Indigenous Niger Delta Woman: A Microcosm of Denied Rights and Dignity
Fears and experience
In recent times, I have been nursing deep seated concern over the indigenous Niger Delta woman’s dilemma and double apprehension about ever finding myself in her shoes. This goes beyond the topical Chevron gas facility explosion, though it just may have contributed in some wise. I am not a Niger woman by ethnicity, but I am by affiliation and cause. I reason too that I can one day wake up to discover that I have become one by way of experience; so can every woman out there who may not at the moment have their roots in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Every single living and or unborn woman has the proclivity of becoming a replica of the indigenous Niger Delta Woman. What if you and I woke up and heard breaking news that crude oil has been discovered in our indigenous communities? I cringe at this thought because it would definitely mean one has become a replica of the Niger Delta woman by origin and experience. What is it about being one, a curse? My fear of becoming one rests on the oars of the dehumanizing conditions that characterize her daily life and has become her lot.
As an environmental activist and advocate of women’s empowerment, I have come to recognize that environmental threats have the harshest effects on women, especially those at the grassroots.
Even so, most sustainable development efforts do not take the role of women into account and pay little or no attention to supporting them. In every society, indigenous women account for the highest percentage of the least empowered, as majority of them lack political power, confidence, basic skills, dignity and visibility. In my years of working to promote the rights of women to natural resources and the few opportunities I’ve had to transverse and visit some localities in the Niger Delta Region, I’ve come to admit that the circumstances that surround the life of the indigenous women are most distressing and unjustified. In addition to the patriarchal challenges the society has imposed, the unsustainable exploration of oil in her community daily subjects and exposes her to high levels of environmental risks and deprivation. Since she is somewhat confined to her community where her perspectives are disregarded without recourse, perhaps, the only place where she may be able to adequately express her rights and have dignity will be in wonderland.
Once prided heritage
The Niger Delta woman has her origins in the biodiversity and oil and gas resources rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria, which is the world’s third largest wetland. Freshwater swamp forests alone cover some 11,700km2 or about half of the delta, lowland equatorial monsoon 7,400km2, brackish water 5,400km2, sand barrier lands 11,400km2 all totaling 25,640km.2. The Niger Delta, bulging out into the Gulf of Guinea between the Bight (Bay) of Benin and the Bight of Biafra covers more than 10,000 square miles, and has a shoreline of about 200 miles of its fourteen main tributaries. Rural population densities on limited islands of dry land in the freshwater eco-zone are unequivocally high. The situation is made worse because most of the water eco-zone (about 20% of the Niger Delta) is unsafe for habitation. Lands fit for human habitations as well as agriculture are a few hundreds of hectares and are very precious to the people. For centuries, the people of the region have habited the region, which they see as their ancestral home. Typically, many of them had their homes built in the creeks, with materials sourced from the biodiversity rich mangrove that once characterized the region. The people, of course, have very strong connections to their territories; and would readily not accept the option of leaving their ancestral homes.
The region has a steadily growing population estimated to be over 30 million people as of 2005, accounting for more than 23% of Nigeria's total population. Its population density of 265 people per kilometer-squared, is also among the highest in the world. This region has contributed immensely to the Nigerian economy from the oil sector which provides 20% GDP, over 80% of foreign exchange earnings and about 65% of budgetary revenues. According to a recent Nigerian Country Analysis Brief, there are about 606 oil fields in the region, of which 360 are on-shore and 246 off-shore, and 11 multinational oil companies operating 1,481 oil wells. With an estimated production of 2.5 metric barrels and on the current price of $113 per barrel, Nigeria's total earnings from Crude Oil Sales is $101.7 billion, that is, 16.272 trillion per annum. It is worthy of note that the oil sector is the highest contributor to Nigeria’s GDP; and crude oil continues to play a prominent role in the economy.
In every context, however, the condition of our dear Niger Delta sister, mother, daughter and friend is an irony of these fiscal realities. She is plagued by poverty and lacks access to basic services such as clean water, sanitation, education and health care, just as her once priced ancestral home’s peculiar terrain, diverse animals and plant species are now threatened with extinction; due mainly to very serious ecological degradation caused by over forty-five years of crude oil exploration. The Gross National Product per capita in the area is well below the national average of $280; doctor-patient ratio is one doctor per 132, 000 people, and documented estimates reveal that only 27% of the people in the area have access to safe drinking water. By the day, the representations are getting worse! The communities have continued to struggle to protect their environment, health and livelihoods and many times have had to cower as their demands have often met with very stiff and sometimes, violent opposition from the corporations and the government whose sole interest is taking the natural resources of the people. Many have lost their investments in housing and arable land and in very extreme cases, their lives.
State of affairs and human rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights catapulted the issue of human rights to the forefront of international politics and touched off a worldwide human rights movement. But nations that sign United Nations Covenants and other International Treaties do not always uphold their responsibilities. The forth chapter of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which deals with the fundamental human rights, disallows discrimination against any person on the basis of sex, religion, ethnicity in ownership of landed property. This has however not removed the internalized attitudes of discrimination against women, especially as it concerns their rights to natural resources and demand for a healthy environment.
Women’s claims to natural resources (land, water, forests, plants and wildlife) are of priority concern because they are fundamental to women’s economic security, social and legal status, and as a matter of fact, their survival. For example, land has been known as the basis of all wealth, handed down through generations as a greatest thing of worth. It defines the social, economic and political relations in the society and is the most crucial factor of production. In some cycles, it is described as both a resource and a focal point of social identity and solidarity. Despite the worth of land and its ability to bring about economic growth and social prestige, its ownership and use are subject to cultural norms which are mostly discriminatory against women. Women, more often than not, derive usufructuary rights to land from their father, husband or son and such lands which tend to be smaller and located in marginal areas are often not put into any other use than farming. According to Human Rights Watch (2006), Women’s insecure property rights contribute to low agricultural production, food shortages, under employment and rural poverty.
Women play a critical role in the economy of the Niger Delta, and certainly in the rural communities, as producers of food majorly via fishing and farming. With the devastation of the eco system, the oil-soaked lands are no longer farmable, and fishing no longer thrives because what used to be home to one of the most diverse marine life communities has been rendered almost completely useless by the toxicity of the waters. Though socio cultural factors denies the Niger Delta woman a formal claim to productive assets/natural resources, environmental degradation constitutes the greatest issue that hampers her self worth; and ability to make contributions to local, state and national economic growth. Considering the multi-million dollars revenue accruing to the powers that be, it would not be surprising if her contributions are considered inconsequential. The dichotomy of oil wealth and lack of social benefits for the women, their families and communities is atrocious.
By the day, an increasing number of women are joining those who have lost their homes, lands, livelihoods and lives. The negative impact of unsustainable systems of oil and gas exploration remains a threat to farming and fishing which are a daily part of the lives of the Niger Delta woman. Approximately 70% of the mangrove area has been destroyed with no hope of remediation. Safe water has become scarcer and the women suffer most especially because they are the main collectors, users and managers of water and lack influence over development decisions in their communities. Aside from their domestic water needs, the women need water to secure their livelihoods, however, they have watched helplessly as oil spills and related pollutants continue to make useable water scarcer. The women are bearing so much health burden as a result of their polluted water sources, and this is impoverishing for many. These women account for a significant portion of the 300 million and over 500 million people across Africa, who have no access to safe water and who are affected by water borne diseases, respectively. Water crises is looming as this vital resource have been devastated by oil spills. Many women and their families have been forced to abandon their lands and homes without hope for a better area/alternative. Their lost livelihoods and long term health are undoubtedly priced below corporate and personal profit of the oil companies and authorities of the day. Their rights are overlooked, down played and violated with reckless abandon. The boom in the oil industry is now the requiem of the Niger Delta woman as many are poor , ailing, hungry and angry; just as much as their chances of survival in the region keeps dwindling.
Reaction to entrenched wrongs
With an average of 300 separate oil spills, the Niger Delta area is reputed to have one of the highest incidences of environmental disasters in the world annually, and the livelihoods of the former thriving fishing and farming villages have been drastically affected: http://www.vanguardngr.com/2011/02/ibom-fishermen-pray-for-oil-spill-fre..., leading to a critical rise in poverty and unemployment. In addition to the oil spills and fires N450 million worth of associated gas is flared per day with attendant environmental consequences on the health of the people. The rights of the host communities to a safe, healthy and life giving environment has been grossly undermined, and women remain the most vulnerable. Difficulties in earning a living and agitations has resulted in the desecration of womanhood as revealed by alarming rise in prostitution, teenage pregnancies, broken homes and several reported cases of rape and repression of women of the Niger Delta.
Two grim stories:
“In October 1998, Eunice, a housewife left home in the early hours of the morning, to the farm to harvest cassava, but never returned home. Her remains were lost amidst the many (estimated 1000) charred bodies that littered the scene of a petrol pipeline explosion. All that told the story was her Karta (“head pan) that was found not too far away from the spot of an alleged vandalized pipeline. Many others like her have died in similar gory circumstances. Those who are alive to tell their stories have lost their self worth as they remain subjects of intimidation, harassment, deprivation and exclusion”.
“Dead fishes are everywhere, they have continued to float, and we can no longer find periwinkles and crayfish. How will my family feed now and how will I send my children to school. This is too much, there is no water to drink and we have being perceiving strange smells since that oil company’s (Chevron) property on the water caught fire. All is not well with our surroundings. We need help!” these were the words of a woman from Sangana community in reaction to the January 16th, 2012, Chevron Gas facility explosion that left a lot of devastating impacts on its trail.
Many devastating impacts have gone unreported, thanks however to the Nigerian media that made sure that the most recent Chevron Gas Facility explosion did not toe the same line. It’s been four months now, but I still shudder every time I recall the grim footages that were beamed during the reportage. Toxic gases were obviously making the rounds in the air, dead fishes and other aquatic animals floated. Members of the affected communities portrayed in the report looked very disgruntled. Their dwellings and environment bore negligible signs of development and no trace of their rich economic heritage. Unjustifiable hardship was apparent, as one gloomy looking woman declared in local English parlance that they had become dead bodies (sauntering corpses). As many complained of health discomforts which they linked to the disaster. I imagined how for lack of option, the women would have prepared meals from the contaminated marine foods and water, coupled with highly poisonous gases inhaled. Images of how the Niger Delta woman carries on her family’s burdens in addition to hers, while living in constant danger and impoverishment, played wide and wild in my thoughts; and I came to a conclusion that she is a Prisoner of Conscience (defined by Amnesty International as “people imprisoned because of peaceful expression of their beliefs, politics, race, religion, color, or national origin”).
All over the world, people in poverty are demanding dignity. They want an end to the injustice and exclusion that keep them trapped in deprivation. They want to have control over the decisions that affect their lives. They want their rights to be respected and their voices to count. The Niger Delta woman has not been left out of these demands. For long, she had stood in quiet decorum to realize her aspirations against intimidation and hostilities in her community. She has also had to adopt various other means that sometimes exposed her to very grave dangers. In the 1980s, indigenous delta women began raising their voices against the activities of oil industries in their communities. Women’s resistance however, took a new and influential dimension in the early 1990s. With the support of the Ogoni movement, 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 extra-judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged by the Nigerian State along with eight other activists in 1995.
By the early 2000s the Niger Delta women’s rebellion against oil companies became widely reported. Women across the region organized several 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 ethnic groups – Ijaw, Itsekiri and Ilaje – came together in an alliance with young people in actions against 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 colossal unifying achievement because the different ethnic groups had previously been in conflict with each other for many years over the meager resources handed out by government and oil companies.
Period of Militancy and courage
Between 2005 and 2011, the agitations took another dimension as it gave rise to militancy in the region. In response, the government drafted soldiers that went by the name, Joint Task Force to the region. Women became caught up in the numerous killings, maiming, kidnappings, and rapes that became the order of the day, and many lost their lives. Whole villages were sacked and there were dismal accounts of how women had to flee and seek refuge away from their villages. Only the women who survived the ordeals lived to tell the story of how scores of of their children, husbands, relatives, friends and neighbours lost their lives. 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.
Also worthy of mention, were the Militant activities in Rumuekpe where the presence of four oil companies operating in the vicinity of the town engendered rivalries among the militias, traditional leaders and other opportunists whose interests revolved around getting their shares of the oil monies. Women were of course left out when monies exchanged hands. As a result of the affirmed attacks by the Nigerian Army’s Joint Task Force (JTF) and repeated intimidation by local militias’ many more women were drawn into political activity. 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.
The era of militancy, however, seems to be over, especially with the offer of amnesty to ex militants who were willing to sheath their swords. Today, many of the ex militants who are usually men, have benefitted from the grandiose offered them by the Nigerian Government and some of the oil companies. In the midst of all the reconciliation and wing dinging nothing has changed for the Niger Delta woman. Once again, she has been excluded from all the largesse, except for the very announcement that the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, had teamed up with Shell Petroleum Development Company to broaden its skills acquisition program to especially target rural women across the oil-rich region. It is anticipated that many more good spirited organs of the society will follow suit by channeling their benevolence in the direction of the long marginalized ingenuous women.
Working for change
For the sake of their children’s future, the Niger Delta woman is once more calling for sane management of her ancestral lands. Today I join my voice with hers because her future, those of her family, community members and upcoming generations are at stake. A possible solution to this dilemma is sustainable development, a term popularized in a 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Developemnt called Our Common Future. In the words of this report, sustainable development means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Development means improving people’s lives. Sustainable development means extending progress, without exhausting resources, beyond the foreseeable future. Though some school of thought have argued that the idea of sustainable development meant may be impossible, in as much as development is continually dependent on resource exploitation, especially as most of our natural resources are non renewable. To be truly enduring, the benefits of sustainable development must be available to all humans, rather than to just the members of a privileged few. We must learn to use our natural resources in ways that do not diminish them and deprive anyone of access to them. The injustice and exclusion that has held the indigenous Niger Delta woman spellbound in a cycle of deprivation needs to be broken.
All the many laws and conventions on paper have probably not made much difference in the life of many a woman, especially because Global partnership which the 9th millennium development dwells on is not taken seriously and capitalized upon in tackling the myriad of problems that reinforce gender disparities. The Niger delta woman and many others like her may live in perpetual desolation if our world leaders refuse to come up measures that will ensure effective monitoring of the implementation and or violations of conventions and treaties by partners; especially those that have significant gender dimensions. The issue of gender equality may also not have far reaching effects on women’s lives as it was intended basically because what is equal may not necessarily be fair and or just. Equity which is founded upon the principles of what is fair and just may be the only hope for the poor woman, whose rights to collect or use and manage natural resources have been compromised. Mr. Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations said: “When women thrive, all of society benefits, and succeeding generations are given a better start in life.” I dare add that, responding to the Niger Delta Woman’s (and many others like her) demand for the protection of her ancestral lands means honoring her rights and dignity and helping her break out of the poverty trap!” We would not be overstepping our bounds, going too far or asking for too much if we seek out help from our world leaders, I hope?
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