The Niger Delta has been at the centre of Nigeria’s post?independence military project from the first coup in 1966 through to the present. To the outside world it remained a forgotten outpost, however, until the 1990s and the rise of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Since then, unequivocal evidence has emerged of how the region and its commerce – primarily the oil industry – has been systematically militarised, with violence by the state, multinationals and local militias deployed as an instrument of governance and intimidation to force the people into total submission.
This militarisation – and resistance to it – has taken place in the context of an ongoing series of struggles over resources. As the dispossessed indigenous communities have continued to demand corporate responsibility, environmental, economic and social justice and proper compensation, their protests have been met with murders, torture, rape, the burning of homes and property and an ever increasing military presence. The outcome is an intensely militarised region ‘secured’ by an unrestrained and unaccountable tripartite force, comprising the Nigerian military, multinational oil companies and local militias.
Women in the Delta
Formal women’s groups have historically been a part of the social and political organisation in the Niger Delta. Though these have tended to be based around cultural activities, they have also provided women-only spaces to organise voices of inclusion and assertion. The establishment and recognition of these organisations has helped provide a strong power base from which to challenge the multinationals.
Women’s resistance in the Delta can be traced back to the early 1990s and the Ogoni movement MOSOP, which was led by the late Ken Saro-Wiwa. Ogoni women formed the Federation of Ogoni Women (FOWA) and were at the forefront of the demands for autonomy and control of resources in Ogoni land. FOWA was instrumental in preventing Shell from returning to Ogoni land after the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged by the Nigerian state along with eight other activists in 1995. By the early 2000s, women in Rivers, Baye lsa and Delta State were organising protests and occupations against environmental destruction, lack of development in their communities and lack of employment by oil companies such as Shell, Chevron, Elf, Mobil and Agip.
In 2002, 600 women from different generations and ethnic groups – Ijaw, Itsekiri and Ilaje – came together in an alliance with young people in actions against oil firm Chevron. The women led the protest against Chevron at the company’s Escravos facility near Warri. They demanded jobs for their sons and husbands, investment in the local infrastructure and a cleanup of the environmental damage caused by oil exploration. For ten days, refusing to move, they blocked the production of oil. This was a huge achievement because the different ethnic groups had previously been in conflict with each other for many years over the meagre resources handed out by government and oil companies.
Women have often been drawn into political activity as a result of attacks by the Nigerian army’s Joint Task Force (JTF) or repeated intimidation by local militias. In 2009, the Ijaw communities of Gbaramatu were invaded by the JTF using attack helicopters and tanks. Homes and farmlands were destroyed and, fearing for their lives, women ran into the mangrove swamps with their children and the elderly, where they either hid from the soldiers or attempted to make their way to the nearest city of Warri. About 2,000 women were eventually housed in a refugee camp for six months before returning home. In September 2011, hundreds of women from the Gbaramatu communities occupied the Chevron facility at Chanomi Creek, disrupting the laying of pipelines for a liquid gas project. The protests were a response to broken promises, made by both Chevron and the federal government, to provide communities with water and electricity.