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Women protesters claim victory in Nigeria oil terminal takeover

By D'ARCY DORAN Associated Press Writer

ESCRAVOS, Nigeria (AP) -- Hundreds of women carrying straw mats and thermoses abandoned ChevronTexaco's main oil terminal, ending a peaceful 10-day protest that crippled the oil giant's Nigeria operations and won an unprecedented company pledge to build modern towns out of poor villages.

"I give one piece of advice to all women in all countries: they shouldn't let any company cheat them," said Anunu Uwawah, a leader of the protest at the southeastern Nigerian Escravos terminal.

Uwawah and her comrades were ferried back to their villages in ChevronTexaco boats on Thursday evening, along the way passing hundreds of oil workers returning to the facility.

The last of the protesters were expected to leave Friday, said company spokesman Wole Agunbiade.

He said operations were quickly returning to normal at the company's southeastern Escravos terminal, which accounts for close to half a million barrels a day, the bulk of the company's Nigeria exports.

"Chevron has shown a lot of restraint, commitment to good neighborliness, peace and dialogue," Agunbiade said. "I would like to believe this is the hallmark of Chevron negotiations, and will continue to be."

The women had trapped about 700 American, British, Canadian and Nigerian workers inside the terminal. Two hundred employees were allowed to leave Sunday and hundreds more two days later, leaving just a few dozen inside.

The women kept their hold on the terminal by threatening to take off their clothes -- a powerful traditional shaming gesture -- in a last-ditch gesture to humiliate the company.

The peaceful, all-woman protest was a departure for the oil-rich Niger Delta, where armed men frequently use kidnapping and sabotage to pressure oil multinationals into giving them jobs, protection, money or compensation for alleged environmental damage. Hostages generally are released unharmed.

The success of the Escravos occupation appeared to have inspired copycat protests by women from a rival tribe who captured several smaller oil facilities earlier in the week.

Agunbiade, spokesman for the company's Nigeria subsidiary, said Thursday officials would soon begin talks with hundreds of women who still held four pipeline flowstations. The women's representatives said they were in control of five facilities, although Agunbiade could not confirm the fifth.

The Escravos terminal raid was launched by women from six surrounding communities who said they were trying to draw attention to the grinding poverty in their villages. The Niger Delta is one of the poorest places in Nigeria despite its oil wealth. Nigeria is the world's sixth-largest exporter of oil and the fifth-largest supplier to the United States.

For the women, what started out as an act of desperation became a method to victory.

After days of negotiations, company executives agreed to build schools, clinics, town halls, electricity and water systems in villages of rusty tin shacks. The company also agreed to give jobs to at least 25 residents and help build fish and chicken farms.

The women's tactics impressed Frank Eyeoyibo, a 32-year-old unemployed man who took part in a protest against the company last year. That action by village men ended with police and soldiers firing tear gas, while some men were beaten with canes and whips, Eyeoyibo said.

"This (women's protest) has broken through," said Eyeoyibo, whose mother was among the female protesters. "The women took Chevron by surprise and they couldn't believe it."

The protesters ranging in age from 30 to 90 were led by a core of wives and mothers in their mid-50s and 60s, whom villagers affectionately referred to as the "mamas."

The women said they launched their protest after sending a list of demands to ChevronTexaco that went unanswered for three weeks.

The takeover began on July 8 when 100 women stormed a company ferry, grabbed the radio and ordered the driver to take the boat to take them to the terminal, Uwawah said.

The women spread out across the massive concrete and steel complex and blocked the docks, the airfield, the gas plant and the tank farm.

For the villagers, it seemed natural to take their protest to the oil company next door, instead of Nigeria's government in the capital, Abuja, a place they have never seen 400 kilometers (250 miles) away. After decades of brutal and corrupt military rule, politicians elected in 1999 elections have done little to alleviate the stark poverty of the Niger Delta.

Village values and corporate realities clashed during days of heated negotiations as the women demanded lifelong employment promises while oil executives insisted on shorter-term commitments.

ChevronTexaco's top negotiator, Canadian executive Dick Filgate, conceded the protest was a wake-up call.

"In the past we basically dealt with things issue to issue, which basically meant paying money (to villagers). It's an easy solution, but after paying the money there is nothing to show for it," Filgate said Monday. "We now have a different philosophy and that is to do more with communities."

-- sht sfh (zgh@stj.com), July 24, 2002

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