By Constance Meju For most families in oil producing areas of the Niger Delta, the discovery and exploration of oil rather than be a blessing
By Constance Meju
For most families in oil producing areas of the Niger Delta, the discovery and exploration of oil rather than be a blessing bringing improvements in their lives, has been a constant source of woes.
To them, the main beneficiaries of oil and gas proceeds from their land are the Nigerian government, the majority owner of oil proceeds and the few players on the corridors of oil-the multinational oil companies, the marginal oil field owners, their contractors, staff and a smattering of locals comprising of chiefs and youth leaders often used by the companies as instruments of division within the communities.
While the federal government fuels its operations from about 88 per cent revenue accrued from sale of crude oil from the Niger Delta and focuses attention majorly on servicing the seat of power, Abuja, for the host communities whose water ways and farmlands are destroyed to drill the natural resources, what is on offer from government is usually intimidating heavy presence of military personnel engendering deep resentment from youths as they watch what appears utopian life roll by on oil rigs mounted within their vicinity.
While the rigs are alight 24 hours daily, there is pitch darkness within the oil bearing communities from which they drill the liquid gold. And the rigs boast of state of the art facilities especially health facilities while most of the communities do not even have any health center nearby. They have to travel long distances, sometimes by boat to assess health care. Schools are few and poorly kept, recreational facilities are absent and many youths are trapped at home as fishing and farming, the people’s main occupation have been destroyed by many years of unattended to oil spills.
The outcome is poverty and in the face of these deprivations, one can only expect resentment, anger against the oil companies and their staff by the locals, who, feel and rightly too, pushed out of their ancestral inheritance. What would have served as compensation by government through the provision of necessary infrastructural amenities such as good roads, bridges, portable water, standard functional hospitals, quality schools, small scale enterprises, light and economic opportunities to keep the people happy and engaged, are very much missing.
The result has been a breakdown of law and order in the form of militancy, insurgency, piracy and other vices characterized by kidnapping, killings, now degenerating into ritual killings.
Noteworthy is the factthat militancy and insurgency erupted following invitation of Niger Delta youths to Abuja to join pro-Abacha continuity- in power One Million March campaign where they saw first -hand, the magnificent beauty oil has created in Abuja while they wallowed in poverty. What followed is what has been plaguing the country since- The demand for attention by Niger Deltans. Refusal to listen to them has cost lives on the side of government, the oil companies and the community people. Communities like Odi, Gbaramatu, Umuechem, Ogoni, tell better the story of this struggle.
For the federal government what is uppermost is the uninterrupted flow of oil to keep the dollars rolling even as the people begged to receive a small fraction of proceeds from the sales. When the National Confab put together by President Olusegun Obaanjo failed to consider the minority demand to include this age-long demand for attention in its recommendations, the youths opted for the gun and went into the kidnapping of expatriate oil workers seeking international support but the response was bombings and further militarization of the Niger Delta.
Politicians cashed in and arms are everywhere. Granted that militancy and insurgency drafted a large chunk of Niger Delta youths into the forest against a perceived oppressive government, the major brunt of this unwholesome development has been borne by women and girls.
Unrest means less security for the female gender, the vulnerable group, being easy targets and preys both to the boys and the government forces. Niger Delta women are the mainstay of the communities. They cook, farm, fish and move about to market their produce for sustenance. They do these in many places, by canoe moving from creek to creek, covering the troublesome zones of the forest boys and the military, day and night.
They are therefore, easy targets for sea pirates who willfully waylay them, seize their goods, rob them of their money, rape them and if unlucky, kill some. The Bonny water way is one regularly assaulted route. The Andoni axis is equally a danger to the women. The Ogoni axis is a constant danger as robberies occur almost daily while Eleme, host of over 250 oil companies, records regular destruction of communities by cultists throwing more women and girls into panic.
Almost on a daily basis, thugs allegedly being sponsored by unscrupulous politicians intent on grabbing power in Rivers State, kidnap bus- loads of passengers travelling on the Emohua axis of the Port Harcourt/Owerri Rd.
I have had a lucky escape from these marauders more than once along the Ibeno/Ibuokpon axis in Eket Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State. But many unlucky women and girls have been victims. The story is the same in Delta and Bayelsa states but nothing is in place to protect women and girls. Police presence is absent in many of these places, security being concentrated around oil and gas installations, the major concern of the Nigerian government.
Market days are molestation days at some community markets especially around Etche Local Government Area in Rivers State causing women,who, constitute the bulk of the traders, to operate in fear. While Don Wani, the cult leader in Ogba reigned, going to farm was a pain for women in that area and what do you suppose happened to girls who dared to turn down his advances?
Unfortunately this molestation is not limited to the militants and cultists. Soldiers also do their bit, adding to the pains of women and girls in oil communities.
This is in addition to pains from despoiled soil and waterways causing low economic yield, hunger and poverty. Anger in men translates to more abuses against women and girls, more so in times of economic hardship according to the United Nations. It is not surprising therefore, that even in Niger Delta urban areas incidents of sexual and domestic violence are on the increase.
Sometime ago, a young girl in her teens in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State killed herself after being raped by hoodlums. Many are silently bearing this dishonor to avoid stigmatization; some with grave consequences like unwanted pregnancies, infection with sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. Ours has been a culture of silence which needs to be broken so the world will know that women are crying in pain.
Government has to recognize this problem and work out how best to protect women in conflict impacted communities. To help hasten action, the ministries of Women Affairs in the region should map out conflict impacted communities in their varied states with possible suggestions on how best to protect women and girls in accordance with the provisions of United Nation Security Resolution 1325. Nigerian women and girls are a significant entity in the Nigerian make-up and must be made to feel so. Women have rights which should be upheld by the government.
*Constance Mejuis a Port Harcourt based newspaper publisher and ardent women advocate