The Rise of the Women of the Niger Delta

Women revolt in the oil-producing region of the Niger Delta
Women protest at a ChevronTexaco flow station in the Niger Delta (Photo: AFP).

Four years ago, women of the Niger Delta were, so to speak, timid. Syndicate vandals had ruptured a high-pressure pipeline conveying refined petroleum products, and women, men, and children bearing all manner of kegs, pails, cans, and buckets invaded Jesse, near Sapele. There they began helping themselves to fuel that was scandalously scarce at the time.

No one can say for certain why the grounds around the illegal bunkering site ignited. Some said it was a clash of pails which caused a spark; others claimed that some area boys had a turf war and in the attempt at muscling one another out of the free-fuel zone, some aggrieved fellow lit a match. A huge inferno swept through the scene and raged for several days.

People, houses, shacks, and vegetation were incinerated in scenes that left the nation in shock. Over 700 people died in the incident. Those who survived fled into hiding, for fear of arrest. Among the escapees were women who nursed their severe burns by whatever primitive methods they could afford, rather than go to hospitals where free medical aid was on offer. That was in 1998. Now, in 2002, women in the Niger Delta have shunted their male youths aside, marched onto the frontlines, and become the hostage-takers of oil workers in the region.

For 10 days, Itsekiri women from Ugborodo in the Warri area of Delta state took over ChevronTexaco’s multibillion-dollar tank farm and terminal in Escravos. They had three main demands: employment opportunities for their children, greater economic empowerment, and an enhanced infrastructure. While it lasted, the blockade disrupted the production of an estimated 500,000 barrels of oil per day. Some 800 workers were trapped in the terminal after 400 of their colleagues were released by the protesting women.

But the standoff came to an end after the oil company and the Ugborodo community signed a memorandum of understanding. Under its terms, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation/Chevron Joint Venture made a pledge to redress the community’s grievances. Specifically, this will include regular offers of jobs to the people, establishment of income- and wealth-generating schemes, as well as the provision of school blocks, town halls, electricity, and potable water.

But there has been no respite. Nine days into the invasion of Escravos by Itsekiri women, Ijaw women from Gbaramatu (also in Warri area) seized four flow stations belonging to ChevronTexaco, saying, “Gbaramatu kingdom has nothing to show for over 30 years of the company’s existence.” There has been no report of violence. Near the end of last week, troops from the 7th Battalion of the Nigerian army were moved to the flow stations to prevent any acts of vandalism, although their commander was reported as having given explicit instructions that the protesting women not be molested.

The radicalization of the Delta women is a phenomenon that presages the future color of agitation, not just in oil-producing states but eventually throughout the country if the status quo does not change.

As the men of the Delta have beaten what is obviously a strategic retreat, the women have become the Amazons, although they are yet to fire a shot. Nor do they need to fire any shot. With the sources of their livelihood ruined, with the stench of poverty around them coupled with ostentation elsewhere in the country, only the unthinking would be surprised by the action of the Delta women—especially as their own children and siblings have been either jailed or killed by government security forces that have been enforcing the peace over the years.

Instead of a better life, peace enforcement has meant more penury for the oil-producing regions. The actions of the Itsekiri and Ijaw women are a reminder of the uselessness of token measures adopted by succeeding governments to redress the inequalities so manifest in the oil-producing states. These measures are incapable of bringing succor to the people, because our governments will always fail the true test of governance: to provide selfless, quality service to the people.

A revolution does not require any textbook formula. What is important is the result: an overthrow of a problematic order. The rise of the Niger Delta women is a portent, and future historians will record how stirrings in the Delta coalesced into a force that may yet reorder Nigeria.

At the core of the agitation by Delta women are the nagging issues of resource ownership, control, and management. Add to this the lingering misallocation of resources and the scenario gets dire. In the 2002 Appropriation Bill, ask how much was voted for the Federal Capital Territory and the presidency. Then, ask just what is required to jump-start genuine wealth-creating opportunities for indigenes of the oil-producing states.

By their actions, Itsekiri and Ijaw women have thrown new challenges to women in the region. Copycat actions cannot be ruled out. Will Urhobo women sit back and do nothing? Will Isoko women not feel compelled to act in like manner? Will Efik, Ibibio, Ilaje, Ikwerre, Bonny, Ndoki, and women of several other ethnic groups in oil-producing areas not feel a sense of duty to save their heritage and the future of their children?

With the proliferation of NGOs in the oil-producing states, isn’t it now a possibility that future plans of action will involve a larger role for women? Heroines on the front line will soon be marching in, and many would want to be counted among that number.

Besides the inherent challenge it poses, the lead provided by the Itsekiri and Ijaw women is a rebuke of the often puerile lipstick approach to agitation by other women’s groups. Instead of merely seeking more political positions for women so they can join the ranks of the oppressors, the Delta women are at the barricades campaigning for the dividends of good governance. By their actions, they are rebuking the overdressed and over- made-up first ladies and other unconscionable spendthrifts who squander the country’s resources while the country is being ravaged by disease and poverty. It is not far-fetched to read into these events a dress rehearsal for people’s power. Have our women elite forgotten what happened to Queen Marie Antoinette of France?

The actions of the Delta women are thus far restricted to oil companies. But that day is not too far off when women, boys, men, and girls will begin to question their elected representatives about what they have done with their commonwealth. Nigerians know that when they hear stories of misapplication, misappropriation, or outright theft of public funds, it is they who are being defrauded and made to suffer the consequences.

That day is not far off when Nigerians will picket a local government secretariat, a governor’s office, a state house of assembly, or the National Assembly, and demand an accounting. The day is not far off when Nigerians will justifiably descend on those who govern them, and those who rule will take flight. All this cannot be just wishful thinking for anyone who lives in this very rich country which has so many millions who are poor, afflicted by disease, and possessed of a bleak future.