"Oil Standoff Women Threaten Nudity"
By D'ARCY DORAN
Associated Press Writer
ESCRAVOS, Nigeria (AP) - Unarmed village women holding 700 ChevronTexaco workers inside a southeast Nigeria oil terminal let 200 of the men go Sunday but threatened a traditional and powerful shaming gesture if the others try to leave - removing their own clothes.
"Our weapon is our nakedness," said Helen Odeworitse, a representative for the villagers in the extraordinary week-old protest for jobs, electricity and development in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta.
Most Nigerian tribes consider unwanted displays of nudity by wives, mothers or grandmothers as an extremely damning protest measure that can inspire a collective source of shame for those at whom the action is directed.
About 600 women from two nearby communities are holding ChevronTexaco's giant Escravos terminal. They range in age from 30 to 90 - with the core group being married women aged 40 or older.
The women want the oil giant to hire their sons and use some of the region's oil riches to develop their remote and run-down villages - most of which lack even electricity. The people in the Niger Delta are among the poorest in Nigeria, despite living on the oil-rich land.
ChevronTexaco officials have refused to identify the trapped workers, but an employee at the plant said Wednesday they included Americans, Britons and Canadians as well as Nigerians.
Both sides took a break Sunday from their often heated negotiations.
Anino Olowu, 55, leader of the women's negotiating team, said it was not clear when talks would resume. ChevronTexaco's top negotiator informed the women he would consult higher management before resuming the meetings.
The oil company has emphasized that it wants to resolve the so-far peaceful standoff by dialogue. About 100 police and soldiers armed with assault rifles have been sent to the terminal to protect the facility. They are under strict orders not to harm the women, though one beat up a woman on Thursday.
The takeover began Monday when 150 women managed to sneak into the facility. The women have occupied the terminal ever since, blocking the airstrip, helipad and port that provide the only exit routes from the facility, which is surrounded by rivers and swamps.
The protest has shut down a facility that accounts for the bulk of the company's Nigeria production, with an estimated half-million barrels a day.
Oil site takeovers are common in Nigeria, the world's sixth-largest producer of oil, and the fifth-largest supplier to the United States.
But this protest is a departure for Nigeria, where such disputes often are settled with machetes and guns. In the oil-rich Niger Delta, armed young men routinely resort to kidnapping and sabotage to pressure oil multinationals into giving them jobs, protection money or compensation for alleged environmental damage.
Hostages generally are released unharmed.
On Sunday the women released 200 of the workers - to show "good faith," Odeworitse said.
Four ferries bound for Warri, the nearest city two hours away by boat, carried the freed workers off. The workers released Sunday were nearing the end of their tour of duty, which can last weeks at a time.
ChevronTexaco "begged us to allow the boats to go so they can bring food back, and allow those on staff who were due to go on time-off leave," Odeworitse said.
ChevronTexaco executives could not be immediately reached for comment Sunday. The talks have been playing out in a village of rusty tin shacks within 100 yards of the oil terminal.
The women are occupying the plant in shifts and constantly communicating with those outside using walkie-talkies, Odeworitse said.
The women took bundles of food with them when they began the takeover and ChevronTexaco has also supplied them some. The women are cooking their own meals inside the terminal mess hall. The occupiers say everyone, including themselves, so far has had enough food.
The struggle between international oil firms and local communities drew international attention in the mid-1990s, when violent protests by the tiny Ogoni tribe forced Shell to abandon its wells on their land.
The late dictator Gen. Sani Abacha responded in 1995 by hanging nine Ogoni leaders, including writer Ken Saro Wiwa - triggering international outrage and Nigeria's expulsion from the Commonwealth.