International Women’s Day: Honouring African Women

 Mrs  O C Odua.

Mrs  Odua was a founding member and President of the Egi Women’s Council and the Egi Widowhood Association both based in Erema Town, Egi, Rivers State.   There are thousands of women in the Niger Delta who have actively stood up to and defied the various multinational corporations and state sponsored violence of the Nigerian government over the past 15 years.  Women have been murdered,  raped, beaten, sexually abused; property has been ransacked, destroyed, burned to the ground; belongings stolen and livelihoods destroyed.   Odua_4

I have chosen specially to honour  Mrs Odua because for her the struggle was not just against oil companies and the Nigerian state.  She also choose to challenge the patriarchal institutions and unequal social relations within her own community, defying tradition and male domination.   Mrs Odua was an activist and human rights defender who fought determinedly and without respite against unrestricted corporate power, state sponsored terror and the institutionalised tools of gender repression.   She paid a high price for her activism and beliefs. Ostracised from her community, abandoned by her husband, disinherited by her in-laws.    We should not underestimate the honesty and courage of women like Mrs Odua who resist the everyday oppressions in their own local communities.

I had the pleasure and privilege to meet Mrs Odua in Erema, Port
Harcourt and in Banjul at a conference of Niger Delta Women.  She was a
generous, compassionate and humourous woman full of life and great
fun.  She   passed away in March 2002 refusing till the end to leave
her husband’s house which she believed to be her rightful home.

For the full list of African blogs celebrating African women:

Honouring African Women: Part 1

Honouring African Women: Part 2

Background

The Niger Delta has been headline news over the past few months with
reports of hostage taking, threats to blow up oil installations and the
arrest of militant leaders.  What is not reported is that the action of
these  few militant youths is a continuation of a 15 year struggle by
the people of the Niger Delta for the environment, development  and
livihood  of their communities stretching from Ondo State in the West
through to Rivers State in the Eastern Delta.   

Women have been at the forefront of the popular struggle against the
unholy alliance of the Nigerian State and the multinational oil
companies such as Shell, Chevron and Elf.  They have organised
themselves locally “FOWA” (Federation of Ogoni Women’s Associations)
and across the region such as “NDWJ” (Niger Delta Women for Justice)
and “Agape is a Birthright”.   

Egiland like other parts of the region has been devastated and
impoverished  by oil exploration.  There are hundreds of oil wells and
oil and gas pipelines crisscross the land.  The flow stations operated
by Elf are particularly large and include gas flares and large lakes of
polluted water from the processing of waste products.   Elf has dug
huge pits, known locally as "Boro Pits," in the course of oil
production which are then filled with water and becoming  contaminated
and a public hazard  especially for children.   In other areas the
company has sand-filled the swamps and ponds traditionally  used by the
local people for fishing and irrigation.

In 1997 a group of women formed the Egi Women’s Council (EWC).
Their aim was twofold.  Firstly to campaign against state sponsored and
corporate violence by the multinational oil companies and the Nigerian
government.  Secondly to campaign against the repressive cultural
traditions such as forced female genital mutilation, widowhood
rites and domestic violence.

EWC was formed in Erema Town, in Egiland, Rivers State.  The
organisation was formed as a breakaway from the traditional women’s
organisation in the town, Egi Women’s Association.   The EWC had three
objectives with regard the oil company:  that  Elf  begin to
employ and where necessary train the local labour force rather than
importing workers from other regions of the country; that they clean up the “Boro
pits” which are a hazard to the health and safety of the community
particularly children; that they clean up the oil polluted swamps and ponds
and repair broken leaking oil pipes. 

From the start, EWC adopted a radical direct action approach to their
campaign which they conducted under the banner of human rights.  They
organised a series of demonstrations and petitions against Elf and
occupied a number of flow stations over a period of 3 years.  Each time
the response from both Elf and the Nigerian government to EWC and their
supporters (often the youth of the town) was to collectively punish the
whole town or village.  This was done through the  para military police
known locally as MOPO (Mobile Police) who brought with them their usual
mayhem and terror — beatings,  houses ransacked and in some cases burnt
to the ground and  property scattered and stolen.  People ran away to the forest  to returning to  find their homes destroyed and
property stolen, the scenario repeated time and time again.   In some
instances the women of EGW were betrayed by the town’s elders who had
made deals with Elf for their own personal gain. For example during one
sit in at a flow station, youths sent by the elders threw “itching
powder” on the women causing them to disperse and wounding many in the
chaos.

By 2000 the situation in Egi had become worse as not only were the
women being harassed by the MOPO and Elf but sections of the male power base
in the community were now calling on the husbands of the EWC members to
close down the organisation by demanding that their wives cease their
actions.  Along side their Elf campaign the women had begun to discuss
the repressive cultural traditions in their community.  They had
petitioned the elders of the town to ask that they be allowed to
participate in decision making.  Their request was rejected  and Mrs
Odua in particular was then singled out for harassment and a smear
campaign.

Her husband demanded she stop her activist work or face the
consequences.  Mrs Odua refused and her husband abandoned her and took
a second wife allowing her to remain in his house but leaving her to
fend for herself.  She suffered the humiliation but remained steadfast
in her determination to force Elf and the Nigerian Government to clean
up the local environment and invest in developing the town.  In August
2000, Mrs Odua’s husband died which effectively left her under the
control of his family and in particular one of his brothers.  She
suffered the humiliation of local widowhood rites which required her to
shave her head, marry her husband’s brother or leave the family house;
Again she refused saying first of all she was a Christian and secondly
she did not wish to marry her brother-in-law. She  refused to leave the
family house. She was denied her husband’s inheritance which meant she
was no longer allowed to farm his share of the family land and was
cheated out of his outstanding teachers pay by the family. The family
did everything they could to prevent Mrs Odua from living and even her
children were forcibly taken away from her.  Sacrifices were made
outside her home and she was called in front of the village council but
did not back down.

Despite all of this and being effectively homeless and penniless
except for support from outside sympathisers,  she never wavered in her
determination to fight Elf and the patriarchal forces in the village.
With help from trade unionist and activist (Comrade) Che Ibegwura, the
Niger Delta Women for Justice and other charities Mrs Odua was able to
continue her activist work.  Shortly after her husband’s death she
formed the Egi Widowhood Association.  The aim here was to specifically
address issues of widowhood and other forms of gender repression in Egi
culture.

Women like Mrs  O C Odua who challenge the inequalities in the
isolation of their villages and towns are the heroines of Nigeria.

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