The Power of Peaceful Protest

"Our weapon is our nakedness," Helen Odeworitse, a leader of 600 women who peacefully seized control of an oil terminal in Escravos, Nigeria, told the Associated Press. Odeworitse and other women held 700 western oil workers hostage and shut down a facility that exports half a million barrels of oil a day.

The unarmed women villagers, who ranged in age from 30 to 90, threatened to remove their clothes -- a traditional shaming gesture that would have humiliated and damned ChevronTexaco throughout the region.

Takeovers of oil sites are common in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Armed with machetes and guns, men routinely threaten corporate executives with kidnapping and sabotage. But the all-women protest stunned the corporation and, in the end, the women's threat worked. Rather than removing or harming the protesters, the oil company engaged in a 10-day marathon negotiation with them.

Desperation, the women later explained, is what led to their protest. Escravos is the Portuguese word for slaves and that's how these women view themselves. Despite its great oil wealth, the Niger Delta is among the poorest places in West Africa. While oil workers enjoy comfortable homes, a modern hospital and satellite television, villagers live in rusty tin-roofed shacks, without running water or electricity.

The women's demands reflected their determination to escape such grinding poverty. ChevronTexaco, they insisted, should help fund the development of the region. So, they demanded that the oil company employ 25 of their sons; install electricity and water systems in their communities; build schools, clinics and town halls; and help them build fish and chicken farms so that they can sell food to the corporation's cafeteria.

To their surprise and delight, ChevronTexaco agreed to their demands. As soon as the agreement was announced, the women -- many with babies bound to their backs -- celebrated by singing and dancing on the docks. Without harming a soul, they had forced a multinational corporation to help them transform impoverished villages into modern towns.

Dick Fligate, a ChevronTexaco executive, reportedly conceded that the protest was a wake-up call and that the corporation would have to pay greater attention to the needs of local communities. But he may change his mind. As soon as these protesters left the Escravos oil terminal, women from other villages seized four more ChevronTexaco oil facilities in southeastern Nigeria.

What is taking place in Nigeria is nothing like the anti-globalization protests westerners have watched on television. These women are local villagers who, by engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience, are demanding that the wealth that lies beneath their land be shared with them.

Whether their peaceful protests will succeed is hardly assured. Nigeria, let us not forget, is what the American government calls a "strategic interest": It is the fifth-largest oil supplier to the United States.

Still, their peaceful protest proved successful and has already inspired copycat occupations. As she left the Escravos oil terminal, Anunu Uwawah, a leader of the 10-day action, reportedly exulted, "I give one piece of advice to all women in all countries: They shouldn't let any company cheat them." Clearly, some women were listening.

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