Focus on the growing role of women in oil region crisis

When a group of unarmed women protesters occupied ChevronTexaco’s main oil export terminal in Nigeria last month, they not only disrupted operations in a key oil facility, but also altered the rules of engagement in the longstanding conflict in the Niger Delta oil region.

Over the past decade, armed youths from impoverished communities in the region, located in the south of the country, have often taken oil workers hostage, sabotaged pipelines and disrupted oil operations to back demands for amenities and access to more of the oil wealth produced in their backyards.

But after Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired general, was elected president in 1999, he acknowledged decades of neglect by previous governments. He then pledged to address the grievances of the ethnic minorities that inhabit the Niger Delta, which accounts for most of the petroleum produced by the world’s sixth largest exporter.

However he also increased the military presence at key installations. On a number of occasions in the past two years, soldiers have opened fire on militant youths attempting to invade oil facilities, killing or wounding a significant number. This has acted as a deterrent and the result has been a substantial decline in invasions recorded recently.

But Obasanjo’s inclination to concentrate oil revenue in the federal government, his reluctance to concede a bigger share to oil-region states, and the fact that his election promises have been slow to materialise appear to have fueled a renewed surge of restiveness in the oil areas.

The action of some 150 women aged between 30 and 90 who seized a ChevronTexaco boat and made it to the company’s Escravos export terminal marked the first time women were entering the oil fray as a group. Their demands were the same ones the militant young men have always made: jobs and amenities, including potable water and electricity for their villages.

Their tactic was to occupy the airstrip, the helicopter pad and the docks, denying aircraft and sea vessels access to the facility, which is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and crocodile-infested swamps and creeks. Invoking a very effective local taboo, they threatened to take off their clothes if the security forces attacked them. Some 700 people, including Nigerian, American, Canadian and British employees of ChevronTexaco, were trapped at the Escravos facility for the 10 days the siege lasted.

As the effectiveness of their action became obvious, more women joined them, swelling the number to about 2,000. Hundreds of other women from neighboring villages, copying their move, invaded other swamp facilities operated by ChevronTexaco and shut them down, making similar demands as their counterparts at Escravos. The occupations only ended after the oil company proposed agreements the concerned communities considered acceptable.

While the siege lasted, the security forces assigned to the facilities could only look on, apparently with strict instructions from the authorities not to engage the protesters.

"The communities demonstrated some political sophistication by adopting a tactic which made nonsense of the government’s military option," Mike Agama, a political analyst, told IRIN. "The government, on its part, was only too aware of the political consequences of attacking unarmed women with the whole world watching."

With the success of the women's action, several other communities in the oil region threatened to take similar action. In fact, women from the Ilaje community began occupying one of ChevronTexaco's facilities on 14 August. Oil industry sources have indicated anxiety among oil transnationals in Nigeria as to who will be next.

ChevronTexaco is only one of six major oil companies operating six joint ventures in which the Nigerian government has an average 57-percent stake. The biggest of the ventures is run by Royal/Dutch Shell. ChevronTexaco, Royal/Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil, TotalfinaElf, Agip and PanOcean Oil account for more than 95 percent of Nigeria’s daily capacity of some two million barrels.

In recent years the oil companies have been shifting more of their operations to deep offshore waters, where some prodigious oil finds have been made, far away from the restive communities. But the successful disruption of operations at the Escravos export terminal means that protesters may increasingly target exports rather than production.

The uncertainties surrounding oil operations in Nigeria appear to have
become a matter for serious concern in the United States, which buys about
half of the daily exports of Africa’s biggest oil producer.

With violence raging in the Middle East, which has the world’s largest reserves of crude oil, and the talk of the US attacking Iraq, the Gulf of Guinea, where Nigeria and Angola are the major producers, is an obvious alternative source of oil.

US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner, who visited Nigeria for talks with Obasanjo on 25 July, just as last month's oil sieges were ending, did not hide his government’s concern about securing the flow of oil from West Africa.

"The Gulf of Guinea and the oil production that comes from it are very important not only to the United States but to the entire oil-consuming world," Kansteiner told reporters. "It is a strategic interest that we are keen to see oil production and exploration continue in the region."

Moreover, Nigeria is dependent on oil exports for more than 95 percent of its foreign income. With disruptions sometimes cutting exports by up to a third, the question that arises is how long will the government remain patient in dealing with the women protesters?

An indication emerged following another protest march (on 8 August) by women in the oil town of Warri. They besieged the operational headquarters of ChevronTexaco and Shell with placards accusing the companies of polluting their environment, and forced work to stop. According to newspaper reports, a woman was shot dead after a soldier fired into the crowd to disperse the protesters.

However, it appears that a high-handed response from the federal government would not be enough to extinguish the zeal of the highly mobilised inhabitants of the Niger Delta to continue their campaign for a higher share of Nigeria’s oil wealth.

The communities enjoy the tacit support of their state governments. The ultimate objective is a 50:50 split of oil revenue between the federal and regional administrations. At the moment, the federal government takes 87 percent and the state government of each oil region gets 13 percent.

"Thirteen percent is nonsense," David Ejoor, a retired major-general who was
governor of part of the Niger Delta during Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war, told
reporters recently. Ejoor, now an oil-region activist, takes an ominous view of the future: "Until they go to 50:50 the area will not be satisfied...and if nothing is done, the people will just break away from Nigeria."