Published on Wednesday, July 17, 2002 by the Associated Press
Poverty Spurs Nigeria Oil Standoff
by D'arcy Doran
UGBOEGUNGUN, Nigeria When hundreds of unarmed village women captured a ChevronTexaco terminal, winning promises of jobs and development from the oil giant, Helen Amushuka was too sick to join them.
"My whole body is weakened, but there's no doctor, no clinic, no money," Amushuka said from her rusty cot in the one-room bamboo hut she shares with nine children and 15 chickens.
The siege trapped hundreds of American, Canadian, British, Nigerian and other oil workers inside the terminal. It also shut down the southeastern facility, which exports a half-million barrels of oil daily and accounts for the bulk of the company's Nigeria production.
Through it all, fever, chills and sharp pains from an undiagnosed illness kept Amushuka, 37, pinned to a crumbling piece of foam padding on her cot in the village of Ugboegungun.
"It's a paradise," said Athonia Okuro, who at 28 was one of the youngest protesters. Some were as old as 90. "It's just like being in the U.S."
Nigeria's civilian leaders, elected in 1999 after years of brutal and corrupt military rule, have failed to provide medical care for the several hundred people who live in Ugboegungun. Most people here live without running water or electricity.
Holding her 2-year-old son, Emmanuel, and her 7-year-old daughter, Itsrona, Amushuka points to the spot beside the bed where her husband died last month. She does not know what killed him, only that she now suffers the same symptoms.
At night, mosquitoes stream through half-inch wide gaps in the bamboo walls of Amushuka's home. She has no mosquito nets to protect her children from malaria, one of Nigeria's biggest killers.
"They're always sick," Amushuka said weakly.
The children sleep on raffia mats, with the family's chickens nestled nearby to ward against theft. The youngsters have never been to school.
The protesters insisted last week that ChevronTexaco negotiators visit one of the villages near the facility so they would witness the abysmal living conditions, said Anino Olowu, head of the women's negotiating team.
"I don't know how (ChevronTexaco) can allow other human beings to live like this. Why do they treat us like animals?" she said.
The women also complain that flaring of natural gas at the export terminal and other sites causes environmental damage, killing fish and the cassava crops on which they depend.
A giant flare greets visitors as they approach Escravos, a 17th Century slavery collection point that takes its name from the Portuguese word for slave.
ChevronTexaco and other oil companies say there is no evidence of negative health or environmental affects.
During often heated negotiations, the company agreed to hire at least 25 people from nearby villages over the next five years. The company also said it would build schools, provide electricity, water and other amenities.
Details of the deal had been expected to be finalized on Tuesday. However, on Wednesday hundreds of women were still holed up at the terminal, refusing to leave until they had final documents to sign.
The company did not say what was causing the delay and ChevronTexaco officials could not be immediately reached Wednesday morning.
News reports Wednesday said unidentified groups had also seized a number of ChevronTexaco stations in the region, but the reports could not be independently verified.
Oil site takeovers are common in Nigeria, the world's sixth-largest exporter of oil. But the peaceful protest is a departure for the oil-rich Niger Delta region, where armed men routinely resort to kidnapping and sabotage to press their demands with multinationals.
Dennis Ojogor, an unemployed mechanical engineer, said the women's protest was a last-ditch effort after the men's repeated efforts ended in failure. He was arrested during a violent protest last year by hundreds of youths at the Escravos facility, over pay.
"It used to be the men who did the protesting. But the police and soldiers would use guns, chains and whips to drive us out," Ojogor said. "So now it is the women who have taken action. They cannot be touched."
The women say their grievances are aimed equally at Nigeria's government and at ChevronTexaco. But since the capital, Abuja, is more than 250 miles away, they took their protest to the facility next door.
© 2002 The Associated Press