Niger Delta, Nigeria -- Abiteye village lies in the heart of the Niger Delta region. American oil giant ChevronTexaco has a gas plant and an oil flow station here. But for its oil installations, the company's premises could pass for a maximum-security prison. Barbwire fences and iron bars separate the company from the community. Inside the company's premises, police, soldiers and naval personnel clutching assault rifles stand guard.
The company has operated here over the last 30 years, but its relationship with the community is far from cordial. The community leaders say the ChevronTexaco has, for the most part, been a negative force in their lives. They say the only positive role played by ChevronTexaco is the occasional permission they are granted to travel in one of the company's speedboats.
A ChevronTexaco plan to withdraw the boats last June sparked off anger among women in the riverside community. In protest they used their canoes to block a creek that leads to the company's premises.
Steps were promptly taken to clear the blockade. Two military gunboats dispatched to the area from their base at another ChevronTexaco facility sank two of the canoes by ramming into them. Luckily all the women in the canoes swarm to safety. "We never imagined that ChevronTexaco would resort to military action to quell our protest," says Funke Tonjoh, one of the lucky escapees.
At least six ChevronTexaco installations in the Niger Delta were shut down by local women demanding basic services in their communities.
But rather than intimidate them, the incident toughened the women's resolve to take on the company. Barely a month after the gunboat incident, on July 16th the women defied the heavy security and occupied the flow station, forcing the facility's operations to a halt.
The women's occupation of the Abiteye flow station is not an isolated case. Angry women in the Escravos community made international headlines when they shut down the company's main oil facility where 400,000 barrels of crude oil are exported daily. In recent weeks, at least six ChevronTexaco installations in the Niger Delta have suffered closure by local women demanding social services in their communities. Some of the company's installations in other parts of the Niger Delta are under similar threat of a shut down by women.
Livelihoods and Environment Threatened
Christiana Mene, who led the occupation at the Escravos facility in July, said ChevronTexaco has hampered fishing, which is the traditional occupation of most women and many men in her community.
"ChevronTexaco's operations has killed the fishes here and driven the remaining ones far into the sea," says Mene who makes her living fishing. "In the past if you go to fish, you will find abundant fish in the rivers and creeks within a short time, but now you will spend a whole day fishing without catching anything."
The Niger Delta is one of the largest wetlands in the world, with the Atlantic Ocean at its doorstep and a network of rivers and creeks crisscrossing the area. But fishing has become less lucrative over the years as a result of the oil industry pollution.
Fisherman Friday Febude need not look far to see how the oil industry affects him. He lives besides a creek near the ChevronTexaco flow station at Abiteye. From his window he sees effluent and waste oil emptied into the creek.
"The tide carries the crude oil and other harmful chemicals into other creeks and rivers, killing fishes and other aquatic animals in the process," Febude explained.
"The tide carries the crude oil and other harmful chemicals creeks and rivers, killing fishes and other aquatic animals in the process."
-- Friday Febude, Fisherman, Niger Delta
He recalls that when ChevronTexaco first arrived the area 30 years ago, nobody wanted to work with the company because those who fished at that time earned three times the monthly salary of an oil worker. "In those days, only those who are too lazy to fish, work with the oil companies," he said.
With no fish to catch, Febude is now jobless. Most of the women who have chosen to confront ChevronTexaco are married to unemployed men like Febude. One of their key demands is the employment of their jobless husbands.
"Our husbands can no longer take care of us and our children. The company has to bear responsibility for this by employing them," says Mene.
The Poor Get Poorer
Nigeria is the world's sixth largest oil producer. But over the last 40 years of oil exploitation in the area the Nigerian government and multinational oil companies like ChevronTexaco, the Anglo-Dutch company Shell Petroleum and ExxonMobil have been sharing oil proceeds running into billions of dollars a year. By contrast, local communities have been excluded from oil riches. The area has seen little or no development in the last four decades.
Niger Delta families live in poverty, traveling in primitive dug out canoes and sleeping in houses made of straw and leaves. In most cases, they lack basic services like electricity, clean water, roads and health facilities. The women lament the absence of these amenities in their communities.
The lack of medical care in Abiteye has proven rather costly for the women there. "When we are pregnant, we have to travel for more than two hours by speed boat to get to the nearest hospital for ante natal care and childbirth," says Josephine Ogoba, who led the women who shut down ChevronTexaco's installation in Abiteye. She has seen many sick people and pregnant women die due to lack of medical facilities in the area.
"My brother fell sick and died in the village, I also almost died during my second pregnancy just because there is no hospital here," Ogoba recalls.
Who Can be Held Accountable?
For the people of the Niger Delta, it is a difficult task getting the Nigerian government or the oil companies to provide basic services in compensation for the oil taken from their land. The Nigerian government does not have a visible presence in the Niger Delta. On the other hand, the oil companies who are clearly visible in the Delta say it is not their responsibility but that of the government, to provide basic services.
"ChevronTexaco is not the government and we can not pretend to be the government," noted a company official who wished to remain anonymous.
"The oil companies have to put back part of the wealth they get from our land."
-- Reuben Tonjoh, Abiteye resident
But the people of the Niger Delta think differently. "The oil companies have to put back part of the wealth they get from our land. They are the ones we see, we don't know any government, it is ChevronTexaco that has come here to take our oil that we know," says Abiteye resident Reuben Tonjoh.
The Nigerian government, meanwhile, has remained silent on the community activists' demands.
Repression and Corruption
Oil accounts for more than 90 percent of Nigeria's income. In a country where corruption is rife, it is widely understood that a good chunk of oil money ends up in the private bank accounts of top government officials. Successive governments in the country have been extremely sensitive to anything that will disrupt the flow of oil.
The desperation to keep oil flowing out of the Niger Delta has increased further with the discovery of more oil reserves and an increase in the country's capacity to increase oil output. US officials want to reduce dependence on Middle East oil. Oil from the Niger Delta is a potential source that can make up the short fall.
Protests carried out by local youth demanding that multinational oil corporations clean up pollution caused by their operations are often brutally suppressed by the military. Human rights groups estimate that more than two thousand people in the Niger Delta have been killed in the last ten years by soldiers and police sent to protect the interest of multinational oil companies.
In the most notorious case, in 1995 the military government of General Sani Abacha executed the playwright and environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists fighting oil exploitation in their homeland.
Nigeria's return to civil rule in 1998 never brought succor for Niger Delta communities, according to residents. The civilian government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, like its military predecessors, still relied on the military to quell communal unrest in the Niger Delta. In one instance, the government sent in soldiers to the town of Odi. The military's rampage left more than a hundred people dead and completely destroyed the town.
Plans by the United States to sell boats to the Nigerian military to police the Niger Delta were strongly opposed by human rights groups fearing they would be used to perpetrate abuses in the area.
Women Take Charge
Christiana Mene says women must take on the struggle in the Niger Delta in the face of the number of youth that have been killed. "Soldiers kill our youths under the excuse that they steal or vandalize oil installations during communal protests," she said.
Abiteye activist Josephine Ogoba says the women's protests achieved a remarkable result without the loss of lives. The occupation of five of the ChevronTexaco facilities ended after about ten days following agreements between the women and senior company executives.
Dick Filgate, an executive of ChevronTexaco's parent company, told the Abiteye women that "we now have a different philosophy and that is to do with communities."
Ogoba said it was remarkable that the women were able to bring an executive of the oil company to the negotiating table. "His presence made a lot of difference. He pleaded guilty," she explained.
ChevronTexaco has promised to meet the community's demands for employment and the provision of social amenities in Abiteye. For now, it is too early to say whether the company will live up to its word. The demands are supposed to be implemented over several months.
Communities in the Niger Delta say multinational oil companies are notorious for not keeping to agreements. The women concede that even if the company fulfils the agreements this time around, there is still a long way to go. Accords have not yet been hammered out on the more complex issue of compensation for past environmental damage resulting from oil pollution. Negotiations will take place in the coming weeks on issues not covered by the recent agreements in the different Delta communities.
And ChevronTexaco executives are well aware that they could face new protests by women in the Delta if negotiations break down.
Sam Olukoya reports for the BBC from Nigeria.