Niger Delta 2: Ogoni women and the Struggle for Self Determination.


There are approximately 500,000 Ogoni living in some 200 villages spread across 400 square miles of land just north of the River’s State capital of Port Harcourt. Like other parts of the Delta region, Ogoniland is criss-crossed with hundreds of miles of pipelines carrying crude oil many of which pass close to homes and farmland. Dotted around the network of pipelines are gas flares which have been burning for the past 40 years spouting black dust and fumes day in day out. In addition due to the pipes running along the surface and poor maintenance by the oil companies there are constant spills and leakages most of which have been left to destroy the ecology system. It is this ecological abuse together with the failure of successive Nigerian governments to develop the region and to allocate a fair share of the resources to the people as well as the refusal of multinationals to adequately compensate local people for damage to their land, that forms the backdrop to the continued struggle in the Niger Delta.

As I stated in last week’s post the Ogoni women through the Federation of Ogoni Women’s Associations (FOWA) were crucial both to MOSOP and to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s leadership. When I visited Ogoni women in February 2000, woman after woman repeated the one condition that would enable Shell to return which was the return of Ken Saro-Wiwa. By this they meant as long as they were standing, Shell would never return to Ogoniland. In actively participating in the Ogoni struggle, FOWA are part of a long history of protest by Nigerian women against colonial and neo-colonialist capital dating back to the turn of the century ………

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 [Amadiume 1987, Mba 1982]. The Aba women’s wars of 1928-1929, the Egba women’s movement of the early 1930s to the 1950s, the Ogharefe women’s uprising of 1984, the Ughelli women’s anti-tax protests of 1985-1986, and the Ekpan women’s uprising of 1986 are some examples. [1]

However the emergence of the Ogoni struggle and formation of MOSOP in 1991 brought about a dramatic change in the characteristics of the fight back from the commons. The main factor influencing the changes in the form of resistance was the consolidation of the “corporate military state”, an alliance between the Nigerian Military government and the multinational oil companies such as Shell, Mobil, Chevron, Elf and Agip. Essentially this led to the struggle for self-determination and resource control (See Ogoni Bill of Rights) becoming a “gendered class alliance between previously separately organised groups and in some cases directly opposed ones.

Gendered class alliances were struck in Nigeria’s contemporary cycle of struggle when women organized autonomously against the exploitation of oil corporations and local male dealers. When men broke from the male deal and joined the autonomously-organized women to challenge capital and male dealers, gendered class alliances grew stronger. [2]

At the time of MOSOP’s formation, FOWA which was one of 9 associated groups, was well established and already engaged in protests against Shell and the environmental devastation it was unleashing on their farm lands. [3] However the formation of MOSOP, whose organisational structure gave each of the 9 members 3 equal votes, meant FOWA and the voices of Ogoni women became not only more structured and formalised but also more powerful . Right from the beginning it was clear that KSW had the mandate of Ogoni women behind him and for this the women paid the high price of loss of livelihood, beatings, rapes and murders.
The following excerpts from testimonies [3] by Ogoni women speak to both belief the women had in KSW and more so, to the determination to fight for Ogoni liberation from the tyranny of the Corporate Military State of Nigeria.

Ken Khana Kingdom: In the old days the army and shell would be here. Shell and Nigerian government bring the army to destroy. They forced our pregnant women to run and forced them to deliver untimely babies. They arrested Ken Saro Wiwa (KSW) put him in detention hanged him innocently – and our women are suffering it till tomorrow.

You all know that women are people that seek truth, had it been KSW did any wrong or any bad women of this nature wouldn’t have followed him and because he was on a truth way that is he stood for truth and justice that is why the women of Ogoni came out in mass to follow him.

One particular day which stands out in the memory of many Ogoni women is Ogoni Day, 4 January 1993. On that day some 300,000 Ogoni, many of them women and members of FOWA, came out to protest against Shell. The next testimony tells of the kind of horror unleashed against women for daring to stand up to Shell and the Nigerian military government of Sani Abacha.

Nyo Kingdom That very fateful day KSW was coming to a rally and the women and men (MOSOP ) were singing to receive him (KSW) into the town. They were by the main road. Meeting up with them the army asked us to stop and what we are doing. They asked us to turn back but we said we will not turn back that we are waiting for Ken and we want to see him – there was an army man among them that just kneeled down on the main road – pick up some sand put it in his mouth (that is a swear) that if they did not turn back right now that he is going to clear them all – right from there they started beating us we were running we did not know where to run to – within a short time we saw Ken’s car coming it was right in our town that they arrested him.

The only question he asked them was “is this how the Nigerian government arranged for today???” just like this other woman was saying it was just the same thing they started beating the women after arresting Ken because some of the men when with him – beating the women, dragging them into the bush started to rape them loosing their cloth too – her husband married two of them and her mate was with pregnancy – one army man just carried his leg and hit her (in the stomach) and she happens to miscarry – that was the beginning of struggle and suffering in NyoKhana.
The very person, the very human we were expecting our help to come from is Ken Saro Wiwa and he has been killed

One of the tactics used by the Nigerian government is the age old divide and rule method setting one ethnic group against the other. This is done by awarding one community compensation or improving infrastructure such as a school or clinic and ignoring the neighbouring community. Although these are materially very small they are often accompanied by implying that the neighbouring community’s continued uprising against the government is using up resources which could otherwise be used to improve a village or provide jobs to local people. The following testimony refers to a series of altercations between the Babbe Kingdon and their Andoni neighbours.

Babbe Kingdom “before we get up in the morning the first thing we heard before the cock crows is gunshot army people had come through Andoni – because only the river separates us, right from the night and before they themselves knew the enemies are around they have surround the whole place – they started shooting guns but there was no where for people to run and hide – many of the men were being killed, little children, pregnant women – many lives lost and their animals were looted, properties houses were looted out.”

“ After the execution (of KSW) our names (FOWA) women were sent down to the (Captain ) so we did hide in the forest and made our meetings in the bush. We had enemies giving reports of what is happening in the bush and they went to tell the captain that FOWA were still meeting in the forest. So there was a day when we were in a meeting. Unexpectedly the army came and some people ran away. Many were shot. There was a lady Blessing her hand was shot and up till today her hand is useless to her.”

The full formal participation of Ogoni women in MOSOP under the banner of FOWA was highly a significant act by the founders. The representation of women in a class gendered alliance provided MOSOP with a powerful following which was able to challenge both the Ogoni elite as well as the Nigerian government and oil companies. KSW clearly recognised that women are on the frontline of the struggle and the ones who form the backbone of the rural economies in this region. It is women who farm, fish, produce, process and sell foodstuffs, care for livestock, collect water and firewood, as well as bear and raise children, care for the elderly and the sick and run the domestic household.

One effective way of undermining a community is to target women specifically through acts of rape, forced prostitution, beatings and sexual harassment. Likewise any act of violence against the community indirectly targets women and has a disproportionate psychological, emotional and physical impact on their lives. Attacks on women undermines the whole community and as mothers, daughters, wives and sisters they are affected by violence inflicted on men such as beatings, murder and detention, and the community, such as whole scale destruction of villages, property and livestock. [5].
It will therefore be interesting to see whether the forthcoming trial of Shell [beginning on 26th May] for environmental damage of Ogoniland and complicity in the judicial murder of KSW will include testimonies by members of FOWA who at least, between 1990 and 2000, were very much central to the Ogoni struggle.

[1] Turner, Teresa *& M O O’Share – Women’s uprisings against the Nigerian oil industry in the 1980s,
[2] Turner, Terisa & Sokari Ekine et a -l “Fightback from the Commons: Gendered Class Alliances and Petroleum Struggles in Nigeria’s Oilbelt: 1980-2002” 2001
[3] Fightback from the Commons
[4] Ekine, Sokari — “Testimonies of Violence from Women of the Niger Delta” Research paper, 2000
[5] Ekine, Sokari “Women’s Response to State Violence in the Niger Delta” in Feminist Africa, Issue 10, 2008