Women's responses to state violence in the Niger Delta: Violence as an instrument of governance
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Women's responses to state violence in the Niger Delta: Violence as an instrument of governance
In an extensive piece examining the reactions of Niger Delta women towards the militarised violence of the Nigerian state and its multinational oil company allies, Sokari Ekine discusses the iniquitous contrast in wealth visible in the abject poverty of the Delta region's locals and the hugely profitable resource extraction of external players. Amounting to an estimated US$30 billion in oil revenues over a 38-year period, this plundering of resources has become progressively rooted in the institutionalisation of violence directed towards dissenting local groups. Though suffering terribly at the hands of government forces, local women, Ekine writes, have spearheaded the defence of local livelihoods through organised protests which cut across regional ethnic divisions.
Nigeria has for the past 39 years been a militarised state, even when so-called civilian governments, including the present one, have been in power. Militarisation consists of the use of the threat of violence to settle political conflicts, the legitimisation of state violence, the curtailment of freedom of opinion, the domination of military values over civilian life, the violation of human rights, extrajudicial killings and the gross repression of the people (Chunakara, 1994). Turshen describes the militarised state as one in which 'violence becomes a crisis of everyday life, is disenfranchising and politically, physically and economically debilitating' (Turshen, 1988: 7). The Niger Delta is a region of Nigeria that has been subjected to excessive militarisation for the past 13 years, where violence is used as an instrument of governance to force the people into total submission (Okonta and Douglas, 2001; Na'Allah, 1998). It is where, by far, the majority of the people live in abject poverty and where women are the poorest of the poor (Human Rights Watch, 2002; 2004; 2007). This region has little or no development, no electricity, no water, no communications, no health facilities, little and poor education. In contrast, the region generated an estimated over US$30 billion in oil revenues over a 38-year period in the form of rents for the government and profit for the multinational oil companies (Rowell, 1996).
The multinational oil companies mainly Shell, Chevron/Texaco and Elf have treated both the people and the environment with total disdain and hostility (Okonta and Douglas, 2001). They have worked hand in hand with a succession of brutal and corrupt regimes to protect their exploitation of the land and people by providing the Nigerian military and police with weapons, transport, logistical support and finance. In return the Nigerian government has allowed the oil companies a free hand to operate without any monitoring. In fact, the oil companies in the Niger Delta have one of the worst environmental records in the world.
DESTRUCTION OF THE ECOLOGICAL SYSTEM
The Niger Delta has become an ecological disaster zone, a place where rusty pipelines run through farms and in front of houses (Rowell, 1996). Day and night huge gas fires rage in massive pits and towers, spewing noxious gases and filth into people's homes and farms. Oil spills and fires are a regular occurrence, often causing the death of local people as well as the destruction of wildlife and property. Michael Fleshman of the New York-based Africa Fund describes what he saw at the site of one oil spill:
The impact of the spill on the community has been devastating, as the oil has poisoned their water supply and fishing ponds, and is steadily killing the raffia palms that are the community's economic mainstay. Lacking any other alternative, the people of the village have been forced to drink polluted water for over a year, and the community leaders told us that many people had become ill in recent months and that some had died. The sight that greeted us when we finally arrived at the spill was horrendous. A thick brownish film of crude oil stained the entire area, collecting in clumps along the shoreline and covering the surface of the still water. The humid aid was thick with oil fumes (Fleshman, 1999).
Often, the spillages lead to raging fires, as in the case of the Jesse fire (17 October 1998) when over a thousand people were killed and thousands more horrifically burned and left homeless. To date, not a single person has received compensation. Indeed, in a region where medical care is scarce and only available to the rich, it is easy to envision the fate of these people. Ponds, creeks, rivers and land are soaked with thick layers of oil. Terisa Turner, co-director of the United Nations NGO, International Oil Working Group (IOWG), describes one particular oil spill that she personally witnessed as follows:
150,000 residents of the community of Ogbodo battled a massive petroleum spill from a Shell pipeline, which burst on 24 June, churning crude into the surrounding waterways for 18 days until Shell clamped the pipe on 12 July. Severe environmental damage and threat to life by Shell's neglect is the other side of the 'corporate rule' coin of ever-expanding neo-liberal license. The dangers to human life, human rights and the environment were dramatically experienced by Ogbodo community members in Nigeria's 'Shell-Shocked' oil belt (Turner, 2001: 11).
This scene is typical. The common response of the oil companies to such spills however, has been to blame the villagers for sabotage. The question is, why would the villagers commit acts of sabotage that will only worsen the environmental damage and pollution of their land and prevent them from engaging in their livelihoods, namely farming, fishing and trading? In this particular case, the pipeline in question was buried six feet deep (many pipelines in the region are built above ground, running through farm land and through villages), and split underneath the ground (Turner, 2001). In addition to air and water pollution and other kinds of environmental degradation, lands have been expropriated and personal property damaged. The people have received only very little compensation for the land taken or damages from oil spillage and fires. Indeed, efforts at compensation have been 'case(s) of broken promises, development programmes that are abandoned halfway, poor quality facilities that break down and simply rust away as soon as they are installed' (Okonta and Douglas, 2001: 106).
As the dispossessed communities demand corporate responsibility, environmental, economic and social justice and proper compensation, their protests have been met with violence including extrajudicial killings and mass murder, torture, rape, the burning of homes and property, and increased military presence. As such, the Niger Delta has become completely militarised and 'secured' by unrestrained and unaccountable Nigerian military personnel. The report by Human Rights Watch, 'No Democratic Dividend', notes that violence in the region continues despite the change from military to civilian rule (Human Rights Watch, 2002).
The Niger Delta is a particularly extreme example of a culture of violence that is woven into the fabric of a society ruled by military dictators. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo was a key player in no less than three successive military regimes. He was a senior officer under General Gowon and participated in the 1975 coup d'e'tat that overthrew General Gowon. He then served as the deputy supreme commander under Brigadier General Murtala Mohammed until the latter's assassination in the 1976 coup. General Obasanjo then took over as supreme commander until he handed power to the second civilian government of Shehu Shagari in 1979. Four more military regimes followed this brief interregnum, including the particularly brutal regime of General Sani Abacha between 1993 and 1998. It was during this period that Ogoni activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, were murdered. Despite the fact that the Obasanjo government, which ruled from 1999 until 2007, was viewed as a transition to civilian rule, the level of violence in the region continued to escalate. Examples of this escalation include:
- The intensification of the military option to control the oil fields and pipelines. Through the specially created Nigerian Military Task Force for the Niger Delta with specific orders to 'shoot-to-kill' protesting indigenes, Obasanjo demonstrated his propensity to use brute force to compel silence and acquiescence. - The invasion of Odi Town on the direct orders of Obasanjo in retaliation for the murder of 12 policemen by youths in the town in 1999. - The brutal raping of women and young girls by Nigerian Army personnel in Choba. - The gunning down of unarmed youths who protested against unemployment in Bonny Island. - The ravaging of communities in Ke-Dere in Rivers State for protesting the unwanted and forceful return of Shell Oil to Ogoniland. - The killings of women and children, and the burning and looting of property in Oleh town in Isokoland. - The massacre on 17 October 2000 of 15 youth protesters in Tebidaba in Bayelsa State (INAA, 2000).
The government of the newly elected president of Nigeria, Umaru Yar'Adua, continues the policy of militarisation of the region in response to the increased militancy of local people.
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