by Remi Adeoye
- Nigeria -
But the problems in the Niger Delta are taking on a new dimension. It is now becoming more and more dangerous for the area’s women and children to live and work in peace. Their lives are defined by poverty; from afar they watch as the rich expatriates live comfortably from the proceeds of their land. They watch as their village heads collect bribes from both the oil companies and the government while they get nothing. They watch as their men become militants, kidnapping the rich and making money for the struggle.
There is stiff opposition to the proposed Niger Delta Summit slated to be held in Abuja, Nigeria. The Delta’s most prominent militant group, known as The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), called it a “circus,” and "a face saving measure” by the slow-moving Yar'Adua administration to show that it has a plan to solve the area’s problems. The line of battle has been drawn between the federal government and the militants, with tensions increasing after the deployment of more soldiers and two naval warships to the oil-rich Delta, which militants described as a “callous, wicked attempt to wipe the Ijaw nation from the face of the earth.”
To the indigenous Egi women of Ijaw, it is crucial that more come out of the Abuja summit than political posturing. As the women say, “We are farmers, fisherwomen and hunters. With all the flaming and pumping oil into our swamp areas, the oil companies have denied us every living thing. Today, we have no hope, while they are making billions of naira with our gifts from God. They don’t care or hear our cry; they only throw tear gas on us, beat us, and drive us out of our land.”
Rape is also rampant throughout the Niger Delta. When the federal government sends the military down to keep the militants in line, their soldiers rape the indigenous women who are only trying to farm in order to make some money to feed their households.
Rape leaves a terrible scar in the heart of its victim; in some areas of the Niger Delta, nine out of ten women have been violated. An academic study undertaken in Nigeria identified members of the security forces as primarily responsible for the gender-based violence (including rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy) committed against the tribal women of the Delta’s Ogoniland between 1990 and 1998. A 2001 report published by the non-governmental organization Centre for Democracy and Development also documented gender-based violence in the Niger Delta, perpetrated for the most part by the military.The government’s investigation into human rights violations (covering the period of 1966-1999) by the security forces in Ogoniland has been limited to the work of the Oputa Panel, whose public hearings included sessions in the country’s chief oil-refining city, Port Harcourt, where the experiences of victims and their families were documented.
Grace, an Ogoni human rights defender in her 40s, described how soldiers had gang-raped her.
"I was raped by three army men. They carried guns and they had uniforms. They kicked in the door and hit me in the face. [They] threw me on the bed and raped me using [a] gun. My son was trying to run away from the soldiers but he was beaten up. There were no witnesses to the rape. I didn't report [the rape] to the police, there is no police in Ogoniland, [but] I testified for the Oputa Panel, had my face covered by a black cloth. I have no money so I can't go to court."
Fatima, 10 years old at the time, described how she had been repeatedly raped and held in sexual slavery for five days in April 1994.
"The army came in at night and asked for my brother and father. I didn't know where they were. They took me to their station. I stayed there five days. Four men raped and beat me. They all used me. When they saw I was almost dead they dropped me along the road. I couldn't find anybody. I ran to the clinic inside the bush. The man operated on me in the bush. He was then shot by the army. I remember wounds all over my body. Now I am called ‘Army property’ by the youth in the community where I live. My father has disowned me. It is a shameful thing."
Fatima testified at the Oputa Panel hearings, but expressed disappointment that the Panel's investigations had led neither to prosecution of the alleged perpetrators nor reparations for the victims. Though the Oputa Panel’s report was submitted to the Federal Government in May 2002, it has yet to be made fully public and accessible to the Nigerian people.
In October 1999 security forces raped Ikwerre tribal women from Choba (a community based in Port Harcourt), who were protesting against what they perceived as long-standing and unfulfilled promises by Wilbros, a US-based oil production company. A report by Human Rights Watch provides eyewitness accounts of uniformed security forces and the use of military vehicles in the attack. Wilbros, however, claimed that no military forces were called in and that the police force was in charge of dispersing the demonstrators. The report states that, "it seems certain that soldiers did indeed rape quite a large number of women and killed several people." A report by the gender equality and human rights NGO WomenAid Collective added that the subsequent outcry resulted in an investigation by the Senate. Just as with the Oputa Panel, there is no known outcome to this investigation and none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.A month later, as many as 200 people were killed when the military invaded the tribal community of Odi in Bayelsa State. The raid lasted several days and most of the town was razed; there are over 50 allegations of rape by Odi’s women against government security forces.
The government's response to the serious human rights violations committed in Odi was wholly inadequate. One of the victims reported, "some free doctors were sent by the government because of the suffering. They gave first aid.” And though Former President Olusegun Obasanjo publicly expressed regret about the excessive force used by the military, in a meeting with Amnesty International in mid-2000, he defended the deployment of troops as a response to the murder of 12 police officers during attempts to arrest armed youths in the area. He said at that time he had no intention of holding an independent and open inquiry into the events.
For the most part, only these old human rights violations are on the record as women now won’t talk about such issues. Since the failure of the Oputa Panel to bring any justice to victims, there has been no good reason for them to come out and testify.
According to a Nigerian Economist Chudi Chukwuma, "The genesis of the whole militancy actually arose from political thuggery, which was carried out by the major party, which is the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)." He says there are various options available to the government to resolve the problems in the Niger Delta region.
"The solution is very clear and direct, everybody can see it. What they need in the Niger Delta is shelter, housing, the youth need to be gainfully employed and be productive. So, all these things can be provided by a well-focused government that has a defined objective and the will to implement its social responsibilities to the society."
He says previous talks to resolve the problems in the Niger Delta region have not yielded any positive results.
Chukwuani says the ruling party could help end the crisis in the Niger Delta region by stopping financial and political support to the rebel groups who are allegedly causing problems in the area.
"Since (President Yar'Adua) is the leader of the PDP, we can agree with him that if they stop using the militants as a political thug, that is one major way of stopping the Niger Delta militancy because most of the weapons were bought by politicians and given to the youth to use against their political opponents," Chukwuani points out.
In Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, the power play is going on, but in the creeks, the women are suffering to a degree that no summit will erase. All stakeholders should swallow their pride and call a truce to save our sisters and children who are being destroyed with every day that this injustice persists.
About the Author
Remi Adeoye has been a journalist in Nigeria for over 10 years. She started as a freelance scriptwriter for Wale Adenuga Productions, after which she joined Vanguard Newspapers, a national daily in Nigeria. She covered fashion until she became the children's page editor in 2000. She then wrote for Newswatch Magazine, a national weekly publication until 2004 followed by a brief stint with the Leadership Newspapers.
In 2006, Remi started Tweenys Magazine, a Nigerian monthly publication for youth that helps young people identify and realize their goals. She is Tweenys' Editor-in-Chief.
A graduate of Alliance Francaise Lagos, and the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Remi has also studied community journalism through the African Virtual University. She has participated in cyber-training for reporting on HIV/AIDS and women in Africa by the now-defunct, Dakar based African Women's Media Center as well as the Carole Simpson Leadership Institute sponsored by the International Women's Media Foundation held in Accra, Ghana in 2004.