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DELTA #3 4/12
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- Date: Sat, 1 Nov 1997 23:50:15 GMT
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THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN THE STRUGGLE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE IN OGONI
+ Diana Wiwa, International Representative of the Federation of Ogoni
Women's Organisations (FOWA), introduces the recent struggles of women in Ogoni.
On April 25, 1997, the Federation of Ogoni Women's Associations (FOWA), an
umbrella group for all women's groups in Ogoni, took a resolution. This
stated, "It is resolved that Shell cannot and must not be allowed in
Ogoni.... we say no to Shell as it remains persona non grata in Ogoni". This
pronouncement, amongst five other resolutions, was signed or thumb printed
by over 300 women leaders in Ogoni who represent FOWA's 57,000 registered
This action was taken by a well-organised African women's movement, one that
has played a key role in one of the largest non-violent struggles for
environmental and social justice in African history. How did these women
become so well-organised? And where do they fit into their people's struggle?
The birth of MOSOP and FOWA
The era of the most intense protests began on January 4, 1993, when the
Ogoni people took their future into their hands and peacefully protested
against nearly four decades of environmental devastation by the oil company
Shell. Over 300,000 people came out from a total Ogoni population of
500,000, and the women played a key role in organising that massive protest.
Not a single stone was thrown.
FOWA was set up in 1993 along with eight other units which make up the
Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). MOSOP is the
democratic organisation which represents the voice of the Ogoni people in
the Niger Delta. It acts as an umbrella organisation for the Ogoni groups
which together have a total membership of over 250,000 individuals: the
Federation of Ogoni Women's Associations (FOWA); National Youth Council of
the Ogoni People (NYCOP); Council of Ogoni Churches (COC); Council of Ogoni
Professionals (COP); Council of Ogoni Traditional Rulers (COTRA); National
Union of Ogoni Students (NUOS); Ogoni Students Union (OSU); Ogoni Teachers
Union (OTU); and Ogoni Central Union (OCU). FOWA is like these other MOSOP
units, independent but guided by MOSOP policies. It is widely recognised,
however, that FOWA has grown to be the strongest component of the nine
existing units of MOSOP.
Shell in Ogoni
Within the 404 square miles which make up Ogoni, the people depend on
fishing, farming and trading for sustenance. This close relationship with
the land means that Ogoni communities have placed a lot of emphasis on care
of the environment, believing it to be the life giving source of the people
and the dwelling place of their ancestors.
With the discovery of oil in the 1950s, the Ogoni were completely unaware of
the consequences of oil drilling, and were forced to accommodate the arrival
of the oil industry. Being the producers of much of the food that was eaten
in the Niger Delta, the Ogoni were not poor, and had hoped that the oil
could make a relatively prosperous situation better. It did not take long
for the Ogoni to see that this was not to be the case. Beyond the fact that
the revenues from the oil did not get to the people, the social consequences
of the environmental nightmare that had been unleashed were unbearable. They
saw their farmland being expropriated for oil extraction without
compensation, and faced no alternative means of survival. Pipelines often
criss-crossed valuable farmland and poisonous gases were flared into the
atmosphere close to communities. Ageing oil equipment very often failed and
leaked oil into communities and farms without adequate clean-up. The
performance of Shell and their lack of environmental standards was
completely destructive of the environment - as well as of the Ogoni people
themselves, dependent on the land and rivers for their survival. Those who
suffered most were the women and children, who, unlike the young men, could
not easily migrate to the urban areas to escape.
Cultural traditions broken
In the traditional Ogoni setting, when a woman gets married, her husband is
required to give her a piece of land to farm. It is from this farm that she
feeds her family and grows food for sale in order to buy other staples. This
tradition allowed the women to enjoy a measure of independence. The
fertility of Ogoni soil made it very fruitful for agriculture, producing
high yields. The bountiful harvests left time for them to invest in cultural
activities such as art, dancing, singing, and pottery making.
However, the constant acquisition of new territory for oil exploitation, and
the resultant pollution from the industry, has left the Ogoni women with no
means to feed or support their families. Women have to go further away from
home to find unpolluted water for their domestic chores. Their children have
not received employment in the oil industry (a mere fifty Ogoni were
employed until 1993, mainly as cleaners and drivers), making young men and
women a continuing responsibility for their mothers long after they should
have been independent. These changes have brought a resultant rise of
tension in the home. Testimonies of older women confirm that in the past
there was less tension.
The fattening room
The health of a household has usually been dependent on the woman, who
commonly had specific knowledge of local medicines. She learned about the
local cures during her 'fattening room' period. This starts after the birth
of her first child and lasts for one year. During this time, she is not
allowed out of the family compound. Besides being a time for her to rest, it
is also a time of schooling when she learns how to look after her child and
home. She is attended to by women from her family and older women in the
As pressure grows on the young women, forced to deal with shrinking
agricultural resources, very little time is left for them to acquire the
specialised health knowledge traditionally gained through a fattening room
period. For those who still practice this tradition, it rarely exceeds two
months - after which they must return to farming.
The loss of the fattening room and other traditions led the Ogoni women to
make a conscious decision to organise against the oil industry on their
land: a force they saw as being clearly responsible for cultural degradation
The violence starts
Since the grand protest of January 4, 1993, the Ogoni women have suffered
first hand the violent reprisals instigated by the Nigerian military and
their Shell counterparts.
The first incidence of violence was in April 1993. An Ogoni woman, Mrs.
Karalolo Korgbara, went very early in the morning to her farm. On arriving,
she discovered it being bulldozed by Wilbros, a sub-contracted company
working for Shell who were accompanied by well-armed soldiers. She attempted
to protect what was left of her farm but was badly beaten. Mrs. Korgbara
then left to inform the rest of the villagers of what was happening.
Thousands came out carrying branches (a symbol of protest) and demonstrated
peacefully. The soldiers shot into the crowd of protesters, killing one
Ogoni man, Mr. Agbarator Atu, and seriously wounding several others,
including Mrs. Korgbara who had her arm amputated from the gunshot wound she
Women's activity continues
Despite this event, the Ogoni continued to organise. FOWA established units
all over Ogoni and expanded its activities in all Ogoni communities. There
are 126 branches of FOWA, one in every Ogoni village. It has made efforts to
revive threatened cultural practices, such as pottery making and basket
weaving, and has developed programs to look into areas like traditional
family planning methods, health, and the education of young girls.
One key program was designed to inform and educate young Ogoni women about
sexually transmitted diseases and birth control (prostitution was on the
rise, believed to be related to the oil industry). FOWA had planned to set
up a resource centre for its activities. In order to implement these
programs, money had to be raised. FOWA did this through membership fees;
existing and new women's co-operatives contributed, and a substantial amount
The family planning discussions had just started across Ogoni when the next
wave of military attacks hit the Ogoni people in August 1993. The people
were caught completely unaware. By August 1994, thirty villages were
destroyed, over 2000 people killed, more than 3000 injured, and about
100,000 Ogoni made internal refugees. The women acted as swiftly as they
could. Most of the money raised for women's development programs was put
into securing food and medicine. Every Ogoni woman was asked to donate
something to help resettle and rehabilitate the large number of refugees.
Ogoni had become a war zone. MOSOP put out a plea for help to the wider
Nigerian and international community.We finally got some help from
organisations such as the 'Daughters of Charity', a Catholic relief agency
working in Nigeria. Despite the danger and hardship, the Ogoni women
collected a garage full of food in less than three weeks. FOWA worked
closely with the ad hoc 'Relief and Rehabilitation Committee', set up by
MOSOP to handle the crisis, and distributed food and aid.
But by July 1994, the women's resources had been exhausted, and the refugees
and the ruined villages were still a problem. The market squares where the
women traded their goods with neighbouring communities had been destroyed.
They had no way of raising further funds to support the internal refugees.
In response to this continuing crisis, FOWA initiated an assimilation
program in which Ogoni families absorbed refugees into their homes. FOWA
also worked with MOSOP to formulate a plan by which the destroyed homes and
villages could be rebuilt. The Canadian government helped rebuild about
seven of the villages, including the destroyed market and school in Kaa.
Still, no matter how FOWA and the Ogoni people worked to recover, the
Nigerian military was to give them no respite. On the morning of April 21,
1994, Ogoni leader and spokesperson Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested on trumped-up
charges. He was incarcerated for nine months before being charged and
arraigned before a special military tribunal. To silence the well-publicised
campaign of the Ogoni for environmental justice, an Internal Security Task
Force (ISTF) was set up by the Nigerian dictatorship to terrorise the Ogoni.
What followed was another story of horror. The ISTF set out, in the words of
the commander of the force, to "sanitise Ogoni". The military went on a
rampage - beating, killing, maiming, detaining, extorting money, looting,
and raping throughout Ogoni. Women were often the targets.
In June 1994, during an attack of the ISTF against an Ogoni village, Miss
'B' fled into the forest along with her three younger siblings. She was only
sixteen. Being in the forest several days without food for her siblings, and
not being able to stop their cries of hunger, she ventured back into the
village with the hope of procuring some food and water from their abandoned
home. Before sunrise she went to get some water to cook. On her way back,
and just a few feet from her home, she was attacked by the soldiers who had
earlier driven away the villagers. She was raped and beaten in broad
daylight and in the presence of her siblings. In the attempt to save her
they were also severely beaten. Now, three years later, she is still
traumatised. This is just one of the many stories of rape and repression the
Ogoni women have experienced and continue to experience - because of their
demands for justice from Shell, whose presence has not only devastated their
land but has impoverished Ogoni women and subsequently the community.
Support for detainees
Although the Ogoni women have suffered spectacular physical and cultural
losses from the genocidal war fought against them, they have not stopped
their activities. They continue to organise and assist each other to the
best of their ability in the tasks such as feeding and attending to the
hundreds of Ogoni detainees taken by the Nigerian soldiers.
This activity has been difficult and in many cases impossible to continue
since the local economy has been badly damaged by the series of attacks,
looting and extortion by Nigerian soldiers. Still, the women, both as
individuals and as a collective, have somehow found ways to support their
families and communities. With less material support, the women have been
providing moral support for those who are detained or despairing the
conditions in Ogoni today. This spirit is what is at the core of the Ogoni
Being a religious people (most are Christian, but there is still a lot of
the traditional beliefs), the Ogoni women have continued to organise
religious events like prayer meetings despite many arrests and threats from
Nigerian soldiers who continually harass them.
Internationalising the protest
By January 1997, an international office had been set up in Toronto, Canada,
and FOWA also now exists in St. Louis, Missouri and in Ohio in the USA. The
aim of the international office is to raise the awareness of the
international community as to the destructive nature of oil exploitation to
the Ogoni community as a whole, but with special attention paid to the most
vulnerable members of Ogoni society. FOWA also seeks to build a support base
for the Ogoni women in Ogoni and abroad. It aims to learn from and network
with other women from around the world who have had to fight to save their
own home lands.
Ogoni women found in 1993 that they, and all Ogoni, had no choice but to
organise protests against Shell and the Nigerian dictatorship. Through early
grassroots organisation in all Ogoni communities, and by ensuring a
democratic process in decision making, FOWA early on won the complete
loyalty of Ogoni women. It has united women of all generations, and has been
able to bring the thoughts of the women in the community together in one
voice, and to make this voice heard.
FOWA's success, therefore, was not only rooted in its commitment to
organising the protests against oil exploitation, but in its commitment to
strengthening the cultural practices and role of women at the village level
in Ogoni. By ensuring cultural survival while fighting for environmental
justice, FOWA has made itself one of the most effective grassroots women's
movements in Africa.
Ogoni women tell Shell to stay out
Federation of Ogoni Women Association RESOLUTION
1. Shell has exploited the Ogoni people in billions of US Dollars since 1958
through Oil exploration, without payment of rents and royalties, neither has
it shown any sign of sensitivity to the sufferings and feelings of the Ogoni
People at all.
2. Instead of blessings, Shell's exploration in Ogoniland has brought untold
woes including deaths to the Ogoni People, resulting from oil devastation of
our land, degradation of our environment, complete destruction of our
ecology and the ecosystem and pollution of our waters.
3. Shell's sponsorship of the July and December, 1993 and March, 1994
massacre of the Ogoni People through our neighbours, the Andonis, Okrikans
and the Ndokis respectively.
4. Shell masterminded and actually supervised the brutal judicial murder of
our Great Leader and Son, Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 others by the Nigerian
Military in 1995.
5. Shell plans to come back in to Ogoniland through the back door as
revealed in several ways, including the Chief Alex Akinyele's "April fool"
reconciliation visit to Ogoni from April 1st - 3rd 1997, which focus was on
the reconciliation of the Ogoni People to Shell.
6. Shell's continued sponsorship and use of the dreaded Rivers State
Internal Security Task Force headed by the bloodthirsty ghaul, called Major
Obi Umahi, which continually harrass, arrest, extort, torture and rape our
people, particularly the women folk.
We, the undersigned Federation of Ogoni Women Association (FOWA) at its 22nd
General Meeting held at XXXXX on 25th April, 1997 met to review the
situation in Ogoniland as outlined above and resolved as follows:
1. We condenm in its strongest terms the attitude of Shell and its
insensitivity to the sufferings and feelings of the Ogoni Poeple, since it
started operation in Ogoniland till date.
2. We totally condemn the brutal judicial murder of our Leader and Son, Ken
Saro-Wiwa and Eight (8) others from which Shell cannot wash its hands before
Men and before God.
3. We strongly condenm and will vehemently struggle to resist all attempts
by Shell to try to come back to Ogoniland through the back door, whether by
Chief Akinyele's so-called National Reconciliation Committee (NARECOM) or
any other means.
4. It is finally resolved that Shell cannot and MUST not be allowed any
longer in Ogoni UNLESS OUR KEN SARO-WIWA HAS BEEN HANDED OVER TO US ALIVE.
We say NO to Shell, as it remains persona non-grata in Ogoniland.
5. We further condemn the continued military siege in Ogoni; the continued
repression including killings, harrassment, extortion unlawful arrest and
illegal detention and rapes.
6. We also condenm any attempts by General Sani Abacha to succed himself as
a Civilian Dictator to further impose his in-human and barbaric dictatorship
rule over the Nigerian people including the peace-loving indigineous Ethnic
7. We highly appreciate what the good people of the world has been doing for
the Ogoni People, particularly our Women folk, through our able
International Representative, Mrs. Diane D. Wiwa and other MOSOP
representatives abroad and very strongly call on the International Community
to wake up enough to the deplorable situation in Ogoniland.
DATED THIS 25TH APRIL, 1997.
[Signatures / thumb-prints]
Meeting some of the representatives later, Diana Wiwa reported: "The women
were very concerned about the continuing military presence in Ogoni,
particularly the rapes, beatings and murders, the disruption of markets and
the extortion of money by soldiers. They called on governments worldwide to
help stop this reign of terror. Rather than the current virtual silence on
Ogoni they want governments to take concrete steps such as introducing an
oil embargo, expelling Nigeria from the Commonwealth and United Nations, and
freezing the accounts of the military and key civilians. Furthermore, Abacha
must be challenged now on his manipulation of the political process in
Nigeria. They also thanked all those in Nigeria and abroad who have
contributed to the fight for justice in Ogoni, and pleaded to these
supporters not to let the struggle end. The women made it clear that they
were still strong in their resolve, but that they urgently need
international allies while the Nigerian regime continues its focussed
repression of the Ogoni."
ARISE! WOMEN'S RESISTANCE IN NIGERIA
+ Edited material from Canadian political economist Terisa Turner looks at
women's uprisings against oppression in colonial Nigeria.
Throughout the twentieth century, Nigerian women have exercised the social
power under their control in their own interests and in the interests of the
community. Examples of women's resistance include the Aba women's wars of
1928-1929, the Egba women's movement of the early 1930's to the 1950's, the
Ogharefe women's uprising of 1984, the Ughelli women's anti-tax protests of
1985-1986, the Ekpan women's uprising of 1986 and the mobilisation of Ogoni
women during the 1990's.
In 1928-1930, Aba women rose in mass protest against the oppressive rule of
the colonial government. They mobilised in order to counter any moves to
impose further taxes, and to overthrow the warrant chief system which the
British had imposed. These Igbo women of eastern Nigeria feared that the
head-count being carried out by the British was a prelude to women being
taxed. The women were unhappy about the over-taxation of their husbands and
sons which they felt was pauperising them and causing economic hardship for
the entire community. They resented the British imposition on the community
of warrant chiefs, many of whom carried out what the women considered to be
abusive and extortionist actions such as obtaining wives without paying the
full bride wealth, and seizure of property. Previously, new village leaders
or heads had been democratically chosen and removed by the people
themselves. Power had been diffuse; decisions were reached informally or
through village assemblies of all adults who chose to attend. While they had
less influence than men, women did control local trade and specific crops.
Women protected their interests through assemblies, and this had been
changed by the colonial government which appointed its agents as warrant
chiefs to rule over the people.
'Sitting on a man'
The abuses of the British-appointed native judges and tax enumerators
impelled the women to stage a protest on 24 November 1929. Using a deeply
rooted practice of censoring men through all night song and dance ridicule -
'sitting on a man' - and with market hold-ups and sheer force of numbers,
the women's rampages spread. Thousands of women wearing loincloths and
carrying palm-wrapped sticks gathered outside the district offices in Owerri
and Calabar provinces, 'sat on' the warrant chiefs and burnt their
buildings. Late in December 1929 the women forced the Umuahia warrant chiefs
to surrender their caps thus launching their successful campaign to destroy
the warrant chief system. In Aba, women sang and danced against the chiefs,
and then proceeded to attack and loot the European trading stores and
Barclays Bank and to break into the prison and release the prisoners. Some
25,000 Igbo women over an area of 6,000 square miles confronted colonial
repression and over a two month period of insurrection, December 1929 to
January 1930, at least 50 were killed.
>From the 1930's to 1950's, using similar weapons, the Egba women of
Yorubaland in western Nigeria pressed for and subsequently secured the
abdication of the Alake (King) of Egbaland. Through the Abeokuta Women's
Union, a popular organisation with a membership of some 100,000, the women
succeeded in 1949 in forcing the abdication on the grounds that the king was
collaborating with the exploitative colonial government. The Egba women also
claimed that he was hiding under the cover and protection of the colonial
government to perpetrate misrule, hardships and oppression on Egba people,
and especially on the women.
Paralysing the trading system
These instances of women's political intervention during the colonial epoch
demonstrate the use of market power and the expression of indigenous
feminisms. Rapid and massive mobilisation was possible because of women's
strong societal organisations and effective communication networks based on
concentration in the markets and dispersal along the trade routes. Nigerian
women's actions have to do with market control and with women's dual focus
on both the state and those among their own menfolk who were instruments of
the state. First, women engaged in the business of long and short distance
marketing took the initiative in mounting mobilisations. But peasant women
and townswomen joined the market women to constitute a mass movement. The
social power marshalled by this amalgam centred on the women's ability to
withhold food from the cities. They paralysed the trading system within
which they exercised considerable power. Not only was food denied the
cities, but cash crops were denied the colonial authorities and their
merchant allies in repeated confrontations over who should determine prices
(in the western Nigeria cocoa hold-ups during the second world war, for
Second, women mobilised not only against the British state directly but also
against collaborating indigenous men whose power was underpinned by a 'male
deal' with men in the colonial regime. In so doing, women stood against
class formation which distorted popular control over indigenous political
institutions. The women manifested their distress at the deterioration of
their own circumstances with the encroachment of capitalist relations. As
such their actions were feminist in as much as they were aimed specifically
at defending the interests of women. However, the discourse which women used
then and now to explain their motives and objectives cannot be assumed to
resemble feminist discourses from other societies or periods, and requires
analysis in its own right. In mobilising against the coloniser-chief
alliance among men, women were acting simultaneously on behalf of women and
on behalf of both men and women in the peasant and trading classes -
illustrating the coincidence and indivisibility of feminist and class
politics in the history of Nigerian women's uprisings.
The 1980's saw a resurgence of women's militancy when the Nigerian military
attempted to impose structural adjustment conditions. The particularly
female weapons of song and dance ridicule used during the colonial epoch
were employed again in the 1984 and 1986 women's uprisings against the oil
companies near Warri. In the 1984 Ogharefe uprising 10,000 women also used
the 'curse of nakedness' to damn male dealers and representatives of a U.S.
oil company who had so damaged the productive commons that a whole way of
life was undermined. Another key feature of the 1980's struggles is the
solidarity they struck between women and some men, often their sons, against
a few older and more powerful men who were targeted as having sold out the
community in deals with the oil companies and government.
(Taken from: Women's uprisings against the Nigerian oil industry in the
1980s, (T. E. Turner and M.O. Oshare, 1993); and Women, Oil and Land: the
Ogoni Social Movement and the 1994 Oil Strike in Nigeria (T. E. Turner, 1997))
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