paper, was killed — although Chevron denies this.

Still, the women show no signs of backing down. They have put out an international call for help and are planning a mass protest.

Tired of being tired. For both sides, the stakes are high.

Nigeria is the sixth-largest oil exporter in the world, and the fifth-largest supplier to the U.S. More than 90 percent of Nigeria’s income derives from oil production. Yet in the southern Niger Delta, most villages are without electricity, schools, hospitals, roads or even running water. Unemployment is high and the federal government, which takes for itself the lion’s share of revenues from oil profits, gives little assistance to local communities.

Life is especially difficult for women. Healthcare is minimal and deaths during pregnancy or childbirth are common. With husbands jobless, women are left to figure out how to put food on the table and make ends meet. Prostitution, rape and beatings by soldiers are prevalent.

It is these harsh circumstances that have driven women to defy their second-class status and turned them into a formidable foe.

“History has been made” is how protest leader Esther Tolar views these events. “Our culture is a patriarchal society. For women to come out like this and achieve what we have is out of the ordinary.”

Critical to their victory was the discipline they exercised throughout the occupation. Middle-aged and older women played a leading role. They kept the protest nonviolent and used innovative tactics, such as threatening to undress — a powerful shaming gesture in Nigeria — to force negotiations.

Their demands, which were focused on uplifting their entire communities, have brought the movement against Big Oil to a new stage. The women have rallied the men of their towns and tribes behind them, as well as the Nigerian Labour Congress, which held a solidarity action during July. And their success, where so many have failed, is changing attitudes and winning them newfound respect.

As youth leader Churchill Omadelli said, “They cannot be bribed into betraying the course they are fighting for. We are optimistic they will not fail.” One of the challenges ahead will be mobilizing enough support to prevent the oil companies from reneging on their promises, as they will certainly try to do.

The victories of the women occupiers are all the more important in light of the growing oppression Nigerian women to the north face at the hands of fundamentalist Muslims.

Twelve northern states have recently reintroduced the religious legal code Sharia, which includes punishments such as beheadings and amputations. The case of 30-year-old Amina Lawal, a woman condemned to death by stoning for having sex out of wedlock, has propelled the debate about women’s rights onto the stage nationally and internationally.

Lawal is the second woman to receive this sentence for this “crime.” The first, Safiya Hussaini, said plainly that her sentence was the result of being female and poor. Men, especially those who are wealthy, do not suffer the same fate, even though the sex-out-of-wedlock law technically applies to them too. Hussaini won a reversal of her sentence in an appeals court last March after international pressure was brought to bear on President Olusegun Obasanjo. So far, however, Lawal’s sentence has been upheld.

But outcry against the judgment in Lawal’s case, and against Sharia in general, is mounting steadily.

Many Nigerians see the case as a major test of Nigeria’s federal constitution and of Obasanjo, who in 1999 became the first president to be elected after civilian rule replaced military dictatorship. Josephine Effa-Chukwuma, coordinator of the National Coalition on Violence Against Women, expresses concern that “if this pattern of abuse of women’s right is not nipped in the bud, it will mark the opening of a floodgate to more of such flagrant abuses of citizens’ rights.” In September, another Nigerian women’s group filed a legal brief on Lawal’s behalf.

And from outside the country comes a development that highlights in an almost surreal way the contradictions of women’s existence today: even beauty queens are taking up Lawal’s cause.

In November, Nigeria is scheduled to host the Miss World Beauty Contest. Organizers have urged contestants to ignore Lawal’s case and to avoid visiting states where Sharia is in force for their own safety. But at least five contestants have declared their refusal to participate in the pageant unless Lawal’s sentence is overturned, and others are considering whether to follow suit.

The Niger Delta villagers have shown once again that the rising of the women is indeed the rising of the human race. By the same token, the well-being and future of all of Nigeria’s people are linked inextricably to the fate of Lawal and other women battling fundamentalism. The women of Nigeria are demonstrating that they will not be enslaved, whether to Chevron or Sharia.

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