Abstract This study inquires into why women were at war with oil companies in Nigeria and how they internationalized their struggle. Employing the Midnight Notes Collective’s concept of ‘the new enclosures;’ Shiva, Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen’s ‘subsistence perspective,’ and McMurtry’s concept of the ‘civil commons,’ the study elaborates a ‘gendered class analysis’ to consider the social anatomy of coordinated global actions by producers and consumers of oil. Part one examines the period July 2002 to February 2003. Nigerian women occupied oil terminals and flow stations and inspired global protests against war and oil companies. Part two considers widespread Nigerian workers’ strikes in the period February to July 2003. These included work stoppages in transport, the oil industry and the public service; a two-week seizure by oil workers of four Transocean deep-sea platforms and an eight-day general strike against increases in the price of petroleum products. Part three analyses the July-September 2003 period. From 10 July 2003 peasant women occupied oil facilities throughout the Delta. As official government neared collapse, village and clan-based organizations assumed much responsibility for the oversight of their own communities. By September 2003 insurgents shut down some 40 per cent of Nigerian crude oil production capacity. Villagers denied oil companies all physical access to the western Delta. Chevron/Texaco, Shell, other majors and their contractors evacuated their Warri headquarters. The autonomous village organizations, linked to each other through regional solidarity networks, coordinated pan-Delta defence against Nigerian and US military counterinsurgency. The study concludes with an analysis of roots of insurgent power and direct deals in oil.
Introduction: Gendered class analysis and Nigerian subsistence struggles In 2002-2003 popular movements shut down much of Nigeria’s huge oil industry1 and faced US military intervention. Women who were at the forefront forged strategic connections with insurgents worldwide. This study examines the period in three parts. First, between July 2002 and February 2003 women’s organizations occupied ChevronTexaco’s export terminal and several flowstations. Their weapon was their nakedness. Naked protests multiplied around the world as women were inspired by the Nigerian example to ‘bare all’ to resist the Bush attack on Iraq. Global boycotts of oil companies proliferated. Second, between February and July 2003 waged Nigerian men joined the peasant women’s shutdown of the oil industry by organizing strikes. This mobilization culminated in an eight-day national general strike. Third, in the July-September 2003 period, women again seized oil facilities and shut down the oil companies after oil union ‘male dealers’ sabotaged the general strike. In response to oil company demands the Nigerian and US military intervened.
Three questions are addressed in this study. First, why were women at war with the international oil companies in Nigeria? Second, how were anti-oil company campaigns internationalized by women and third, with what implications? We begin with a brief treatment of the theoretical framework within which we pose these questions.
First, women are at the forefront of social movements because, despite their being largely unwaged, capital exploits them as it commodifies and uses up ‘free’ nature, social services, built space and the production of paid and unpaid work (Brownhill and Turner 2003; Benjamin and Turner 1992). All these ‘values’ are integral to the subsistence or life-centred political economy in which the needs of all are addressed through collective, cooperative and autonomous activity including producer-organized trade or direct deals (Bennholdt-Thomsen and Mies 1999). Communal land-holding and social relations essential to such a life-centred ‘civil commons’ (McMurtry 2001, 2002) remain resilient in much of the Niger Delta. Oil company operations since 1957 have been destroying the social and physical basis of subsistence (Turner 2001; Turner and Brownhill forthcoming). In 2002 women who are responsible for much of the farming, fishing, feeding and life sustenance stood up against corporate destruction.
An examination of Nigerian women’s occupation and shut-down of oil company facilities in the Niger Delta reveals a pattern of resistance involving two distinct social constructions. Women first broke up ‘male deals’ between some of their own menfolk and personnel of the oil companies, unions and state. Second, they formed alliances with other men, often their grandsons, and in this ‘gendered class alliance,’ successfully evicted the world’s largest corporations from their land (Turner et al, 2001; Turner 1997; Nore and Turner 1980). Both of these social de- and re-constructions had national and international expressions. The global reach of cross-class (and often cross-race) ‘male deals’ is immediately apparent in the oil industry. In breaking these, Nigerian women built international solidarities and systemic coordinations with women and men similarly pitted against the commodification and war brought by oil majors and their corporate-state allies. In sum, to theorize women’s war against big oil is to recognize the erasure of subsistence which corporate commodification entails and both the imperative and the capacities of life-producers to stand against it.
The second question - how were international solidarities forged and what is their anatomy? - is here theorized by reference to the systemic, global realities of capitalist organization and markets. The international oil companies bring two (amongst several) groups of people - those resident on oil reserves and those who consume oil - into one organization, ie., the organization of the oil corporations themselves and of the oil market that they define. Because the oil companies bring these two groups into one global organization; the groups, by acting together, have the power to destroy the corporations by simultaneously denying them crude oil and product purchases. When residents of oil producing communities stop production at the same time as consumers boycott oil companies by refusing to buy their products, the two groups engage in a simultaneous global ‘production-consumption oil strike.’ Such a strike has the potential to annihilate the capacities of oil companies to make profits or exercise the power of accumulation. The crucial point here is that the popular organization with this potential to annihilate capital is not ‘the party,’ or ‘the forum.’ Rather it is the international organization of the oil corporations themselves and of the oil market that they define. Also embraced within this organization are those engaged in the work of social reproduction and those engaged in the defence and restoration of nature (Dyer-Witheford 1999).
This conception challenges those constructions of ‘globalization from below’ which are limited to liberal declarations or protestations for reform. A much more fertile form of anti-imperial, transformational ‘globalization from below’ was promoted by Nigerian women who, in defending their subsistence life economy, denied strategic crude oil to globally dominate capital. Their explicitly feminist actions provoked women outside Nigeria to defend subsistence as life-affirmation in the context of global anti-war mobilization. This historically unprecedented world-wide ‘no to war’ movement boosted already-existing campaigns to boycott the oil companies which were at the same time facing shutdowns in Nigeria as women and their rural allies denied crude oil to the majors. This embryonic worldscale production-consumption oil strike foreshadows a future of globally coordinated strikes and boycotts which not only shut down oil corporations but re-start the petroleum system on a new, subsistence-positive basis. The systemic impetus to globalization from below revealed by the Nigerian insurgency is embodied in the corporate organizational and oil market ties that bind together all the world’s people engaged in producing and consuming oil. The exploited, waged and unwaged, are ‘organized, united and disciplined’ by the ‘process of production itself.’ By privileging waged workers, most critical analysts (for example, Fagan 2002) have silenced or misconstrued the essential powers of the unwaged in this new crystallization of social forces which is asserting a global ‘life economy civil commons’ (McMurtry 2002).The hitherto silenced actors in the system of oil company organization and markets are the women who live in the communities built over hydrocarbon reserves.2 Their paramount strategic importance is the reason for their silencing. In 2002-2003 Nigerian peasant women broke this silence and bequeathed ‘a gift to humanity’ in the form of a tremendous impetus toward ‘a world transformed.’
What were the implications of the women’s internationalized war against the oil companies? This third question can be pursued by theorizing ‘direct deals.’ We saw above how producer-consumer oil strikes have the potential to deny corporations their profits. Those who engage in producer-consumer oil strikes can take one further step. They can use their control over physical crude oil production sites, on the one hand; and their control over consumption on the other, to negotiate direct deals for the sale and purchase of oil. The crucial point here is that the very organization bequeathed by large corporations can be appropriated by producers and consumers and used against profit and for life support. This takes us to the connections between subsistence and capitalist relations. Those who live on oil reserves, such as the Niger Delta women and their allies, took control of oil facilities to defend and extend a subsistence commoning way of life. They thereby entered into oil company-organized alliances with people elsewhere who were attacking the same oil companies through other means, especially boycotts. Through these alliances and channels, direct deals can be negotiated so as to provide those defending subsistence with the means to succeed. Because these direct deals are autonomously organized for mutual benefit, they can support the building of subsistence by both parties involved. This globalized defence, re-invention and building of subsistence is the central implication of the women’s internationalized war against the oil companies.
This vision of revolutionary transformation involves the selective merging of two sets of social relations. On the one hand, the organization of transnational corporations is used by those it organizes to support life instead of profits. This use signals a shift in power within corporate organizations in favour of ‘commoners.’ This shift in power gives ‘commoners’ social relations which are global. On the other hand, this set of social relations, extracted from capitalist firms and markets, is merged with selected subsistence social relations in those autonomous communities that seek to re-invent a directly democratic commons at both the local and global levels.
Women Seize oil Facilities: July 2002 to February 2003 “We no go ‘gree o, we no go ‘gree, Chevron people we no go ‘gree!”3
(We do not agree, we never agreed, Chevron, we are never going to agree!)
On 8 July 2002, after ChevronTexaco ignored their June correspondence, some 600 women occupied the US oil giant’s 450,000 barrels a day (b/d) Escravos export terminal and tankyard. In their ten-day take over, the Itsekiri women negotiated 26 demands with corporate management. These included a demand that the government and oil companies meet with rural women and establish a permanent tripartite body (multinationals, state and women) for the resolution of problems related to oil operations. They signed a memorandum of understanding committing ChevronTexaco to the upgrading of 15 members of the communities who are contract staff to permanent staff status; the employment of one person from each of the five Ugborodo villages every year; the building of one house each for the elders – the Oloja Ore and the Eghare-Aja – in the communities; provision of vital infrastructure; a monthly allowance of at least N50,000 [US$375; 1 Naira = US$.0075] for the elderly aged 60 years and above and the establishment of income generating schemes (Okon and Ola 2002, ChevronTexaco 2003). However, the most fundamental demand, that ChevronTexaco must go, was not countenanced by the company negotiators.
Why were women ‘at war with Chevron?’ Christiana Mene of the Escravos Women Coalition explained that “We want Chevron to employ our children. If Chevron does that we the mothers will survive, we will see food to eat. Our farms are all gone, due to Chevron’s pollution of our water. We used to farm cassava, okro, pepper and others. Now all the places we’ve farmed are sinking, we cannot farm. We cannot catch fishes and crayfish. That is why we told Chevron that Escravos women and Chevron are at war” (Abiola 14 July 2002).
International petroleum corporations had reduced the once-rich subsistence economy of the Niger Delta to a polluted wasteland. Women could no longer train their children in peasant pursuits nor look forward to being fed in their old age. Because the oil companies had imposed a fundamental ‘death economy’ on the Delta’s seven million people, the women warriors demanded the majors get out completely. They exposed their naked bodies, and most particularly their vaginas, to impose on oil company male dealers ‘social death’ through ostracization which was widely believed to lead to actual demise. Death was imminent, a ‘regular guest at the table,’ because the majors had destroyed subsistence. This imminence produced in the women warriors a fearless emotional state of existential liberation, a willingness to die in the cause of expelling ChevronTexaco, Shell, ExxonMobil and the others. As Queen Uwara, deputy chairperson of the Escravos Women Coalition stated “a mother gets old someday, she becomes weak, the same with the father. It is your son and daughter who will be feeding you. If our children are not given work then the mothers cannot survive. They employ other tribes to work here, this time we cannot allow this kind of situation. ... Chevron brought soldiers and police to threaten us when we were at Chevron yard. If Chevron wants to kill us, we are no longer afraid. We women have taken over the yard. But we are not afraid because Chevron is on our land. All we want is for Chevron to leave our land” (Environmental Rights Action, hereafter ERA,13 July 2002).4 The women’s bold strike at ChevronTexaco’s export terminal immediately inspired at least twelve additional takeovers. Even before the Escravos group concluded negotiations, well over 1,000 women occupied six ChevronTexaco flow stations including Abiteye, Makaraba, Otuana and Olera Creek (Wamala 2002:38). One hundred women paddled a massive ‘canoe’ five miles into the high seas to take over the company’s production platform in the Ewan oilfield. ChevronTexaco evacuated its staff, shut down production and refused to negotiate with the women because, according to the US major, “they are not from our host community” (International Oil Daily, hereafter IOD, 19 August 2002). The positive results of the women’s takeovers encouraged youth to occupy six Shell flow stations in western Niger Delta on 20 September 2002 (IOD 23 September 2002).
On 26 September 2002, in the context of growing anti-war activism, Nigeria’s Environmental Rights Action, Project Underground and the Ecuadorian affiliate of OilWatch International called for a boycott against ChevronTexaco “to punish this company for the environmental damages and the human rights abuses committed during its operations in Nigeria and Ecuador. Chevron Texaco will face trials for its impacts in Nigeria and Ecuador. These countries’ organizations use boycott as an instrument of pressure against the company, to make it remember that whatever is polluted MUST be cleaned up. At times when transnational companies frame up regimes of impunity for themselves, we must join efforts to punish companies with our protest, and our vow of censorship by not consuming these companies’ products. This campaign will provide a precedent to avoid other oil companies’ impunity, that in the same ways cause destruction and death” (Osouka, Martnez and Salazar 2002).
The international ChevronTexaco boycott, like the million-strong UK-based ‘StopEsso’ boycott of ExxonMobil, connected consumer action with the resistance of oil producing communities in several countries. In 2002 the UK polling firm, MORI Social Research, revealed that “the StopEsso campaign is working. In the last year , one quarter of Esso’s customers have stopped buying from Esso. One million motorists say they’re boycotting Esso because of its stance on global warming. ... In July 2002, 5 per cent of car drivers told MORI they were already boycotting the company while 47 per cent claimed they would join the boycott if they were asked to by environmental groups. Greenpeace campaigner Rob Gueterbock said: “The chickens are coming home to roost for the world’s number one climate villain. For years Esso has sabotaged every meaningful effort to tackle global warming, including this week’s attempt to strike a deal at Johannesburg. But now a million motorists in Britain are punishing Esso at the pumps. If we are going to stop Bush we have to stop Esso. Now everyone can do their bit by joining the growing boycott’” ().
In Nigeria’s oilbelt, the subsistence way of life ‘was sweet’ but it was under dire threat from highly destructive oil company production ‘on the cheap’. On 22 July 2002 a spokeswoman for occupiers of ChevronTexaco’s Abiteye flow station, Felicia Itsero, 67, told ERA researchers that “We are tired of complaining, even [i.e., and moreover] the Nigerian government and their Chevron have treated us like slaves. Thirty years till now, what do we have to show by Chevron, apart from this big yard and all sorts of machines making noise, what do we have? They have been threatening us that if we make noise, they will stop production and leave our community and we will suffer, as if we have benefited from them. Before the 1970s, when we were here without Chevron, life was natural and sweet, we were happy. When we go to the rivers for fishing or forest for hunting, we used to catch all sorts of fishes and bush animals. Today, the experience is sad. I am suggesting that they should leave our community completely and never come back again. See, in our community we have girls, small girls from Lagos, Warri, Benin City, Enugu, Imo, Osun and other parts of Nigeria here every day and night running after the white men and staff of Chevron, they are doing prostitution, and spreading all sorts of diseases. The story is too long and too sad. When you go (to ERA) tell Chevron that we are no longer slaves, even slaves realise their condition and fight for their freedom” (ERA 22 July 2002).
By 2003 even the IMF recognized that the conditions against which Delta insurgents were protesting and seeking to reverse had reached life-threatening proportions. In a 2003 report, the International Monetary Fund revealed that “between 1970 and 2000, the poverty rate, measured as the share of the population subsisting on less than $1 per day, increased from close to 36 percent to just under 70 percent. This translates into an increase in the number of poor from about 19 million in 1970 to a staggering 90 million in 2000. ... These developments, of course, coincided with the discovery of oil in Nigeria. ... Over a 35-year period, Nigeria’s cumulative revenues from oil (after deducting the payments to the foreign oil companies) have amounted to about US$350 billion at 1995 prices. In 1965, when oil revenues per capita were about US$33, per capita GDP was US$245. In 2000, when oil revenues were US$325 per capita, per capita GDP remained at the 1965 level. In other words, all the oil revenues - US$350 billion in total - did not seem to add to the standard of living at all. Worse, however, it could actually have contributed to a decline in the standard of living” (Sala-i-Martin and Subramanian 2003: 4). Predictably the IMF recommended a stiffer dose of the poison - still more privatization - to cure ‘the curse of oil.’
The Guardian of 3 May 2003 reported that “poverty on the Delta is now extreme and communities are desperate for development and work, complaining that none of the billions of dollars earned from oil found under their land has reached them. Many schools have no teachers or books, hospitals and health centres are ill equipped to deal with malaria and other equatorial diseases that are rife, and many communities have no electricity. Unemployment is 80% or more in some places, sanitation is almost non existent, housing is atrocious, and the death rate amongst children is very high” (Vidal 2003).
A June 2002 report by the Trade and Community Sub committee of the Nigeria’s federal House Petroleum Resources Committee found the Delta’s oil communities to be “exploited, misused, abused, polluted, underdeveloped, and almost completely dead; like a cherry fruit sucked and discarded.” The ‘death economy’operations of transnational oil companies were responsible for “the dearth of social amenities in the host communities, the high unemployment, environmental degradation, and even prostitution.” Perhaps most damning were the report’s findings on “civil unrest.” It blamed “some oil companies for encouraging and sponsoring civil unrest in the Niger Delta by engaging in divide and rule tactics by supporting some passive traditional rulers or even communities against radical ones, thus fuelling discord in the region” (Eluemunor and Awom 2002).
In July 2002 the majors made specific promises to the insurgent women. Because ChevronTexaco and Shell were slow to implement their undertakings, 4,000 Warri women demonstrated on 8 August 2002 at the companies’ regional headquarters only to be attacked by police and soldiers. Protester Alice Youwuren stated that “we were just singing, we didn’t destroy anything. We were peaceful. The police and soldiers misbehaved. Look at me, seven armed men pounced on me and reduced me to nothing. I found myself in a Shell clinic a day after the protest” (Okon and Ola 2002). The United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN 2002) reported that Shell police killed at least one woman. Shell later “dismissed reports in the local press ... which claimed that a security agent at the scene shot dead an unarmed protestor. ‘To the best of our knowledge, the protests at our offices went without any major incident,’” Shell stated (IOD 14 August 2002).
In an ultimatum published worldwide, the 4,000 August 8th women demonstrators gave the Anglo-Dutch giant ten days to pay their hospital bills. Otherwise the women would subject Shell to the curse of nakedness (Adebayo 2002). In much of Africa, women throw off their clothes in an ultimate protest to say ‘this is where life comes from. I hereby revoke your life.’ Nakedness by elderly women, in particular, is used in extreme and life-threatening situations. Women wielding the weapon of the exposed vagina could be killed or raped. It is therefore with knowledge of the act’s life and death implications that women enter into such protest.Women who go naked implicitly state that they will get their demands met or die in the process of trying. Many men subjected to this ‘social execution’ believe they will actually die when exposed to such a serious threat. According to one Nigerian source, “In a lot of the rural communities here, the practice of throwing off the wrapper is a common [form of censure, given the] belief among the women folks here that it goes with some magical powers to inflict curses ranging from death to madness on its foes. In the 1980s it was very prevalent among the Gokana people of Ogoni” (International Oil Working Group, hereafter IOWG, 2 August 2003). In 2003 the 1993 Ogoni declaration that Shell is ‘persona non grata’ in Ogoniland remained in force.
By 12 November 2002 the movement against corporate globalization had expanded dramatically to oppose the impending US military attack on Iraq. Women in California were explicitly inspired by how the Nigerian women who captured Escravos had used the curse of nakedness and “shamed the men and won their cause.” They introduced a new anti-war tactic (Ivan 2002). With their naked bodies they wrote gigantic letters to spell “Peace,” photographs of which circulated the globe via the internet and print media to instigate still more nude demonstrators to enact variations such as ‘No War,’ ‘No Bush,’ ‘Truth,’ ‘Why?,’ ‘Paz’ and ‘Paix’ (Rosen 2003). In the weeks that followed, naked protests proliferated. Organizers sent photos of their demonstrations to the California women’s website (). Naked anti-war protestors marched in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 1 March 2003. At this point the Nigeria-inspired anti-oil naked protests had taken place on all seven continents; including super-cool, blood-chilling Antarctica.
The ‘Lysistrata Project’ emerged in January 2003. Project organizers set up a website which provided several versions of the script of Aristophane’s 2,400 year old feminist anti-war drama, Lysistrata. In the play women from two warring states unite to deny their menfolk sexual and domestic services until the men make peace. The organizers invited anti-war people worldwide to present the play in their own schools, workplaces and communities on 3 March 2003 (03-03-03). Versions of Lysistrata were staged in 1,029 venues in 59 countries, according to the Project’s online incident report. Among the theatrical activists were unnamed “international journalists” who staged a version in Arbil, Iraq on the eve not of war but of massacre. The organizers described the Lysistrata Project as “the first-ever worldwide theatrical act of dissent” (). In the meantime, on 15 February 2003 some 50 million people marched against Bush’s attack on Iraq in the largest-ever global anti-war demonstration. Tremendous expectations were raised by these crystallisations, at an international level, of the burgeoning movements against corporate rule and against imperial war (Turner and Brownhill 2001:806). These expectations were realized in September 2003 when African women were at the forefront of international demonstrators who closed down the World Trade Organization negotiations in Cancun, Mexico.
This international popular power built up through a reciprocal impetus between local and global actions or what Dyer-Witheford in 1999 called a ‘circulation of struggles’. Between July 2002 and February 2003, the numbers of women engaged in naked protests grew from a few thousand in the Niger Delta to several hundred thousand worldwide. The world’s first global use of protest theatre contained a three-fold elaboration of the nudity message: first, women were revoking the very lives of men who destroyed subsistence. Second, women were withdrawing all subsistence life support services; especially sex, food and other housework. Third, the unwaged work of women in sustaining life was juxtaposed (by women and allied men) to the waged work of men engaged in sustaining profits through depredation and war.5 Insofar as this challenge was at once global and conscious, it transcended the idea that ‘another world is possible’ to embody - in however an embryonic form - the actually existing alternative.
The high level of Nigerian resistance to the US war against Iraq forced the corrupt Obasanjo government to stay out of the ‘coalition of the willing.’ Obasanjo suffered retaliation in the form of a temporary US withdrawal of some military backing which shored up his unpopular regime. The opening created by women’s takeovers in the oilbelt was seized by largely male trade unionists to launch a series of strikes. This extension of insurgency by Nigeria’s unwaged majority to the 30 percent of the wage-earning workforce is the focus of part two.