July 4. U.S. Day of Independence. What’s more ‘American’ than … Chevron Corporation? It’s pretty much always in the top 5 of U.S. based corporations. It’s deeply involved with everything having anything to do with energy or power. Oil, gas, geothermal. You name it, Chevron’s there, but not like a good neighbor. It’s got history, well over a century of environmental ‘intrusions’. And its corporate logo is red, white and blue. If Africa’s a country, the USA is a red white and blue multinational corporation. So, let’s celebrate Chevron.
Or better, let’s celebrate the Nigerian women who shut it down for a couple weeks, ten years ago, July 2002. At that time, a few hundred unarmed Itsekiri women, mostly mothers and grandmothers, occupied the Chevron Oil Tank Farm in Escravos. Their weapon? Their threat? Nudity. That threat of stripping themselves naked shut down the multi-billion dollar plant for eleven days. As Sokari Ekine explained, “The mere threat of it would send people running. These are mature women and for mothers and grandmothers to threaten to strip is the most powerful thing they can do. It’s a very, very strong weapon. Chevron is American, but they have Nigerian men working for them, and women are held in particular esteem in Nigeria – and if a woman of 40 or 70 takes her clothes off a man is just going to freeze.”
The men froze. And so did the oil for a while.
And then there were ‘negotiations’. Emem Okon is a feminist activist organizer in the Niger Delta, who has consistently pushed and prodded Chevron. She founded the Kebetkache Women & Development Centre, in Nigeria, and is a key member in the global True Cost of Chevron network. She is more than a thorn in the side of Chevron. She’s a bomb in the lap and a stake through the heart. Emem Okon is the feminist face of petro-sexual emancipatory politics.
Here’s how Emem Okon sees the ‘negotiations’ that followed:
There were negotiations. But the reason the women took over the oil tank farm was that Chevron and other oil companies is fond of negotiating with only the men, because the community leadership comprises of only the men and the male youths. So because Chevron was not listening to the women and not paying attention to the concerns and interests of the women, the women decided to mobilize and organize, and took over the oil tank farm, because they wanted to get the attention of Chevron. They stopped production on the oil tank farm for 11 days, and they insisted that Chevron management staff should come down to Burutu community to discuss with them. But by the time Chevron decided to come and discuss and negotiate with the women, the process was taken over by the men. The state government sent representatives, the traditional rulers sent representatives, and it was only two women that was part of the negotiation.
Chevron makes it a policy of not listening to the women, and in particular not listening to strong activist women, like Emem Okon. In May 2010, Okon, as a legal proxy holder, tried to attend the Chevron’s shareholders meeting in Houston. She wanted to speak to the shareholders Chevron’s devastating environmental impact in the Delta. She was barred. So were sixteen other community representatives from around the world. Five members of the True Cost of Chevron coalition were arrested.
This year, Chevron let Emem Okon speak – for a whole two minutes. In two minutes, Emem Okon had enough time to state the obvious. Chevron lies in its reports from the Niger Delta. Chevron’s activities in the Niger Delta – poisoning the water, ruining the land, devastating the local economies – directly attack women: women as fisher-folk and as farmers, women as mothers, women as community members, women as women: “The women of the Niger Delta call on Chevron and every other oil company to leave the Niger Delta oil under the ground. Stop destroying our environment. Let our oil be.”
The women of the Niger Delta are calling. They have had enough of Chevron’s charity, violence, exploitation and duplicity. Want to celebrate independence this year? Support Emem Okon and the women of the Niger Delta.
* Photo Credit: Jonathan McIntosh