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Victory for a new kind of womenís power at Escravos
Posted: Friday, July 26, 2002

By Wole Akande,

The recent news of the successes of Nigerian village women protesting against the excesses of Chevron-Texaco (the multinational oil company) captured headlines worldwide. Every news organization, major or minor, reported the unusual drama as it developed.

However, I doubt if any news report captured the essence of the story better than D'Arcy Doranís report for the Associated Press: "Village women carrying straw mats, umbrellas and thermoses left Chevron-Texaco's main oil terminal on Thursday, ending a 10-day occupation that paralyzed most of the oil giant's Nigerian operation." Not only does it capture the essence of the news, but the delivery is so elegant that I can see the protesting women right before my eyes.

There are key lessons to be learnt from the Nigerian women's experience of negotiating with a giant conglomerate. Think of the detail for a moment: You have this bunch of women who have no education to speak of and with babies strapped to their backs, they have barely enough English to ask for water. But they know that someone somewhere is cheating them out of very fundamental rights. And so they set about putting it right in the only way they can: turning the mundane into the political.

As protests go, it doesn't get much more political than a confrontation with the multinationals and international funding agencies, which have long exploited Africans on the grounds that the poor have no bargaining power and must accept investment under any terms. Yet these women, who have probably never before even considered standing for elections or any other political activity, achieved the undreamed of. And after the success of the womenís protest at Escravos, a town in the oil-producing Niger delta region of Nigeria, where will African governments and political leaders hide?

Far too often across Africa, the interests of local people have been shunted to the side in the interests of keeping multinational bucks flowing. Indeed, there have been times when the very health of the African people has been compromised, especially in the horticulture industry, just to keep giant investors happy. Well, now we know blackmail of this kind can cut both ways.

The Nigerian village women's takeover served one key purpose: it proved that women have the power to change African politics. At Escravos, we saw village women armed with no more than determination taking over negotiations for jobs and better social facilities for their people.

Indeed, Doran notes "a departure in Nigeria, where armed men frequently use kidnapping and sabotage to pressure oil multinationals into giving them jobs, protection money or compensation for alleged environmental damage."

Of course, the recent drama at Escravos is not the first time Nigerian women have revolted.

In her new book The Bluest Hands, Judith Byfield, a history professor at Dartmouth College, highlights the political consciousness and political activism of women indigo dyers in Abeokuta, a prominent town in southwestern Nigeria. In the mid 1930s, the women dyers successfully mobilized themselves to protect their industry. However, this recent incident is the first time women in Nigeria have collectively confronted the authority of the all-powerful multinational oil companies.

Yet the people of the oil-producing regions of Nigeria can now bank on a new era of power relations with some of the world's most powerful countries. Under the deal that these women negotiated, Chevron-Texaco will hire 25 villagers over five years and help build clinics, schools, fish and chicken farms.

The second great achievement of these women is their success in turning the female body into a political tool. It has been done before, of course, but not quite in the same manner. Often, we are more likely to hear of women using their sexual allure to entrap political leaders into disclosing the top secrets of their governments. And the biblical tales of Samson and Delilah and of Jezebel capitalize on the so-called treachery of women using their beauty to unleash terror.

In modern times, we are inundated with skimpily dressed women being used to sell just about anything.

The protesters in Nigeria have given us a new take on the power of a woman's body, getting their side of the story heard by the simple expedient of threatening to strip to their bare essentials. It seems no one wanted to see that which could be something to do with the fact that the women were aged between 30 and 90 - over the hill in terms of sexual exploitation. They like them young and firm in all the right places in the advertising and power games, you see.

So, it is in their maternal roles that women can hope to pull off the naked-body threat. Indeed, it is the ultimate curse in some African cultures if your mother should ever point at you with the same breast that fed you in infancy. I don't know whether this is really an effective curse but some things are best left untested - as the village women protesters at Escravos decided early in the occupation.

The experience in Nigeria could herald a new form of governance based on respect for the wishes of the people. In a country that has known more military rule than democracy, the two forces of authority - government and multinational - took the time to consider the legitimacy of the claims being put on the table. And when the retreating Nigerian women expressed reservations about some elements of the agreement, the Chevron-Texaco side promised to visit their villages for further discussions and ferried them peacefully back to their homes without a drop of spilled blood or any broken bones.

For women and other ill empowered people across Africa and elsewhere, desperately lacking in political power, the Escravos drama offers a useful lesson: strategy pays. The village women in Nigeria had one agenda and one agenda only - to get their voices heard, whatever it took, however long. They did their homework, and it showed.

[Wole Akande, a former opinion columnist with Ireland's Irish Examiner newspaper, is a freelance journalist. In addition to his work with, Wole also maintains, a Nigerian community website.]

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