The Role of Women in the Struggle for Environmental Justice in Ogoni

On the April 25, 1997, the Federation of Ogoni Women's Associations (FOWA), an umbrella organization for all women's groups in Ogoni, the oil rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria, made a resolution. It 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, were made and signed (those who could not sign, thumb printed) by over 300 women leaders in Ogoni who represented FOWA's 57,000 registered members.

This action was made by a well-organized 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-organized? And where do they fit into their people's struggle? The era of the most intense protests began on January 4th, 1993, when the Ogoni people took their future into their hands and peacefully protested nearly four decades of environmental devastation by the Shell oil company. Over 300,000 people participated from a total Ogoni population of 500,000 and not a single stone was thrown.

Women played a key role in organizing that massive protest. 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 organization which represents the voice of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta. MOSOP acts as an umbrella organization for a number of Ogoni groups, which together have a total membership of over 250,000 individuals: 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, like rest of the MOSOP units, is independent but guided by MOSOP policies. However, it is widely recognized that FOWA has grown to be the strongest component of the nine existing units of MOSOP.

The Ogoni are an indigenous ethnic group in the oil rich Niger Delta of Nigeria. Its 500,000 people live in an area of approximately 404 square miles. The people depend on fishing, farming, and trading for sustenance. This close relationship with the land means Ogoni communities have placed strong emphasis on the care of the environment, believing it to be the life-giving source of the people and the dwelling place of their ancestors.

The Oil Industry in Ogoni

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 return to the people, the social consequences of the unleashed environmental nightmare have been unbearable. The Ogoni saw their farmland being expropriated without compensation for oil extraction and faced no alternative means of survival. Pipelines often crisscrossed valuable farmland and poisonous gases flared into the atmosphere close to communities. Aging oil equipment often failed and leaked oil into communities and farms without adequate clean-up or compensation. The standards applied by Shell were completely destructive of the environment, as well as the Ogoni that were dependent upon 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 and escape to the urban areas.

Traditionally, when an Ogoni 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 also allowed 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 Ogoni women to invest in cultural activities such as art, dancing, singing, and pottery. From the testimonies of older women, it is clear there were less tensions in the home. However, the constant acquisition of new territory for oil exploitation and the resulting pollution from the industry, has left the Ogoni women with no means to feed or support their families. This has given rise to tensions in the home and community.

Polluted streams are an added burden for the women who have to travel further away from home to get water for their domestic chores. Their children have not received employment in the oil industry that had disposed them of their birthright (some 50 Ogoni were employed mainly as cleaners and drivers between 1958 and 1993), making young men and women a continuing responsibility for their mothers long after they should have been independent.

The physical health of a household has usually been dependent upon women, who commonly had specific knowledge of local medicines. She learned about the local cures during her "fattening room" period. This is a period which 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 community. As pressure grows for young women to devote more time and energy on shrinking agricultural resources, very little time is left for them to acquire specialized health knowledge through the fattening room period. For those women who do spend time in the fattening room, the period rarely exceeds two months after which the young woman must return to farming. The loss of the fattening room and other traditions led the Ogoni women to make a conscious decision to organize against the oil industry on their land, a force they saw as being clearly responsible for cultural degradation in Ogoni.

Violence Against Ogoni Women

Since the grand protest of January 4th, 1993, Ogoni women have experienced, first-hand, the violent reprisals instigated by the Nigerian military and their Shell counterparts. The first incidence of violence was on April 28th, 1993. Mrs. Karalole, an Ogoni woman, went to her farm very early in the morning. Upon 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. Karalole then left to inform the rest of the villagers about what was happening. Thousands of villagers came out carrying leaves (a symbol of protest) and protested peacefully. The soldiers shot into the crowd of protesters. An Ogoni man, Mr. Atu, was shot dead and several others seriously wounded, including Mrs. Karalole, who later had her arm amputated from the gun shot wound she sustained. Despite this event, the Ogoni continued to organize. FOWA established units all over Ogoni and expanded its activities in all Ogoni communities.

FOWA's Actions

FOWA's activities are not entirely based around protest. FOWA has made efforts to revive threatened cultural practices, such as pottery and basket weaving. FOWA has also developed plans and programs into areas like traditional family planning methods, health, and the education of young girls. A key program was created to inform and educate young Ogoni women about sexually transmitted diseases and birth control (prostitution was on the rise believed to have some link with the oil industry). FOWA planned to set up a resource center for its activities. In order to implement these programs, funds were raised through membership fees and contributions from existing and new women's cooperatives.

The family planning discussions started in some Ogoni communities when the next wave of military attacks hit the Ogoni people in August 1993. The people were caught completely unaware. By August 1994, 30 villages were destroyed, over 2,000 people killed, more than 3,000 injured, and approximately 100,000 Ogoni became 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 great number of refugees.

Ogoni had become a war zone. MOSOP released a plea for help to the wider Nigerian and international community. We finally received help from the Daughters of Charity, a Catholic relief agency 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 the Daughters of Charity to distribute food and aid. By July, 1994, the women's resources were completely exhausted.

The refugees and ruined villages were still a problem, market squares where women traded their goods with neighboring 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 Ogoni people had started rebuilding some of the villages when the Canadian government and another international organization supplemented their efforts. Seven villages were rebuilt including a school and a major market in Kaa.

Still, no matter how FOWA and the Ogoni people worked to recover, the Nigerian military gave them no respite. On the morning of April 21st, 1994, Ogoni leader and spokesperson Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested on inflated charges. He was incarcerated for nine months before being charged and arraigned before a special military tribunal. To silence the well publicized campaign of the Ogoni for environmental justice, an Internal Security Task Force (ISTF) was set up by the Nigerian dictatorship to terrorize the Ogoni. What followed was another story of horror. The ISTF set out, in the words of the commander of the force, to "sanitize 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. (prefers that her real name is not mentioned) fled into the forest along with her three younger siblings. She was only 16. 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 food and water from their abandoned home. On her way back, and just a few feet from her makeshift 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 traumatized.

This is just one of the many stories of rape and repression Ogoni women have, and continue to experience because of their demands for justice from Shell. Its presence has not only devastated their land but has impoverished Ogoni women and subsequently, the community. 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 feed and attend to the hundreds of Ogoni detainees taken by the Nigerian soldiers, as well as organize and assist each other to the best of their ability.

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 provided moral support for those detained or despairing the conditions in Ogoni today. Being a religious people(although most are Christian, many Ogoni still retain their traditional beliefs), Ogoni women have continued to organize religious events like prayer meetings despite the many arrests and threats from Nigerian soldiers who continually harass them. This spirit is at the core of the Ogoni struggle.

The struggle of Ogoni women culminated April 25th, 1997 when FOWA established their resolution against Shell for the injuries they have caused to the Ogoni over the past four decades and to insult Shell's arrogance. While Shell may look on the environment as a source of profits for their shareholders and jobs for their staff, the Ogoni look upon the environment as a source of their being. Its destruction irrevocably affects the Ogoni people. When all the oil is gone and their is no more money to be made, Shell will leave. The women, men, and children of Ogoni will have to salvage what is left.

FOWA has united women of all generations. It has also been able to bring the thoughts of the women in the community together in one voice. There are 126 branches of FOWA, and one in every Ogoni village. In January, 1997, an international office was set up in Toronto, Canada. FOWA also has offices in St. Louis, Missouri and Ohio.

The international offices' aim is to raise awareness in the international community about the destructive nature of oil exploitation to the Ogoni community as a whole, but paying special attention to the most vulnerable members of Ogoni society. FOWA also seeks to build a support base for the Ogoni women in Ogoni and abroad. FOWA aims to learn from, and network with other women from around the world who have had to fight to save their lands. In 1993, Ogoni women found that they and all Ogoni had no choice but to effectively organize their protests against Shell and the Nigerian dictatorship. Through early grassroots organizing in all Ogoni communities and by ensuring a democratic process in decision making, FOWA won the complete loyalty of Ogoni women. Its success was not only rooted in its commitment to organizing the protests against oil exploitation, but in its commitment to strengthening cultural practices and increasing the political role of Ogoni women at the village level. By ensuring cultural survival while fighting for environmental justice, FOWA has made itself one of the most effective grassroots women's movements in Africa.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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