Women's uprisings against the Nigerian oil industry in the 1980s*


Terisa E. Turner Departments of Political Studies, Sociology & Anthropology University of Guelph Guelph, Ontario, Canada


M.O. Oshare, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Warri, Delta State, Nigeria

June 1993

*This is a revised version of a paper which Terisa E. Turner presented at the annual conference of the Canadian African Studies Association in Montreal in May 1992. Thanks are due to H. Rouse-Amadi, J. Ihonvbere, H. Veltmeyer and J. Fiske for comments on an earlier draft, and to this Journal's anonymous referees for their critical insights. Research for this article was done in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s, supported in part by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council.

ABSTRACT In the 1980s women attacked oil industry installations and personnel throughout Nigeria. This article considers two revolts: the 1984 Ogharefe women's uprising and the 1986 Ekpan women's uprising. In the oil centre of Warri where both took place, women do most of the peasant farming but land is controlled by men. The study argues that oil-based industrialization superimposed on this local political economy a new regime which dispossessed women of access to farm land. Women responded by attacking the oil industry with varying degrees of success. In the 1984 uprising women seized control of a US oil corporation's production site, threw off their clothes and with this curse won their demands. These had to do with financial compensation for pollution and alienation of land. In the 1986 uprising women shut down the core of the whole region's oil industry. They were less successful in winning their demands for land compensation and oil industry jobs.

The different levels of success are explained by reference to class formation and gender relations in the uprisings themselves. The success of the 1984 struggle derived from it being a relatively straight forward peasant initiative against a foreign oil company. In addition, women had the support of young men against the old men who had bargained away land rights to the state. In contrast, the 1986 uprising was less successful because of its complexity, combining as it did women's peasant and proletarian demands. Furthermore, in the 1986 uprising, women lacked significant support from men who for the most part, aligned themselves with the state against the women. The study concludes by noting the prominent place of women's initiatives linked to gender solidarity in the success of the exploited classes in struggles with big business and the state.

INTRODUCTION This study considers two Nigerian women's protests against the oil industry: the Ogharefe women's uprising of 1984 and the Ekpan women's uprising of 1986. These clashes were explosive moments in an on-going movement of resistance to the hardships brought on by the operation of big capital in the oil industry. First a civil war largely about oil and ethnicity was fought in the late 1960s [Turner 1976]. This war brought social disruption and over a million deaths in a population of about 100 million. It left an economically and ecologically traumatized society saddled with a massive military state. The oil boom of the 1970s and bust of the 1980s brought on a more intense quality of chaos and desperation [Falola and Ihonvbere 1985, Turner 1987].

The uprisings reveal the oppositions between men and women, between citizens and state. They hark back to Nigerian women's struggles against colonial exploitation, to the tax riots, market closures and cocoa holdups, to the unseating of kings and the kidnapping of officials. The uprisings return to the historical theme of women warring against men who sell out the interests of the community and become allies of the dominators, getting rich while people starve. This study examines the conditions impelling contemporary resistance. It tells the story of the women's uprisings, showing them to be expressions of what could be termed 'indigenous feminisms,' shaped by the world oil industry.

Two objectives here are to set down information about the women's uprisings and to consider the alignment of social forces in those confrontations. This second objective involves a class analysis which embodies the analysis of gender and ethnic relations. Three arguments are made: (1) the uprisings were clashes resulting from class formation spurred by oil based capitalist development; (2) the gender character of the uprisings, the fact that they involved particular class factions of women against specific class factions of men, followed from changes in gender relations that took place in the process of capitalist development; and (3) the degree of success enjoyed by women in their struggles reflects both the extent to which peasant relations persisted or were eroded by proletarianization, and the degree to which men acted in solidarity with women.


The uprisings of Nigerian women are social experiences against which certain orthodoxies and innovations in social theory may be tested. These theoretical elements of contending paradigms include perspectives on issues such as feminism and the third world state, women and transnational corporations, women in development, gender relations and gender analysis, the party and revolution, national versus international socialism, privatization and the market, and democracy and egalitarianism.

Social analysis has been transformed in the last century and a half as the historical stage has been captured successively by new world slave revolts, proletarian revolution, colonial uprisings and women's mobilization. Two distinct paradigms, the reformist and the revolutionary, inform most analysis; but their outlines are blurred. The disarray stems in part from the collapse of stalinism. For many who thought stalinism was marxism and centrally planned state capitalism was socialism or communism, this collapse was cause for despair, theoretical bankruptcy and de facto subscription to the end of ideology camp.

The extraction of the revolutionary paradigm from this confusion over what constitutes marxist theory and practice is complicated by the stance of those claiming to be marxists who persist in discounting peasants, the unemployed, women, the poor and others as social forces. On the other hand, feminists and analysts of those on the margins (and frontiers) too frequently labour under the misconception that stalinism equals marxism. The ignorance and misogyny of self styled marxists who at best, observe as a convention the practice of 'adding on' women to their analyses, drive deeper the wedge between feminists and a revolutionary paradigm. The overall result of this confusion is the dominance of a reformist paradigm, in versions ranging from world systems theory to neo-liberal modernization theory.

While the present analysis of Nigerian women's uprisings does little to solve this crisis of theory, it does draw upon a revolutionary paradigm. The paradigm's revolutionary character derives from its source in orthodox marxism as extended by C.L.R. James to embrace colonial revolts and feminism [Grimshaw 1991a, 1991b, 1992, James 1970, 1973, 1977, 1980, 1984, 1986a, 1986b]. Features of the revolutionary paradigm which are important in this study are its emphasis on capital's simultaneously destructive and constructive power, its recognition of the vital part played by intensified sexism and racism in the history of capital accumulation, its global and historical scope and finally, its appreciation of the capacity and imperative which capital has given all exploited peoples to use the organizations of capitalism to establish a global, egalitarian successor system. The revolutionary paradigm suggests that the central question about Nigerian women's uprisings has to do with how these uprisings demonstrate the emergence of a new society from the debris of the old [Turner 1989, 1991].

This study is informed by Boserup's [1970] major insight, that the expansion of capitalism marginalizes and disempowers women. But the political consequences which Boserup understands to follow from her analysis - 'help' for poor, marginalized women to ameliorate their hardships - are different from the political consequences of this analysis of capital's expansion in Nigeria. In fact, in Nigeria not only did capitalism break up women's social order but it also created the conditions for resistance. The uprisings are products of capitalist development just as much as is women's marginalization. This suggests, counter to Boserup's reformist and ameliorative stance, that support for the objectives of the uprisings, and the organizations and alliances that facilitated them, would contribute to the empowerment of women and of all exploited people. In short, it is suggested that it is through uprisings and the successful consolidation of the social power marshalled through them that women can be empowered.

The conceptualization of capital as the social dynamic impelling its own transformation provides analytical power that is absent from the one dimensional emphasis in Boserup's conceptualization of capitalist development. First, a transformational conceptualization requires that attention be focused on social struggle. Clashes such as the anti-oil uprisings examined here assume great importance. Instances of fightback yield lessons about people's organizational capacities. They reveal fundamental social alliances and conflicts, especially with regard to class and gender. Second, it gives the highest priority to historical analysis, particularly for those interested in policy and in the political potentials of the future. Analysis of the history of a social group reveals, for instance, whether a development aid project such as a water supply is embedded in defeat or victory for residents of a community. This is to restate the dictum that technology such as a water pump is far from neutral, but rather takes its meaning from the social relations and historical process of which it is a part. It can be a means of class domination or popular empowerment. The importance of historical analysis is too that it offers a way of understanding project failures (the neglect or sabotage of wells, for example). It illuminates the systemic and subsurface meanings of state 'women and development' policies [World Bank 1992, St-Hilaire 1993:57].

For people seeking to resolve social problems, historical analysis identifies the groups which have been shaped and empowered by capitalist development to be the carriers of the transformational impulse. Such groups are obvious candidates for partnership in projects to resolve social crises. The distinction between a conceptualization of capitalist development as only destructive and one which sees it as simultaneously destructive and constructive, is also a distinction between reformist versus revolutionary social forces and their respective strategies.

In sum, a dimension of the method used here is the perspective that capital generates its own demise and succession. Nothing is destroyed until it is replaced. A second dimension of this method is gender analysis as an integral part of class analysis. This means that as we examine how the process of capitalist development creates social forces capable of transforming exploitative into collective relationships, we specifically examine relations between and among men and women [Coquery-Vidrovitch 1975]. Some key questions are how does capitalist development change the ways in which women are exploited? What do these changes mean for the types of social power at women's disposal? How does capitalist development polarize men, change relations among them, and change relations between categories of men and women?

Capitalist development, at least in most of Africa, superimposes upon pre-existing gender relations, a new set of relations which facilitate the realization of state and capitalist objectives: order and profits. Capitalism marginalizes women through the redirection of existing gender inequality, for instance, in the realm of control over land, into new capitalist projects. In what could be described as a 'male deal,' class formation is effected in part through cross-class (and frequently cross-race) alliances among men to the disadvantage of most women [Turner 1991, Dauda 1992]. For example, some men, rather than allocate land for food production, may alienate it to foreign oil companies in exchange for some personal gain. Capitalist relations are thereby extended and this extension constitutes a change in men-women relations. A type of reciprocity is overridden by market relations which might, for example, result in the employment in waged work of some landless women in businesses established by indigenous men using money from land sales. The change in gender relations with the development of capitalism pits women against those men who have become powerful through allying with the purveyors of capital.

The most important change in gender relations, attendant upon the development of capitalism, results from the new significance which capitalism gives to women's unique work of producing people [Cox and Federici 1973, Mies 1986]. This significance resides in the necessary nexus between the production of human beings as labourers and capital's profits. A central, defining feature of capitalism is its commodification of labour. The capacity to work is bought and sold on a global market. Capitalism is fundamentally a system which allows a few to profit from the labour of many, and it is women who produce and service this labour, including their own. State policies have, since the rise of capitalism in the 16th century, been geared to provide capital with cheap labour. This necessitated the development of policies to make particular groups of women in specific geographical locations bear, socialize, service and nurse people of a particular nature - labourers - in conditions least expensive to the state and to capital. The IMF structural adjustment programs of the late 20th century are geared in part to cutting the costs of labour power production [Bujra 1986, Elson 1991, Beneria and Feldman 1992, Afshar and Dennis 1992].

The change in gender relations which aids capital in harnessing women to household production of labour is the instituting of men as the disciplinarians over women's work. Men in the state, capitalist men themselves, but most significantly, proletarian men are encouraged to define themselves as men with reference to their control over women. They do so through supervising labour power production by women. The proletarian man, bound to his exploiter through new bonds of shared masculinity, serves this exploiter by rendering up to him in a reliable fashion, cheap wage goods and fresh labour power, the products of the work of female kin [Fiske 1991]. However, to the extent that proletarianization is successfully resisted by peasant and other subsistence producers, the degree of division between the interests of women and men may be reduced.

Resistance by women to this type of capitalist exploitation takes many forms including struggles for better work conditions (electricity, water, schools), the fight for control over fertility including the refusal to bear or nurture children, or a fight to keep them (contraception, abortion, retaining custody), and efforts to get or keep means of survival independent of men (land, crafts, marketing, women's collectivities). Because capitalism changes gender relations to place men in supervisory positions over their wives (and other women); women's resistance is directed against male discipline, against poor work conditions and against reducing people to cheap labour power.

Women's resistance is indivisibly both a class and a gender conflict. It has two foci of empowerment for women. First, social power may be exercised by women against exploiting men and second, men who have not aligned with capital but instead are, like women, marginalized by capitalist development, may align with women. Both foci are charged with ideological constraints. Miller's six country study, including Nigeria, showed that with industrialization the ideology of male dominance within the family persisted to the detriment of women's rights within the home [Miller 1984]. The values associated with a kind of pre-capitalist reciprocity which nevertheless subordinated women may act to constrain women in the marshalling of their social power. In some circumstances however, pre-capitalist values may be used as a political resource for protection against exploitation [Leacock 1981]. Among women's strengths is that their struggles and resistance start with a politics of mothering and by extension, a politics of fertility and creativity which includes, in many societies, the employment of collective nudity as a compelling tactic [Turner, Brownhill and Neal 1993]. In addition, men may be bonded in many ways to each other, while being divided from women through highly formalized processes which engender all work and social activity. For some men to break away from other men and pledge solidarity with women engaged in confrontation with exploiting men bespeaks a revolutionary change in social relations and how they are conceived. Given the way in which capitalism pits husband against wife, a strong alliance between them requires a leap in consciousness. Where solidarity is expressed between women and men, it may, in specific societies, most readily draw upon kin relations such as sister/brother or mother/son.

Such alliances are necessary conditions for revolutionary change. Alliances of solidarity between women and men are prerequisites for overcoming the power of capital and for organizing an egalitarian, cooperative society. Note that an alliance is necessary: the connection cannot be between a men's movement and women 'auxiliaries' who service and support the programme of men. Why is a specific quality of alliance a condition for revolution? The notion of class solidarity or of alliance implies that particular women have stated their own demands and are acting through their own organizations in their own interests. Men who ally with women must do so on women's terms or there is no alliance. Women's social power can be marshalled by no one but themselves. The use of this power is essential if a challenge to capital is to succeed. A revolutionary clash is one in which women take the initiative and have the solidarity of some men. A struggle only among men (for instance, male workers and male capitalists) cannot produce fundamental change because absent from the struggle are women with their social power to produce and reproduce. A struggle which is restricted to men is likely to be limited to an attempted revision of the relations of exploitation and not go more deeply into eliminating the relations through which women are exploited. In addition, the joint collaboration between exploited women and men provides the strength in unity required by a fundamental challenge to capital.

In sum, this study employs a theoretical perspective which emphasizes capitalism's revolutionary power to transform class relations and in so doing, to transform gender relations. The key point is that revolutionary power to transcend capitalist relations derives from the splitting (by capital) of the male gender into classes, and the alignment of exploited men with women. The thesis in this study is that capitalist development promotes such a gender realignment and hence the basis for both the transcendence of capitalist relations and the creation of an egalitarian society free from gender exploitation as a condition of freedom from class exploitation. The women's uprisings of the 1980s against oil companies in Nigeria reveal, if only in faint outline, these patterns and this direction of movement.

The first section has considered some theoretical dimensions of feminist marxism. The second section turns to some instances of women's mobilization in Nigeria's colonial history; and the third, to the political economy of the Warri community in which the 1980s women's uprisings occurred. The fourth section examines the 1984 Ugharefe women's uprising against Pan Ocean; and the fifth outlines the political context of the 1986 uprising. The sixth section describes the 1986 Ekpan women's uprising and section seven compares it with the earlier uprising in 1984. The conclusion returns to the questions about class and gender relations raised in the introduction.


Throughout the twentieth century, Nigerian women have exercised the social power under their control in their own interests, and in the interests of the community [Amadiume 1987, Mba 1982]. The Aba women's wars of 1928-1929, the Egba women's movement of the early 1930s to the 1950s, the Ogharefe women's uprising of 1984, the Ughelli women's anti-tax protests of 1985-1986, and the Ekpan women's uprising of 1986 are some examples.

In 1928-1930, Aba women rose in mass protest against the oppressive rule of the colonial government. These Igbo women of eastern Nigeria feared that the head-count being carried out by the British was a prelude to women being taxed. The women were unhappy about the over-taxation of their husbands and sons which they felt was pauperizing them and causing economic hardship for the entire community [Van Allen 1972]. They also resented the British imposition on the community of warrant chiefs, many of whom carried out what the women considered to be abusive and extortionist actions such as obtaining wives without paying the full bride wealth and seizure of property. Previously, new village leaders or heads had been democratically chosen and removed by the people themselves. Power had been diffuse; decisions were reached informally or through village assemblies of all adults who chose to attend. While they had less influence than men, women did control local trade and specific crops. Women protected their interests through assemblies. This had been changed by the colonial government which appointed its agents as warrant chiefs to rule over the people. The abuses of the British appointed native judges and tax enumerators impelled the women to stage a protest on 24 November 1929. Using a deeply rooted practice of censoring men through all night song and dance ridicule ('sitting on a man'), the women's rampages spread. Late in December 1929 the women forced the Umuahia warrant chiefs to surrender their caps thus launching their successful campaign to destroy the warrant chief system. In Aba, women sang and danced against the chiefs and then "proceeded to attack and loot the European trading stores and Barclays Bank and to break into the prison and release the prisoners [Perham 1937:208]." Some 25,000 Igbo women faced colonial repression and over a two month period of insurrection, December 1929 to January 1930, at least 50 were killed [Hanna 1990:338-340].

Similarly, between the 1930s and 1950s the women of Egba in western Nigeria pressed for and subsequently secured the abdication of the Alake or king of Egbaland from his throne. He was forced to abdicate on the grounds that he was collaborating with the exploitative colonial government. The Egba women also claimed that the king was hiding under the cover and protection of the colonial government to perpetrate misrule, hardships and oppression on Egba people, and especially on the women.

These instances of women's political intervention during the colonial epoch demonstrate the use of market power and the expression of indigenous feminisms. Rapid and massive mobilization was possible because of women's strong societal organizations and effective communication networks based on concentration in the markets and dispersal along the trade routes [Hanna 1990:340]. Nigerian women's actions have to do with market control and with women's dual focus on both the state and those among their own menfolk who were instruments of the state. First, women engaged in the business of long and short distance marketing took the initiative in mounting mobilizations. But peasant women and townswomen joined the market women to constitute a mass movement. The social power marshalled by this amalgam centred on the women's ability to withhold food from the cities. They paralysed the trading system within which they exercised considerable power. Not only was food denied the cities, but cash crops were denied the colonial authorities and their merchant allies in repeated confrontations over who should determine prices (in the western Nigeria cocoa holdups during the second world war, for example).

Second, women mobilized not only against the British state directly but also against collaborating indigenous men whose power was underpinned by a male deal with men in the colonial regime. In so doing, women stood against class formation which distorted popular control over indigenous political institutions. The women manifested their distress at the deterioration of their own circumstances with the encroachment of capitalist relations. As such their actions were feminist in as much as they were aimed specifically at defending the interests of women. However, the discourse which women used then and now to explain their motives and objectives cannot be assumed to resemble feminist discourses from other societies or periods, and requires analysis in its own right. In mobilizing against the colonizer-chief alliance among men, women were acting simultaneously on behalf of women and on behalf of both men and women in the peasant and trading classes. We see here the coincidence and indivisibility of feminist and class politics in the history of Nigerian women's uprisings. To what extent have these qualities persisted in women's uprisings in the post colonial era?

Since independence in 1960 Nigeria has been characterized by political instability and a series of coups which degenerated into the genocidal civil war (1967-1970). The oil boom of the 1970s profoundly transformed Nigerian society from one based on agricultural exports to one based on exports of crude oil. The state received dollars from oil sales and hence relaxed the exploitation of alternative revenue sources such as export crops and agricultural development. A massive class of middlemen flourished on the basis of state connections [Turner 1976, 1980, Graf 1988]. Oil money was appropriated by indigenous capitalists who tended to invest abroad rather than locally [Turner 1978]. Much theft was geared toward conspicuous consumption and land acquisition [CDHR/NADL 1991:3-5, Platt's Oilgram News 19 March 1992:3].

The state sector expanded dramatically as oil wealth financed infrastructure and some industrialization. Imported fish, chicken, wheat, cloth and other consumer goods undermined indigenous production. This rapid extension of market relations throughout Nigeria encroached on women's spheres of economic and social power. Land alienation, pollution and disturbance of fishing grounds, the absence of men who answered the call of the construction boom, labour shortages and high cost of labour, lack of credit and the need for cash in an import dependent market were factors which contributed to most women's heightened insecurity and marginalization [Lacey 1986:2-3, Adeyemo 1984].

The negative impact of these forces was felt most intensely with the collapse of the international oil market in the early 1980s [Turner 1985:7-10]. By 1984 Nigerian women were mobilizing again against the state and indigenous menfolk on whom the state relied to enforce its authority in the localities. Protests were particularly numerous in the petroleum exporting regions around the oil towns of Warri and Port Harcourt on Nigeria's Atlantic seaboard [Turner 1987]. The two uprisings considered below occurred near Warri in Ethiope and Ukpe Local Government Area (LGA).


Both the 1984 and the 1986 women's uprisings can be better understood against a background sketch of the political economy of the community. The two Local Government Areas (LGAs) in which the uprisings occurred are Ethiope LGA with its headquarters at Ogharefe and adjacent to the south, Ukpe LGA, where the major towns of Ekpan and Effurun are located. The LGAs are located in Bendel (now Delta) State on the Atlantic coast in mid western Nigeria. Bendel state is the site of Nigeria's second most important oil production, refining and export complex at the port city of Warri. Some 100 kilometres north of this coastal oil complex is the Bendel state capital, Benin. The region encompasses a patrilocal, patrilineal peasant agricultural society producing food crops for consumption and trade. While Ogharefe, site of the 1984 uprising, is more rural and characterized by peasant production, Ekpan, cite of the 1986 uprising, is a more urban village of some 14,000 people located very near major petroleum industry complexes sited within Okpe Local Government Area.

The population consists mainly of the Urhrobo community which itself is broken up into clans. Two clans of relevance here are the Ugharefe clan which mounted the 1984 uprising and the Uvwie clan, which organized the 1986 women's revolt. The Uvwie community consists of several clusters of hamlets and villages with its headquarters in the town of Effurun, adjacent to the oil city, Warri. While the largest number of people from the Uvwie clan live in Effurun, the second largest concentration is four kilometres away in the town of Ekpan.


Effurun is a modern Nigerian town that is as large as the oil centre, Warri. The towns of Effurun and Warri have grown together as they share a contiguous boundary. Nearby Ekpan is now a suburban centre as a result of the vast housing developments and oil industry installations constructed by the state oil corporation, NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation). The town of Ekpan has a medical dispensary which, as of the early 1980s; hardly functioned due to lack of basic supplies, drugs, and the failure of government to pay the salaries of staff in a timely manner. In contrast to the medical dispensary, Ekpan's government hospital was relatively well staffed. The hospital had the town's only electricity generating plant. Electricity supply was sporadic as it was produced only when spare parts and fuel were available. The hospital faced problems similar to those faced by other hospitals in Nigeria. This reflects the expansive construction of medical facilities, schools and other infrastructure during the oil boom of 1974-1982, and the inability to equip and maintain them when oil prices fell after 1983.

Ekpan also has one primary school and one comprehensive secondary school founded in 1980. These schools were built as part of the free education programme promoted by Professor Ambrose Alli when he was governor of Bendel state under the United Party of Nigeria government of the Second Republic (1979-1983). Water is available from a single borehole, drilled for the community by the national petroleum corporation. However, Ekpan has no electricity supply whatever apart from that produced by the hospital generator.

Although the women's demonstration which took place on August 25, 1986 at Ekpan involved all resident women who were indigenous to Uvwie; the uprising was, and is, officially and unofficially known as 'the Ekpan women's uprising.' In a similar fashion, the famous Aba women's war of 1928-1930 in fact involved in addition to Aba women, others from many areas outside the eastern Nigerian trading centre of Aba.


Land allocation and permission to use land or fishing areas are the focus of the most intense political struggles. These struggles reflect the presence of several competing and overlapping systems governing allocation of land. Land has historically been controlled by men, not women. The Uvwie clan was characterized by semi-feudal social relations and since the late 19th century, ruled by a royal king or Ovie. Prior to 1977 certain senior men had the power to allow members of clans to use parcels of land and fishing grounds. This system of permission was itself complex and disputed. While the king claimed full control, in fact elders and chiefs participated with private owners in parcelling out land for use.

After 1977 all land not privately owned was appropriated by the federal government through the 1977-1978 Land Use Decree (and later Act). While this momentous revolution in land ownership occurred through the stroke of a pen, in practice it was disputed and rejected by those peasant communities whose very existence depends on communal control over land [Perchonock 1985]. The state simultaneously recognized certain chiefs as having special status with the federal government. These chiefs tended to support the new order under which the state owned and controlled all communal land in Nigeria. Taking this position pitted the chiefs against ordinary peasants among whom the state takeover of communal land was not recognized [Adepoju 1984:48]. Nevertheless, through the operation of the British legal system, and with the cooperation of certain chiefs, land was legally leased or sold. The direct beneficiaries in the oil producing territories were companies; state and private, local and foreign, which were connected with the largely foreign oil industry.

For at least the last hundred years, Uvwie Urhrobo people have been, in the main, peasant farmers with the women doing most of the farming. Women also do important marketing work. The work of the men is generally restricted to bush clearing. Uvwie agricultural production consists mainly of food crops such as cassava which provides the people's staple food. In addition yam, sweet potato, plantain, banana, cocoyam, and other food crops are cultivated. The people of Uvwie also engage in intensive fishing. Surpluses of fish and food crops are exchanged for money and other products in local markets or in nearby markets such as those in Warri, Sapele, Jeddoh, Adeje, Agbarho, and Enerhen.


Another feature of the political economy of Ethiope Local Government Area is the indigenous decision making apparatus which consists of councils. There are four councils: married women, male youth, male chiefs and male elders. The council of chiefs has been decreed by the federal government as the most powerful.

Government in Uvwie society has historically been based on gerontocracy. This system also prevails in the larger Urhrobo society of which Uvwie is part. As in other Urhobo clans, the Uvwie clan's women's council is, in practice, made up only of wives, since unmarried women, divorcees and widows who live in their parents' homesteads are not members. Although Uvwie is organized along semi-feudal lines, it is not politically centralised. The Council of Chiefs shares power with the Council of Elders. However, the Council of Chiefs has become increasingly powerful under colonial and post colonial federal rule. This growing power was accelerated by the government's recognition of the Ovie of Uvwie as one of the First Class Traditional Rulers in Bendel state. This recognition has made the Ovie and his Council of Chiefs the most prominent and thus most powerful organ of administration in contemporary Uvwie society.

The only council that is powerful enough to resist the Ovie and his Council of Chiefs is the Eghweya or Council of Women. The Council of Youth exercises differing degrees of power, depending on the community in question. In 1984 the Ugharefe Council of Youth was active in exercising power. In contrast, among the Ovwie, the Council of Youths (known as the Ighele or Emoha) has not featured prominently in political matters since the civil war (1967-1970) although it continues to exist.

Part of the difference may have to do with the fact that the youth of Ekpan were more profoundly unsettled by the oil industry than were their more rural counterparts. Because industrial development was more intense around Ekpan, more of the youth of the generation of the 1980s were faced with economic dislocation and crisis. The cash nexus in contemporary neocolonial Nigeria has driven a majority of the members of the Ekpan Council of Youth into national and international diaspora. Those left at home have been dominated by the pressure to obtain means of subsistence in nearby industrial and commercial activities. In this context communal political matters had low priority for most Ovwie clan Council of Youth members in the 1980s.


Much of Ethiope Local Government Area had been virtually swallowed up by oil developments of two kinds: actual petroleum exploration and production on the one hand, and the building of many major oil processing facilities on the other. Peasant agriculture and fishing came under tremendous pressure in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of this incursion [Hutchful 1985:51, Turner and Badru 1985].

The headquarters of the Ovwie clan, Effurun, became a commercial and semi-industrial city. Industries established under the abundant revenue regime of the oil boom include the Delta Steel Company at nearby Ovwian-Aladja, a refinery, a petrochemicals plant, and subsidiaries of multinational oil companies including Shell, Gulf, Elf and Pan Ocean. Other industries auxiliary to oil production, have sprung up in the nearby cities of Warri and Ughelli thus changing the socio-economic landscape of Uvwie. In addition several small-scale and service industries as well as commercial ventures sprang up in Effurun and Warri. In 1978 a multimillion naira (one US dollar was officially equal to 29 naira in 1993) refinery owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation was commissioned two kilometres away from Ekpan [Turner 1977]. Adjacent to the Warri refinery is another NNPC multimillion naira project, the Petrochemicals Plant, which went on stream in the late 1970s.

The refinery and petrochemicals plant, along with the NNPC staff housing estate, occupy several hectares of fertile agricultural land and fishing grounds of the Uvwie people in and near Ekpan. In addition, the Delta Steel Plant at Ovwian-Aladja and its gigantic staff housing estate (10 kilometres from Effurun) have taken over large portions of Uvwie farmlands for a dual-carriage access road. Finally a well funded but under utilized Petroleum Training Institute was built at Effurun on a large tract of arable land.

The construction and operation of these mega projects led to increased economic activities in Warri, Effurun and their environs. Part of this expansion was a rapid increase in population. Most of the population growth was accounted for by people who were not indigenous to the area. This influx resulted in a great demand for land on which to build housing. The Uvwie people had more land than their neighbours in Warri, and therefore bore the brunt of this land alienation. The consequence was a rapid and marked reduction in the amount of farmland available in the community. Despite these major developments in the 1970s and 1980s, most of the Uvwie people continued to depend largely on the land and fishing areas for their subsistence.

The oil industry at Warri swallowed the people's land, and made the federal government extremely rich. Through Urhobo land pipelines carry up to a million barrels of oil a day. Warri is one of Africa's largest oil export terminals. Crude oil flowing out of the dozens of tanks through a single point buoy and onto supertankers brings in a third of the government's yearly revenue. From Warri comes half of Nigeria's own petroleum product needs. Each day, kerosene, petrol, diesel and other oil products are loaded onto dozens of road tanker trucks. Warri is the source of fuel for Lagos and major cities in the west including Ife, Ilorun, Ibadan and Benin. This is the source for the oil supplies to the west coast of Africa, and to the continent's port cities to the south.

Offshore Warri US oil companies exploit some of the world's most prolific and profitable oilfields. Shutting down this Warri nerve centre brings to a standstill billions in investment. Losses amount to millions of dollars a day. International energy prices respond to the least hiccup in the global system [Turner 1990:24]. World oil and national oil were wired into the social crises simmering in the Warri oilfields in the 1980s.

Ethiope and Okpe LGAs constitute a region which is two realities: for the oil industry, nationally and globally, it is the site of a major resource concentration with immense financial and strategic import. For the indigenous people it is land, fishing areas, markets, religious sites and homes which continue to underpin an essentially peasant existence. The contradictions inherent in these two realities were expressed by women's uprisings against men. Farming women confronted bourgeois men. And the division between collaborating men and those men in solidarity with embattled women echoed the fact that oil industrialization was choking out the community's farming roots.


The Ogharefe women's uprising was a portent of more massive mobilizations to come. It paved the way for the August 1986 Ekpan women's uprising, and offers significant contrasts. The 1984 revolt took place before political mobilization had reached a national level in post oil boom Nigeria. The uprising aligned the indigenous Council of Youth with the Council of Women to produce a decisive power bloc.


The women demanded that the oil company pay them for lands seized, and for pollution damage. They demanded the drilling of a reliable water well and the provision of electricity. Ogharefe has suffered from oil pollution and other effects of oil exploration and exploitation over the years. The people of Ogharefe had been denied compensation payments for land acquired as oilfields. They had been denied the provision of social amenities by the main oil company operating on their land. This oil company is a subsidiary of the United States multinational, Pan Ocean. By early 1984 "all peaceful efforts to make Pan Ocean listen to the community's protests and demands had fallen on deaf ears [Oshare 1986]."

In addition to its tensions with local people, the US oil firm was in conflict with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Pan Ocean was refusing to pay for many millions of dollars worth of crude oil that it had extracted from the Ogharefe oilfield years earlier. Pan Ocean was regarded as tough and intransigent by Nigerians at the top and the bottom of society.

An important feature of the grassroots political constellation in Ogharefe which was not present in the Ekpan uprising of 1986 was the high level of political organization of Ogharefe youth. In fact, there was widespread community agreement that "only the youths could effectively represent the interests of the community. The youths claim that the elders are selfish, too easily satisfied and ignorant of the realities of modern times [Oshare 1986]." And the Council of Youths had the backing of the Eghweya or Council of Women.


In 1984 the women of Ogharefe decided to call Pan Ocean's bluff. One early dawn saw the entire womenfolk of Ogharefe laying siege to the company's Ogharefe Production Station. The mass protest of several thousand women was aimed at preventing workers from coming into the station to relieve their colleagues who were already held 'in captivity' by the women. The personnel locked in the station made frantic radio contacts with Pan Ocean's offices in Warri and Lagos. Several hours later the higher authorities responded: the company's managing director himself was coming with his team to appeal to the women to come to the negotiation table. When the women heard this they threatened to strip naked to drive the point home that what they needed was compliance with their demands and not new negotiations. They had negotiated enough already. Disrobing by women in public is considered a serious and permanent curse on those to whom the women expose themselves. The curse is related to mothering, agricultural productivity and fertility in general. It is used by women in Kenya, Trinidad, South Africa and probably internationally [Kanogo 1987, Rosberg and Nottingham 1966:51-52, Globe and Mail 13 July 1990:A10]. No man would wish to bear the lifetime curse organized by the throng of naked Nigerian women. Any foreign man subjected to this curse would lose his credibility (potency) in Nigeria and would be effectively neutralized.

When Pan Ocean's managing director approached the site the women had in fact made good their threat. Before the arrival of the company's officials, the women had removed all their clothes. The sight of thousands of naked women of all ages was not one that these officials nor the police could withstand. They all fled without hesitation. The women's demands were met almost immediately.


The Ugharefe women's uprising was a dramatic success. The US oil company paid compensation for land taken for oil operations. It paid small amounts against pollution claims. And Pan Ocean began to install water and electricity for the villagers. The women's revolt made a major impression on all parties, not least the women of neighbouring communities who experienced hardships similar to those challenged by the Ugharefe women.

Features of the uprising which contributed to its decisiveness include first, the alliance between women and youth. Not only was the male Council of Youth active, but it had community status as a defender of the Ugharefe people. In contrast the Ovie and his Council of Chiefs had been discredited. The Council of Women were supported in the uprising by this dynamic and popular Council of Youth.

Second, the Ugharefe women used a combination of well orchestrated tactics. They kidnapped and held hostage a shift of US oil company workers. They took over the production buildings. They blocked the access roads, and thereby enforced the work stoppage which had already been imposed by the women's securing of Pan Ocean's production site. And most seriously, the women refused to negotiate and used the ultimate weapon at their collective disposal: exposing their naked bodies enmass to curse the oil company management.

Third, the Nigerian government was not involved in the clash. It was a confrontation between women farmers and traders on the one hand and US oil company management on the other. There was no state mediation between these third world women and the representatives of the US oil company. The US company rushed to settle or ameliorate the dispute possibly because it recognized the danger of allowing the conflict to escalate. Pan Ocean may also have recognized that backroom deals struck between the local king and the Nigerian state on behalf of the US company had been exposed. Prolonging the crisis could create a demand for damaging disclosures.

A direct settlement was beneficial for Pan Ocean because it allowed oil to flow from the Production Station after the short interruption, thus minimizing financial losses. The incendiary naked women curse guaranteed Pan Ocean a massive public relations loss if the conflict hit the media and was not settled immediately. And Pan Ocean itself was contending with the government over payments for oil. Consequently the US firm could not rely on the Nigerian state for support in quelling the Ugharefe women's uprising. Under these circumstances the Ugharefe women scored a decisive public victory. They dramatized for the larger community women's power to right injustice for the benefit of the whole society.



In 1986 Nigerian women of the Uvwie clan in Ethiope Local Government Area organized to shut down the international and state oil industries. This confrontation took place in a charged political atmosphere. The military coups of 1983 and 1985 unleashed anti-women rampages by soldiers along with official measures to discipline and limit women. For example, the Nigerian Labour Congress attempted to halt an initiative by women to establish their own network within the union organization. Head of State, General Buhari's 'War Against Indiscipline' targeted women with charges of over spending in the household, failure to supervise children, inadequate service to husbands and kin and neglect of farming [Turner and Badru 1985, Mba 1989]. International Women's Day was changed to 'Family Day,' on which women were enjoined by the state to change their wayward behaviour and become more disciplined. In the Muslim north unmarried women living alone or together in rented accommodation were turned out of their rooms, allegedly to combat prostitution. In the south women wearing trousers were pulled off buses by soldiers and stripped of their western clothing.

Nigeria had, in July 1985, experienced yet another military coup. Buhari, who seized power by the gun on December 31st, 1983, was out and Babangida was in. The people, sorely pressed by an economic downturn because of the fall in oil prices, expected improvements from the new government. This expectant and militant demeanour was evident in the popular campaign against the International Monetary Fund.

In the last half of 1985 Nigerians from all walks of life made known their opposition to the government's taking an IMF loan. The conditions of structural adjustment were rejected [Bappa 1985]. In distant villages and in the urban cores ordinary people attributed all manner of hardship to the machinations of the IMF. Babangida's military regime had little choice but to pay rhetorical tribute to what amounted to a near unanimous popular rejection of a deal with the IMF [Turner 1985,Ihonvbere 1993].


The loans would not be taken, announced the military government in late 1985. But in practice the 'conditionalities' were imposed. There was resistance. Women were hit especially hard by price hikes, increased petrol and transport prices and cuts in social services [Gladwin 1991]. They were at the forefront of the fightback. One vivid illustration is the 1986 Ughelli women's uprising. This uprising established the immediate atmosphere of popular, woman-centered mobilization within which the Ekpan women were moved to act. A key element in IMF structural adjustment packages is higher taxes. African colonial history is replete with instances of women leading tax revolts [Mba 1982]. Carrying on this tradition, in 1986 the women of Ughelli community laid siege on the Ovie's palace. The mass protest accused the king of supporting the Bendel state government's efforts (under the military regime) to make women pay income tax in the state.

The women stated that "it was ridiculous" for the Ovie, "who ought to know better than anyone else in the community," to support the taxation of women. They demanded that the Ovie should show them the tax receipts of his mother and grandmother, dating back to when the colonialists introduced taxation into Nigerian society. Of course no such receipts existed. Had not these women, the kin of the king, participated in the historical refusal of Nigerian women to be taxed? The fury of the Ughelli women moved the Ovie to flee to Benin, the state capital, probably to seek the protection of the military governor.

Within three days women in other parts of Ughelli Local Government Area joined the protest. This anti-tax protest also spread to other Local Government Areas in Bendel state including Isoko, Okpe and Oredo. Notably the women of Ethiope Local Government Area also mobilized against the proposed tax on women. Market women in Benin City closed their stalls, threatening to deprive the metropolis of food. Benin market women were against taxing women. But they also refused to pay school fees. The Ughelli women's tax revolt was highly successful. The state government withdrew its directive to tax women.


The political setting for the Ekpan women's actions involved women's mobilizations. But it also involved a broad based political intervention by the community of dispossessed. By the mid-1980s farmers, fishing people, market women, urban workers and the unemployed, men and women were resisting land grabs and power plays by big oil and the state. In the southern oil regions, the politicization stimulated by the oil bust brought together many sections of the community to demand compensation for pollution and land use [Turner 1986:44-45].

On March 29th and 30th, 1986 some 400 Bonny Island residents including oil workers, shut down Africa's largest oil export terminal, claiming that the operator, Shell, had disrupted their lives and contributed nothing. Some 100 women sat on the Shell helipad to prevent any helicopter from landing at the tank farm base. Their placards read "Shell's 28 years in Finima is a curse to us," "Our means of livelihood has been destroyed by Shell," and "No light, no water for us after 28 years of Shell [The Vanguard (Lagos), April 4, 1986:1]." Among the specific grievances were that "all bush roads linking the terminal with the village have been sealed up by the company thus locking Bonny Island residents in and out; and that villagers passing through the terminal roads are often subjected to rigorous interrogation and search by Shell's security agents." Further north in Imo state, villagers protested the police murder of an oil worker by demonstrating in front of the military governor's office. In April 1986 the villagers of Egbema in Imo state, numbering more than 5,000, held hostage for two days over 40 staff of Shell at the British company's office building. The occupation protested "the company's neglect of the community since it came there 28 years ago [Nigerian Tide, April 18, 1986]."

Nigerians living near production or exploration sites consider themselves entitled to employment by the companies. They engaged in covert forms of class struggle such as sabotage, theft, road blockage and harassment of company activities if a specified number of jobs were not awarded. Such incidents appear to have increased since 1983 with the economic downturn. Despite the government's decree that pipeline sabotage was punishable by death; explosions, puncturing and pipe theft persisted. The difference after the government decree was that peasants refused to report oil gushes or leaks to avoid the police practice of arresting on suspicion of sabotage any bearer of such news. A crucial development was the return to their villages of thousands of unemployed graduates capable of organizing peasants against the oil companies.

The Ekpan women's uprising was fuelled by militant political currents stemming from the anti-IMF campaign, the women's successful anti-tax revolt and protests against the oil companies. Women in Nigeria, and especially in oil rich Bendel state mobilized themselves when their expectations of some relief from the new military government were dashed. Instead of getting better, after the coup, things got worse. When living became even more precarious, Nigerian women, like their counterparts elsewhere, moved to secure what they considered to be their rights [Agarwal 1992]. In so doing they confronted not only the government, but also US oil companies and a faction of their own menfolk.



At 5 a.m. on Monday, August 25, 1986, a large crowd of demonstrating women from the Uvwie community besieged the premises of the NNPC Refinery, Petrochemicals Plant and the Pipelines and Products Marketing Pumpstation, all located at Ekpan. The demonstrating women were estimated to be about 10,000 strong. The throng was made up of all age groups of women, including the very old [Daily Times (Nigeria), August 28, 1986:3 and Sunday Telegraph (Nigeria), August 31, 1986:1].

The demonstrators chanted war songs and carried placards some of which read: "Give us Social Amenities," "Review all forms of employment within the Petrochemical," and "Our sons, daughters and husbands are qualified for key posts within the Petrochemical." These demands were similar to those of the women of Finima Community in Bonny Local Government Area who had protested against Shell at the Bonny terminal only weeks earlier.

The Uvwie women were shouting, angry and riotous. They chanted demands for preferential employment opportunities for their people. They threatened to go naked if they did not get satisfaction. In the early morning, thousands of women surged forward in a determined attempt to break into the premises of the Petrochemicals Plant. While the women blockaded the access route to the three gigantic projects, their supporting menfolk laid ambush armed with "dangerous" weapons, with "possible attack in mind just in case their women were tampered with [Sunday Telegraph (Warri), August 31, 1986]."

The Ekpan women successfully blockaded the access road. All activities at the sites of the three projects were halted. Workers could not reach their offices. Large oil tanker trucks could not go in to load fuel for distribution to petrol stations. A team of men from the Nigerian Police Force led by CSP G.A. Olatunbosun could not disperse the angry women.

It was not until about 2:30 p.m. that the women agreed to hold discussions with a management team from the government's Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). This team of state oil officials was comprised of the refinery's General Manager, Refinery Manager, Administration Manager, Zonal Manager and the Inspectorate Manager. The women on the other hand were represented by three of their leaders. They insisted that no man from their community should be at the meeting. The negotiation meeting was a marathon, lasting for over four and one half hours. While the meeting continued inside the Refinery's board room, thousands of women remained at their demonstration posts. They continued to cripple the central core of the midwest's oil industry for the whole of that day.

At about 7 p.m. the meeting adjourned to enable the NNPC management team to communicate with its headquarters in Lagos. The oil administrators agreed to convey the women's grievances and demands to top management. This level of top management included the Managing Director of Nigeria's 'state within a state,' the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation along with the powerful federal Minister of Petroleum and probably General Babangida, the military head of state. The women demanded feedback and positive response within two weeks failing which they would resume their action.


At the meeting the women stated their case as follows [Oshare 1986]:

(i) The indigenous people of Uvwie were not given a fair share of the recruitments made for the Petrochemical Plant in line with the catchment policy of the Federal Government as regards low cadre staff. The immediate development precipitating that day's protest march was the recruitment of seven drivers the week before. Of these, four were from Anambra state, one from Imo and the remaining two from Ethiope Local Government Area. Not one was from the Uvwie clan within Ethiope Local Government Area. The women said that they had tolerated this kind of discrimination in recruitment in the NNPC establishments located on their land for too long. They said it was only happening because all the top positions were held by non-indigenous people. These senior officials hired people from outside. For example, the Petrochemical Plant's Project Manager is from Anambra State, the Refinery General Manager is Yoruba and the Pipeline and Products Marketing Sector's Manager is from Anambra. All the officers immediately subordinant to them are also from states other than Bendel. This ethnic and regional composition of top management makes it possible for them to fill employment positions with people from their respective home states at the expense of the indigenous people. This, the women demanded, must stop.

(ii) Compensations had not been paid for farm lands acquired as long ago as 1973 for the refinery and petrochemicals projects. When the NNPC acquired the land for the refinery in 1973, it claimed that the land was donated to it by the Bendel (then Midwest) State Government. The Uvwie Community went to court to dispute this claim. The community won their case against the federal state oil company. But as of the August 1986 action, the NNPC had failed to pay the community compensation for alienated land. The community demanded seven million naira (in 1986 about US$14 million, but in 1993 about US$483,000). The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation claimed that the land was not worth so much but did not say how much it is worth. The dispute was unresolved a full 13 years after the land was acquired and was being utilised. The NNPC Estate Officer involved in the matter said that the compensation was still being worked out by the Corporation. On the Petrochemical Site which is adjoining the Refinery the NNPC was not paying any compensation for land. It paid only for one season's worth of crops being cultivated on the land when it was alienated. The NNPC justified this non-compensation for land takeovers with reference to the 1977 Land Use Decree (now Act). The federal government is not recognizing communal land rights under the Land Use Act.

(iii) With regard to the award of petty contracts, the women claimed discrimination against people indigenous to the community. They charged that contractors from the home states of the NNPC top management staff have the lion's share of small contracts. This, they demanded, must also be rectified in their favour.

(iv) The women asked for the provision of pipe-borne water and electricity at Ekpan. They pointed out that although the NNPC Staff Housing Estate which enjoys a constant supply of electricity and an abundance of potable water is a mere stone's throw away from Ekpan, the people of Ekpan remain in utter darkness and lack potable water. The contrast with their NNPC neighbour, occupying their land, was stark. The women likened this situation to that in apartheid South Africa.

(v) The Ekpan women also demanded scholarships for their children in secondary and post secondary institutions of higher learning. The state oil corporation should provide scholarships, they argued, referring to precedents established by Gulf Oil Company of Nigeria (GOCON) and other oil companies in the country.


The next meeting between the NNPC and the Uvwie community took place two weeks later on Monday, September 8, 1986 at the Palace of the Ovie of Uvwie in Effurun. The NNPC was represented by the Warri Zonal Manager, the Project Manager of the Petrochemicals, the Manager of the Petroleum Inspectorate, the Pipeline and Product Marketing Manager, the Refinery's Administration Manager and the Zonal Head of Public Affairs.

The Uvwie Community on its part was represented by seven chiefs, one evangelist and two women. Unlike the first meeting of August 8, 1986, at the second meeting the community presented a proposed agenda which stated the objective of the meeting and its modalities. Also unlike the first meeting the Uvwie delegation was no longer an all-women body. Instead there were only two women in the ten person delegation. The women and the rest of the community were on the alert awaiting the outcome of the crucial meeting. According to one view of the male takeover, "this male encapsulation of women's struggles means in fact that corruption takes over and the political content of women's struggles is lost to the economic interests of chiefs and elites [Ihonvbere 1991]."

In a written statement signed by the ten members who comprised the Uvwie delegation on behalf of the Community and entitled "Why Our Women Folk Demonstrated on Monday 25th August, 1986: A Case of Displacement, Neglect and Non-Rehabilitation By NNPC," the community once again restated their grievances and demands in unequivocal language. They stated inter alia that

"Land as commonly known and accepted is the most important as well as the most precious asset and implement for the realization of real wealth by both state and individual. ... Be it known that together with the NNPC, the State and Federal Governments are already occupying (over) 65% of Uvwie farm lands while others, including major and minor private companies are occupying yet another (over) 30% leaving the Uvwie people with barely 5% of their arable farmland. Based on this, therefore, the community does not see why it should suffer non-provision of potable water and electricity at Ekpan, scholarships, job employment and petty contract awards for their sons and daughters, and worst of all non-payment of compensations for land acquired by the NNPC since 1973 [Uvwie Community 1986]."

They found it highly objectionable that all the NNPC establishments on their land failed, for no good reasons, to implement the catchment area policy of the federal government. This policy committed the state oil company to hire people indigenous to the site on which oil operations were located, at least for lower level, unskilled and semi skilled work. The lack of job recruitments was intolerable because jobs were viewed by the indigenous people as one way to compensate them for land seizures by the state for NNPC. When the NNPC officials tried to refute this by saying that Ethiope Local Government Area to which Uvwie belongs was fully considered on the basis of "Catchment Area," the people replied that Ethiope Local Government Area is comprised of many autonomous clans or communities to which Uvwie has no obligation beyond linguistic ties. They then pointed out that of the Refinery's staff strength of 1,600 only 40 are from Uvwie while only 22 sons and daughters of Uvwie are in the Petrochemical Plant. None of these Uvwie people, employed by the government owned refinery or petrochemical plants are in management positions.

However, in the course of the meeting "it was discovered that certain things were being done for the community from which only the Ovie and his chiefs were benefitting without the knowledge of the people. For example the Ovie had recently submitted the names of four persons to the Petrochemicals' Project Manager to be employed without telling his people. When this and other revelations were made at the meeting, the people felt cheated and queried this action of the Ovie and his Chiefs [Oshare 1986]."

The meeting ended with the NNPC promising to implement the catchment area policy with more discretion, to service the only water borehole in Ekpan, to reactivate the faulty generator at the Ekpan Hospital and to speed up efforts at effecting the long delayed payment of compensations for land acquired in 1973. Both parties agreed to work in close collaboration to avoid confrontations in the future.


The Ekpan women's uprising was characterized by complex gender relations, a reformist outcome and multiclass demands. First, with regard to gender relations, most notably, Ekpan women were placed under male control soon after the start of their uprising. The August 25, 1986 shutdown of the heart of Warri's oil industry was an all woman action. In contrast to the 1984 uprising, the Ekpan women decided to negotiate and this meant that they had to select representatives. Only women negotiated that day with state oil managers. Women explicitly excluded men from representing them. But in the two week interval before the next negotiation, men including chiefs and a Christian evangelist, assumed the right to settle the issues. The second meeting's agenda and a written brief were prepared by Ekpan men. Ten thousand women rose up. Then elite men moved in to explain the actions of "our women folk." In the men's version, women were not challengers of power but victims of it. The reconceptualization of power relations to construe women as objects rather than subjects is evident in the male standpoint embodied in the negotiation document's title: "Why our women folk demonstrated on Monday 25th August, 1986: a case of displacement, neglect and non-rehabilitation by NNPC."

Ekpan women may have originally been motivated to act "because they may have felt that the men were slow in pursuing the grievances of the community. They may have felt that the male community leaders were benefitting secretly from the NNPC jobs, contracts and pay-offs and therefore showing little or inadequate concern for the community's grievances. The revelations at the second meeting held at the Ovie's palace buttress this argument [Oshare 1986]." Women engaged in a peaceful but militant shutdown of the oil industry after years of frustration. Their rights were not secured through existing channels nor through the efforts of more powerful male community representatives. Any suspicions which women may have had about chiefs selling out to the government and oil companies were confirmed at the second negotiation meeting. Women discovered that the indigenous leaders had betrayed the clan, could not be trusted, and were part of the problem. This group of indigenous men had taken charge of the negotiations and were targeted in the second meeting as sellouts. The task confronting Ekpan women was revealed as doubly complicated: the government had to be forced to do justice, but a prior battle against indigenous men aligned with the government had first to be won.

A second feature of the uprising - its reformist outcome - follows directly from its takeover by establishment men. The immediate settlement included a condemnation of Ekpan women's tactics and a denunciation of confrontation. Members of the chief's council, in alliance with the oil industry, sought to impose limits on the women's action. Consequently the Ekpan uprising was in effect reformist and incremental rather than transformational. The results were palliatives, vaguely defined and subject to no implementation timetable. At best Ekpan and Uvwie women secured a partial victory. Probably more important than the tokenism of some compensation and amenities is the leap in consciousness made by those engaged in the uprising and its denouement.

A third feature of the Ekpan women's protest was the multiclass character of its focus. The demands addressed the concerns of peasant farmers, traders and marketers, artisans, craftspeople and wage workers. Ekpan women demanded land compensation, jobs, scholarships, electricity and running water as well as a range of social services, including health and education.

The Ekpan demands were complex, involving who was employed in new oil industry jobs and who in government made those decisions. Ekpan women were posing policy issues on several fronts. Their demands around employment questioned the ethnicity of the industrial establishment's management who make hiring decisions. Ekpan women posed micro-local hiring priorities against the national and even international scope of NNPC's personnel recruitment pool. The Ekpan uprising questioned the alleged ethnic and regional (state of origin) bias according to which managers awarded small contracts.

The women challenged compensation policy and the very concept of compensation for land taken by the state for the oil industry. How, they asked, can a way of life be destroyed and 'compensated' through the payment of a small sum of money? The women objected to lack of amenities, comparing the privileged western style housing across the fence to their own poverty. Using the analogy of apartheid, displaced peasant women pointed to their poor domestic working conditions with no electricity, water or functioning medical system. They raised the fundamental issue of who benefits from the oil wealth. This tremendous national treasure from their own communal lands was being used to benefit others and in the process their own lives were being destroyed. Not surprisingly, the Ekpan women failed to settle these complex, multiclass issues. However, they took an important step forward through the organization of an uprising which put the issues on the agenda.


There were important differences between the successful 1984 Ugharefe women's uprising and the less decisive 1986 Ekpan women's uprising. The difference in scale is relevant in making comparisons. The 1984 protest was small and localized. It focused on a single oil production station. It cost one US oil company some financial loss. In contrast, the 1986 uprising shut down a major section of the national oil industry. It threatened not only the government's oil revenues and international exports, but also the flow of oil products to road tankers to supply Nigeria and west Africa. The state had to contemplate the possibility that the 1986 uprising would spark solidarity strikes by road tanker drivers. In the 1980s these road tanker drivers were very militant and frequently acted on threats to shut down Nigeria by halting the delivery of fuel. All sections of the population were resisting the imposition of IMF conditions. There was a real prospect that the 1986 women's uprising could escalate into a national general strike. Consequently the state responded more decisively against Ekpan women than against the much smaller scale uprising of 1984. Taking into account this contrast in scale, comparisons between the two uprisings are made with reference to (1) their targets and racial dynamics, (2) alliances which women struck with men, (3) their peasant versus proletarian character, and (4) the dialects of gender and class. These comparisons explore and corroborate the three arguments presented in the introduction.

First, Ugharefe women confronted a foreign oil company. In contrast, the Ekpan clash was between women and the government, as represented by the state oil corporation. In Ekpan the state effectively shielded the international oil industry from displaced peasants while Pan Ocean in 1984 did not enjoy a government buffer between its operations and peasant women. The black nationalist state functions simultaneously as a class and a race buffer. The Ugharefe-Pan Ocean confrontation was a black-white racial faceoff. African women, using the specifically feminist weapon of collective nudity, insisted on justice from representatives of white US men. However, there is no doubt that black men were thought to be equally susceptible to being rendered impotent by the sight of naked women. The ethnic dimensions of the 1986 clash were more complex and subtle. Ekpan women did employ the apartheid analogy to contrast the luxury housing enjoyed by African state oil personnel, with their own homes which lacked water and electricity. While Ekpan women employed a racial analogy to highlight class difference among black people, they also concentrated on ethnic bias in hiring and contract awards. Second, Ekpan women were not supported by a council of youth as were the Ugharefe women. While Ekpan women moved against the government only to be surprised at the depths of betrayal by their chiefs; Ugharefe women had already acted independently and against the chiefs. In the Ugharefe clan women and youth had allied themselves against weak, sell-out chiefs and this alliance won broad social support.

A separate aspect of women's alliance with men was tactical. Women in both uprisings took action on behalf of men who, in comparison with women, could be subject to much more severe state repression. Women took action in part because of the protection which their being female bought them. Women had been massacred, for instance in the Aba women's War of 1928-1930, but there persisted amongst both women and men a notion of shame associated with men attacking women. Men's resistance to state exploitation, in colonial and in post-colonial times, has always met with brutal repression. Women lose from this repression in at least two ways. They lose their husbands, sons and the most able-bodied men on whom they rely for some defence against rival communities and at times of calamities. And they face a future, after the repression, in which the state may take advantage of an extended interval of unimpeded exploitation. Women were acting on their own behalf but also in the interests of their immediate families and in order to secure social amenities for the entire community. The women's uprisings were embedded in a long history of African communal strategies for expressing and resolving collective grievances.

Third, the demands of the 1984 uprising related to the interests of small farmers and traders, not waged workers. The Ugharefe women were demanding protection as farmers supplying local markets, in order to avoid being proletarianized. In contrast, the Ekpan women who had lost much of their land, were demanding better conditions as proletarians and small contractors, at the same time as they sought protection of the eclipsed peasant way of life.

Fourth, class and gender relations differed in the two uprisings. The more intensive class formation of Ekpan bolstered the power of elite men. In contrast, the persistence of peasant relations in Ugharefe preserved the power of ordinary men who continued to control land. The Uvwie community immediately adjacent to the oil city of Warri bore the brunt of land loss as the oil boom exploded. Land deals by the hundreds were executed. There was a high level of involvement of indigenous men who were well placed to broker these land deals. Men in positions of power within the local class configurations, became very rich through organizing the alienation of communal land. In 1986 Ekpan women revolted against these men.

The displaced peasantry was largely female. This follows from the fact that women did most of the farming, fishing and marketing. With land loss these women could neither reap profits from farming nor could they ensure the survival of their own households. As traders, food processors and artisans, Uvwie women depended on farming and the landed household for produce and labour. These women moved against the class of land alienators, all male, and against the men of the state to whom land rights had been ceded.

Men related to the women's uprisings in various ways depending on their class. In Ekpan men sought waged work. In their uprising, Ekpan women demanded jobs "for the sons and daughters of Uvwie." The oil industry is a male preserve. Waged jobs (apart from those in agricultural labour) usually require literacy and women have been excluded from schools. The colonial and neocolonial states in Nigeria preferred male to female waged workers, at least in most jobs. Consequently, few women had waged work open to them as an alternative to peasant farming and own-account trading. When oil belt women came under pressure they responded, defending their own interests as economic and social actors. Among these interests were more jobs. Men from the peasantry did join women in the 1984 Ugharefe uprising, supporting them against the chiefly elite aligned with foreign capital. This class division among men was also evident in Ekpan. But there, unlike in Ugharefe, elite men prevailed. They intervened successfully in the negotiations. The 1986 Ekpan women's uprising was moderated and diverted by influential men based in the indigenous power structure responsible for land alienation, and linked through 'male deals' to capital and the state.

In sum, the class struggle amongst men was won in 1984 by the Ugharefe peasant men aligned with women. But it was lost by men from the exploited classes in the case of Ekpan in 1986. This pattern suggests that class gains depend on solidarity between women and exploited men on the terms according to which women are prepared to exercise their social power. The pattern contrasts sharply with the stalinist formula which relegates women's issues to a status subordinant to the so-called 'overall class struggle.'


In the years since the 1986 uprising, Nigeria's political and economic crisis has become more acute. Women and all poor people came under more severe attack as the state sought to implement the IMF structural adjustment programme. As the collapse of oil prices reduced government revenues, the economy deteriorated even more and the environment came under more severe threat [NEST 1991]. Privatization included some denationalization of oil. Militant Nigerian oil workers were retrenched enmass and replaced by North American and European personnel. Foreign companies gained power as the state establishment shrank and became delegitimized from the perspectives of both capital and the grassroots. At the same time the weakened state became more repressive, while promising, but not delivering on, a return to civilian rule. The military regime in the early 1990s was clearly a refuge for indigenous chiefs who are targeted by their subjects as enemies. Uprisings have been frequent as Nigerian society becomes even more polarized along gender and class lines. The multiplication of insurgencies is especially evident in the oil belt where groups of villagers have been massacred by police because they protested corporate depredation [CDHR 1990:31-32, CDHR/NADL 1991, Newswatch 1990, 1993]. Nigerian authorities covered up an October 1990 police massacre of 80 unarmed villagers that occurred after Shell Oil appealed to the police for intervention against protestors demanding compensation for lost land [Platt's Oilgram News 9 October 1992:6]. As oil belt women establish that they are prepared to use the ultimate weapon of collective nudity, men increasingly support women's initiatives and capital's counterinsurgency tactics are increasingly directed towards the demobilization of women. The state and foreign aid donors persist in attempts to mute feminist militancy with reformist 'women and development' projects [Trager and Osinulu 1991]. Nigerian women are sharply divided into a bourgeois elite backed by the state and a mass of women in the exploited classes. With the destruction of civil society and the middle class, indigenous religious and clan organizations have become more politically important. Underneath the surface of religious uprisings are class conflicts with crucial gender dimensions [Dauda 1992].

Both the 1984 and the 1986 uprisings confirm the ability of women to wrest concessions from exploitative authorities. Ugharefe and Uvwie-Ekpan women's actions should be seen as part of the class struggle that has persisted in both colonial and post-colonial Nigeria. The women constituted a feminist force within the class struggle. Mass protests of women, students, workers and peasant farmers will continue to occur as long as Nigeria remains integrated into world capitalism as a neocolonial state with a disarticulated economy that intensifies mass poverty, the exploitation of women and inequality in access to resources. The women's uprisings against the oil industry are especially important because they reveal the transformational impulse inherent in capitalist development. This impulse transforms gender relations so as to forge class solidarity on the basis of feminist militancy.

As noted in the introduction, the Ugharefe and Ekpan women's uprisings were events within a process of political mobilization. The process continues. The patterns of women's resistance in the colonial period reappeared in the 1980s: women shut down markets, took over buildings, blocked roads and attacked indigenous male leaders for siding with the state against the people. The process by which sections of the exploited classes work out methods for unified struggle is also a process of developing gender and class consciousness. This consciousness is international because it is replicated in other oil exporting societies in the responses of people, women and men, to the same actions and social relations imposed by multinational petroleum firms and the International Monetary Fund.

The process of political mobilization continued in the late 1980s under the impetus of two new external forces: first, IMF political conditionalities which sought to put a 'human face' on structural adjustment while championing a kind of democratic transition to civilian multiparty governance; and second, the meteoric rise of democracy movements which challenged stalinist state power worldwide. In the space provided by these external developments, Nigerian political mobilization has produced a range of human rights and civil rights organizations some of which have both grassroots and international links [Turner and Ihonvbere 1993]. And it has produced incipient popular movements, notably in the oil belt. In the 1990s protests against oil company pollution have mobilized thousands of people with over 100,000 Ogoni women and men massing for a day long demonstration in January 1993 in the oil region near Port Harcourt [Newswatch, 25 January 1993]. The drive to expand the space for democratic expression within civil society is extending onto the international plane as popular movements make brilliant use of the media to take ecology issues to the United Nations meetings in 1993 to launch the decade of indigenous peoples. The uprisings against oil companies in Nigeria were initiated by oil belt women and have now been joined by all sections of the impoverished communities.

While these external developments did widen the political space within Nigeria, they were soon confronted by counter developments. The peace and democracy dividends which were expected to flow from the collapse of Soviet state power were blocked by US militarism in the Middle East and elsewhere. US and other imperial state orientations changed from being apparently pro-democracy involving fair elections and a transition to civilian rule, to being content with the military status quo in Nigeria. The change follows from the strength of internal resistance to structural adjustment policies combined with the dramatic lesson of state disintegration provided by Somalia in the early 1990s. It became apparent in 1993 that in Nigeria only the military could maintain order, impose IMF policies especially with regard to the oil industry and foster a form of federal state coherence in the face of demands for the creation of more states and the growing sophistication of popular insurgency.

The women's uprisings against the oil industry in Nigeria in the mid 1980s confirm the double complexity of capitalism's denigration and empowerment of women. On the one hand, the extension of exploitation worsened the situations of women. Earlier relative reciprocity between men and women dissipated into intensified sexism. The rise of local capitalists from the chiefly stratum was paralleled by a transformation in gender relations. A kind of communal symbiosis of gender was broken by elite men's private appropriation of land, the fundamental basis of poor people's livelihood and community. With the deepening of capitalist relations, unequal gains of men and women were echoed by unequal opportunities among ethnic groups.

On the other hand, industrialization led to land alienation which motivated women's fight back. It elevated women's political impact by offering them vulnerable oil industry targets against which to concentrate their collective social power. It prompted feminist militancy which reforged the reciprocity between women and men, but this time on the new basis of class solidarity. Out of this experience is emerging a new society with the force and reason of women, and their organization and consciousness, at its forefront.


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