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Struggling for autonomy (2)

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. Because the pipes run along the surface, and thanks to poor maintenance by the oil companies, there are constant spills and leakages, most of which have been left to destroy the local environment. 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 and 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 my earlier post, the Ogoni women – through the Federation of Ogoni Women’s Associations (FOWA) – were crucial both to MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) and to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s leadership. When I visited Ogoni women in February 2000, they reiterated time and again that only on one condition would they allow Shell to return: the return of Ken Saro-Wiwa. By this they meant that 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 20th 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 fightback from the commons. The main factor influencing the changes in the type 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 the Ogoni Bill of Rights) becoming a ‘gendered class alliance between previously separately organized 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 nine 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 organizational structure gave each of the nine members three equal votes, meant FOWA and the voices of Ogoni women became not only more structured and formalized but also more powerful. Right from the beginning it was clear that Ken Saro-Wiwa had the support of Ogoni women and for this the women paid a high price: loss of livelihood, beatings, rapes and murders. 

The following excerpts from testimonies [3] by Ogoni women speak to both the belief the women had in Saro-Wiwa and their determination to fight for Ogoni liberation.


Ken Khana Kingdom: ‘In the old days, the army and Shell were here. Shell and the Nigerian Government brought the army to destroy. They forced our pregnant women to run and forced them to deliver untimely babies. They arrested Ken Saro-Wiwa, put him in detention and hanged him – and our women are suffering it till tomorrow.

You all know that women are people that seek truth. Had it been that Ken Saro-Wiwa did any wrong or anything bad, women of this nature wouldn’t have followed him. Because he was on a truth way – that is, he stood for truth and justice – that is why the women of Ogoni came out en masse 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 Ken Saro-Wiwa was coming to a rally and the women and men (of MOSOP) were singing to receive him into the town. They were by the main road. Meeting up with us, the army asked us to stop and asked what we are doing. They asked us to turn back but we said, “We will not turn back; 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, picked up some sand, put it in his mouth (that is a curse) and said that if we did not turn back right now he was going to clear us all. They started beating us, we were running and 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 it for today?” It was just the same thing: they started beating the women after arresting Ken, dragging them into the bush to rape them. That was the beginning of struggle and suffering in NyoKhana. 

The very person, the very human we were expecting our help to come from was Ken Saro Wiwa and he was 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 improvements, at the same time the Government often implies that the neighbouring community’s continued uprising is using up resources which could otherwise be used to improve a village or provide local jobs. The following testimony refers to a series of altercations between the Babbe Kingdom and their Andoni neighbours:

Babbe Kingdom: ‘Before we got up in the morning the first thing we heard was gunshots – army people had come through Andoni – because only the river separates us. Right from the night before they themselves knew the enemies were around and had surrounded the whole place. They started shooting but there was no where for people to run and hide – many of the men were being killed, little children, pregnant women. Many lives were lost and the animals, properties, houses were looted.

After the execution (of Saro-Wiwa) the names of the women were sent down to the (Captain) so we hid in the forest and had our meetings in the bush. We had enemies giving reports of what was happening in the bush; they went to tell the Captain that FOWA were still meeting in the forest. So one day when we were in a meeting the army came unexpectedly and some people ran away. Many were shot. There was one lady whose 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 a highly 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 élite and the Nigerian Government and oil companies. Saro-Wiwa clearly recognized that women were on the frontline of the struggle and formed the backbone of the rural economies in the region. It is women who farm, fish, produce, process and sell foodstuffs, care for livestock, collect water and firewood, as well as bearing and raising children, caring for the elderly and the sick and running the domestic household. One 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 undermine the whole community. As mothers, daughters, wives and sisters they are also affected by violence inflicted on men such as beatings, murder and detention, and on the community itself, such as the wholesale destruction of villages, property and livestock. [5]

It will therefore be interesting to see whether the forthcoming trial of Shell [beginning on 26 May] for environmental damage of Ogoniland and complicity in the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa will include testimonies by members of FOWA who, between 1990 and 2000 at least, 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 al, ‘Fightback from the Commons: Gendered Class Alliances and Petroleum Struggles in Nigeria’s Oilbelt: 1980-2002’ 2001.

[3] Fightback from the Commons, as above.

[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.

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