By Constance Meju
Formost families in oil producing areas of the Niger Delta, the discovery andexploration of oil rather than be a blessing bringing improvements in theirlives, has been a constant source of woes.
Tothem, the main beneficiaries of oil and gas proceeds from their land are theNigerian government, the majority owner of oil proceeds and the few players onthe corridors of oil-the multinational oil companies, the marginal oil fieldowners, their contractors, staff and a smattering of locals comprising ofchiefs and youth leaders often used by the companies as instruments of divisionwithin the communities.
Whilethe federal government fuels its operations from about 88 per cent revenue accrued from sale of crude oil fromthe Niger Delta and focuses attention majorly on servicing the seat of power,Abuja, for the host communities whosewater ways and farmlands are destroyed to drill the natural resources, what ison offer from government is usually intimidating heavy presence of militarypersonnel engendering deep resentment from youths as they watch what appearsutopian life roll by on oil rigs mounted within their vicinity.
Whilethe rigs are alight 24 hours daily, there is pitch darkness within the oilbearing communities from which they drill the liquid gold. And the rigs boastof state of the art facilities especially health facilities while most of thecommunities do not even have any health center nearby. They have to travel longdistances, sometimes by boat to assess health care. Schools are few and poorlykept, recreational facilities are absent and many youths are trapped at home asfishing and farming, the people’s main occupation have been destroyed by manyyears of unattended to oil spills.
Theoutcome is poverty and in the face of these deprivations, one can only expectresentment, 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 bygovernment through the provision of necessary infrastructural amenities such as good roads, bridges,portable water, standard functional hospitals, quality schools, small scaleenterprises, light and economic opportunities to keep the people happy andengaged, are very much missing.
Theresult has been a breakdown of law and order in the form of militancy,insurgency, piracy and other vicescharacterized by kidnapping, killings, now degenerating into ritual killings.
Noteworthyis the factthat militancy and insurgency erupted following invitation of NigerDelta youths to Abuja to join pro-Abacha continuity- in power One Million Marchcampaign where they saw first -hand, the magnificent beauty oil has created inAbuja while they wallowed in poverty. What followed is what has been plaguingthe country since- The demand for attention by Niger Deltans. Refusal to listento them has cost lives on the side of government, the oil companies and thecommunity people. Communities like Odi, Gbaramatu,Umuechem, Ogoni, tell better the story of this struggle.
Forthe federal government what is uppermost is the uninterrupted flow of oil tokeep the dollars rolling even as the people begged to receive a small fractionof proceeds from the sales. When the National Confab put together by PresidentOlusegun Obaanjo failed to consider theminority demand to include this age-long demand for attention in itsrecommendations, the youths opted for the gun and went into the kidnapping ofexpatriate oil workers seeking international support but the response wasbombings and further militarization of the Niger Delta.
Politicianscashed in and arms are everywhere. Granted that militancy and insurgencydrafted a large chunk of Niger Delta youths into the forest against a perceivedoppressive government, the major brunt of this unwholesome development has beenborne by women and girls.
Unrestmeans less security for the female gender, the vulnerable group, being easytargets and preys both to the boys and the government forces. Niger Delta womenare the mainstay of the communities. They cook, farm, fish and move about tomarket their produce for sustenance. They do these in many places, by canoemoving from creek to creek, covering the troublesome zones of the forest boysand the military, day and night.
Theyare therefore, easy targets for sea pirates who willfully waylay them, seizetheir goods, rob them of their money, rape them and if unlucky, kill some. TheBonny water way is one regularly assaulted route. The Andoni axis is equally a dangerto the women. The Ogoni axis is a constant danger as robberies occur almostdaily while Eleme, host of over 250 oil companies, records regular destructionof communities by cultists throwing more women and girls into panic.
Almoston a daily basis, thugs allegedly being sponsored by unscrupulous politiciansintent on grabbing power in Rivers State, kidnap bus- loads of passengerstravelling on the Emohua axis of the Port Harcourt/Owerri Rd.
Ihave had a lucky escape from these marauders more than once along the Ibeno/Ibuokponaxis in Eket Local Government Area ofAkwa Ibom State. But many unlucky women and girls have been victims. The storyis the same in Delta and Bayelsa states but nothing is in place to protectwomen and girls. Police presence is absent in many of these places, securitybeing concentrated around oil and gas installations, the major concern of theNigerian government.
Marketdays are molestation days at some community markets especially around Etche LocalGovernment Area in Rivers State causing women,who, constitute the bulk of thetraders, to operate in fear. While DonWani, the cult leader in Ogba reigned, going to farm was a pain for women inthat area and what do you suppose happened to girls who dared to turn down hisadvances?
Unfortunatelythis molestation is not limited to the militants and cultists. Soldiers also dotheir bit, adding to the pains of women and girls in oil communities.
Thisis in addition to pains from despoiled soil and waterways causing low economicyield, hunger and poverty. Anger in men translates to more abuses against womenand girls, more so in times of economic hardship according to the UnitedNations. It is not surprising therefore, that even in Niger Delta urban areasincidents of sexual and domestic violence are on the increase.
Sometimeago, a young girl in her teens in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State killed herself afterbeing raped by hoodlums. Many aresilently bearing this dishonor to avoid stigmatization; some with graveconsequences like unwanted pregnancies, infection with sexually transmitteddiseases including HIV/AIDS. Ours has been a culture of silence which needs tobe broken so the world will know that women are crying in pain.
Governmenthas to recognize this problem and work out how best to protect women inconflict impacted communities. To help hasten action, the ministries of WomenAffairs in the region should map out conflict impacted communities in theirvaried states with possible suggestions on how best to protect women and girlsin accordance with the provisions of United NationSecurity Resolution 1325. Nigerian women and girls are a significant entity inthe Nigerian make-up and must be made to feel so. Women have rights whichshould be upheld by the government.
*Constance Mejuis a Port Harcourt based newspaper publisher andardent women advocate