September 2002


In a move reminiscent of the role Nigerian women played in the struggle for independence, Nigerian women have for the first time joined the protest against oil companies operating in the oil-rich Niger Delta Region.

Women of the Ijaw and Itsekiri communities in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, angry at the unemployment of their children and husbands and the neglect of infrastructure and economic empowerment by successive governments and multinational oil companies since production of oil began over four decades ago, have expressed their concern through occupying oil-drilling facilities of Chevron Nigeria Limited.

The women, who were unarmed, had demanded jobs for their sons and investment in the impoverished oil-rich communities. The two groups in two separate and consecutive actions occupied Chevron's airstrip, docks and stores thereby preventing aircraft from landing and boats from docking at the terminal.

Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL), a subsidiary of US oil giant Chevron Texaco, is the third-largest oil company operating in the Niger Delta Region, exporting 450,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The occupation also disrupted production activities at the company's US$400-million Escravos Gas Plant.

The disruption of oil operations is common in the Niger Delta, where impoverished local people accuse oil companies and the Nigerian government of neglecting them despite the huge oil wealth pumped from their land. They also accuse the oil firms of degrading their environments and economic activities, mainly from fish farming and peasant agricultural activities, through oil spillage and pollution.

'In the past our mothers were into fishing from where they were able to train their children. But now that the oil companies have come, we cannot go fishing again,' the women complained.

However, seizures of platforms or oil production sites had in the past been undertaken by armed gangs of local youths who often threatened to kill staff or burn down the plant unless their demands were met. This is the first time women had taken over an oil plant.

'There was no warning signal from the women to anyone, not even the paramount rulers, community leaders or opinion leaders,' said Chief Wellington Okirika, a traditional ruler in one of the communities. The women, not trusting anyone, decided not to inform anyone, not even their leaders, for fear of 'sabotage'.

In the late 1990s, such actions had disrupted production to such an extent that it sometimes reduced Nigeria's daily crude oil output of about two million barrels by up to a third. The government depends on crude exports for more than 90% of its export income. A total of three million barrels of oil was lost to the crisis, which translated in monetary terms to $78 million or N9.83 billion.

The crisis in the Niger Delta Region heightened in 1995 when the government of the late military ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha, executed renowned environmentalist and author Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his kinsmen from the oil-producing Ogoni community, sparking an international outcry.

When the women started the occupation, the government reacted by deploying troops to secure the plant. But Chevron opted for talks with the women, which led to the release of 300 of the approximate 1,100 workers of the company that had been held hostage by the protesters.

Chevron reached agreement with the women to end their occupation of the Company's facilities after signing an agreement that will guarantee regular job offers and some amenities for the communities. The deal, regarded as a landmark in the relationship between Chevron and its host communities, had Chevron promising to raise the bursary for students in tertiary institutions from N50,000 to N75,000 effective from the 2002/2003 academic session, while that for secondary schools will be raised to N20,000 from N10,000.

Chevron is also to put in place a N20-million credit scheme for 10 Ijaw communities, totalling N200 million, to aid business development. The scheme will be run by a yet-to-be-named non-governmental organisation. The company has also committed itself to providing two speed boats for each of the 10 communities and electricity and water projects in all the communities. The deal will be reviewed every three years.

In the words of Jay Pryor, managing director of Chevron-Texaco Nigeria: 'We are delighted that this crisis has been resolved peacefully, even though the process has been very painstaking.'

The restiveness of communities in the Niger Delta, which had been dying down in the past two years, has been in resurgence since a Supreme Court ruling early this year gave control of all offshore oil resources to the central government.

Meanwhile just as the occupation of the oil facilities ended, a fire broke out at Chevron-Texaco's Escravos oil terminal in Nigeria.

'Lightning that struck at Escravos...sparked off an outbreak of fire on one of the tanks,' a company statement explained.

About 80,000 barrels of crude was quickly pumped out of the affected tank with an estimated 180,000 barrels of crude, and the fire was quickly brought under control, said the statement signed by Chevron-Texaco spokesman, Sola Omole.

Although the company said there were no casualties, the incident underscores the constant danger in which the impoverished, surrounding communities live.

In another development, Rilwanu Lukman, Nigeria's presidential adviser on Petroleum and Energy and president of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), has announced that the country's oil production has reached 2.8 million barrels per day, 57% over the 1.78 million barrels per day allowed Nigeria by OPEC. The adviser was quoted as saying that what this means is that Nigeria's plan of raising its crude oil reserve to 30 billion barrels by 2003 has already been achieved.

He however allayed fears that Nigeria was ready to leave OPEC due to its limited oil quota, stressing that, 'Nigeria's [over-production] of crude is only to position itself as there are indications there will be more demand for oil.' - Third World Network Features

The above article, which was compiled by the editorial desk of African Agenda from dispatches of IPS, IRIN and This Day magazine,  first appeared in African Agenda (Vol. 5 No. 2 & 3, 2002).

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