From the NY Times:
Just after sunrise, hundreds of unarmed women commandeered a boat and infiltrated the terminal, fanning out across the docks and the airstrip, entering office buildings where Chevron managers worked and homes where they slept. For the next 10 days they occupied the terminal in a peaceful protest, the first one led by women. Chevron allowed them to stay on and entered negotiations. On their side of the creek, these women live in shacks with no phones or indoor plumbing, so to see inside Chevron amounted to an epiphany.
“The Bible describes paradise as a beautiful place where there is everything,” said Roli Ododoh, 33, a mother of two. “When we got in there, it was really like paradise.” All their lives they had heard of America, but now, as 66-year-old Anirejotse Esuku said, “I saw America there.” For Mrs. Ododoh, much was inspiring in the new world of Chevron: the air-conditioning, the tarred roads, the countless phones, the fresh salads, the odd machine called a “microwave,” the good foam in the beds.
Things unimagined. But the women were also enraged at what they saw. This wealth had been drawn, over four decades, from the land around them. Yet virtually none of it had benefited a community confined on the wrong side of the creek. The people of the delta feel abandoned by their corrupt government and are turning to Americans, whom they see both as the source of their suffering and as the solution.
Referring to Chevron, Felicia Atsepoyi, a leader known here as Mama Ayo, said: “They achieved something from this community for 40 years. Can’t they help us achieve something?” That question is taken seriously by Chevron. Word of the women’s raid quickly spread from this remote village to London, where Chevron executives cut short a management meeting to rush to Nigeria.
ChevronTexaco’s giant terminal the size of 583 football fields is protected by barbed-wire fences and moatlike waterways. But, as the executives knew, it is also surrounded by tens of thousands of Africans who have grown poorer and angrier. Americans rarely set foot in those villages, flying in and out of the terminal aboard helicopters and planes.
But how long these two worlds can coexist in such proximity without inflaming violence is a question that increasingly preoccupies the top management of ChevronTexaco. In the years ahead, the company, which operates in 186 countries and is the top American investor in sub-Saharan Africa, will pump more of its oil in places where people live on “less than $1 a day,” said its chief executive, David J. O’Reilly. “The big challenge it’s an enormous challenge is to ensure that as a human race we provide an environment in which these billions of people achieve the standard of living that the majority of the people in the world have come to expect,”
Mr. O’Reilly said in an interview at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. “Does it have to be the same living? No. But should it have a standard? Yes.” Commenting on a recent trip he made to the Niger Delta, he said: “There are tremendous needs. We can’t fill them all. There’s no question. But we have to play a role.”
During the women’s 10-day occupation, Chevron representatives repeatedly crossed the creek to negotiate with village leaders. Much was at stake. Executives at the Escravos Terminal dispatched regular updates to Chevron headquarters in San Francisco on the fate of the 350,000 barrels of crude that is supposed to be shipped out daily. So far, there is a truce that allows the output to continue.
An Enterprise Rises, and a Village Sinks
Many of the women are old enough to remember the Americans’ arrival here in the 1960’s. They watched the terminal grow over time, the giant red-and-white communications tower rise into the sky, and the first helicopters and planes land on the terminal airstrip.
Meanwhile, on their side of the creek, life deteriorated. Ugborodo, a fishing village, is sinking into the water, a fact that villagers attribute to company actions to widen the creek and a nearby river. Oil wealth has brought few modern amenities. Outhouses made of corrugated zinc line the nearby shore; the villagers follow raised planks to them and defecate directly into the same water where they fish for crabs.
Ugborodo may sit across from Chevron’s largest terminal in the delta, but the village does not have a gas station. Villagers buy their gasoline upriver and have it shipped here, paying three times what the rest of Nigeria pays. These issues impinge on American interests, too, as the demonstrations show. In the coming years, the United States will increasingly rely on oil from the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta, already its fifth-largest source of imported oil.
Seeking new sources of oil outside the Middle East, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has been courting big African producers like Nigeria and Angola, as well as upstarts Equatorial Guinea, Sí£o Tomé and Príncipe. The United States imports 15 percent of its crude oil from Africa, but the share is expected to rise to as much as 25 percent in a decade, with most of the world’s new oil reserves coming out of this continent. The output of Nigeria itself is expected to increase 50 percent, to three million barrels a day, by 2007.
These days, when Chevron signs a contract with an African government in Nigeria, 40 percent of the oil revenue goes to Chevron, 60 percent to the government it is often only the beginning of the company’s negotiations. The Nigerian government has spent little of its 60 percent share to improve the lives of more than 120 million Nigerians. The generals in power for most of the country’s oil-producing history funneled an extraordinarily large amount of money into an extraordinarily small number of hands.
The dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, who died in office in 1998, stole perhaps $3 billion during his half-decade in power, an amount that Mobutu Sese Seko, the former dictator of Zaire, which is now Congo, took three decades to amass. The thievery has not abated since the election of a civilian government in 1999, although the money now trickles down to a wider circle of leaders, by common agreement.
The women’s occupation of the Escravos Terminal set off three other women-led protests against ChevronTexaco and one against Royal Dutch/Shell the first time women spearheaded demonstrations against the Western oil giants. In response, ChevronTexaco officials now say they will significantly increase the money the company spends to build schools, roads and hospitals, and to provide electricity, water and other essentials to their African neighbors. The women who have now seen inside Chevron wonder, could this be true? Can they trust Chevron this time?
Jay Pryor, the American in charge of ChevronTexaco’s Nigerian operations, raced back from the London meeting to Nigeria while trying to monitor events in the delta. Such protests were not new. In recent years groups of men had used the same tactic, but they usually targeted small oil flow stations. The women of Ugborodo went straight for the big prize: the heart of ChevronTexaco’s operations in the delta.
The government that took over three years ago remains corrupt and brutal. Soon after the current government took office in 1999, it put down ethnic riots in the delta town of Odi by razing it and, according to human rights organizations, killing hundreds of people.
Here in Ugborodo, among the many buildings destroyed during ethnic riots that same year was an 18-bed hospital that ChevronTexaco had built in 1992. Government forces and Chevron’s private security were at the terminal, but Mr. Pryor gave orders that they not evict the women. He consulted with government officials; he sent his general manager of asset management, an American named Dick Filgate, to negotiate with the people of Ugborodo.
In discussing the takeover, Mr. Pryor was careful not to sound inflammatory. Indeed, he described the women’s protest this way: “There was an organized effort to try to give us, I would say, what was characterized to me, as try to give us some feedback, to try to get more attention to their plight.” Mr. Pryor, who is 45, conveys a passionate determination to understand the delta’s problems. He has an engineer’s practical belief that rigorous analysis will lead to comprehension and has learned his craft in a number of overseas postings, starting a decade ago in Kazakhstan.
He was born in a small Mississippi town, the son of a teacher and a pharmacist. By the time he entered Mississippi State University, he knew he wanted to be a petroleum engineer. He felt the oil industry, more than any other branch of engineering, suited his personality.
Asked who is responsible for using the oil money to raise the people’s living standards, he said: “The oil companies, us included, the governments, all have responsibility. The major responsibility I would say is the governments’.”
He says he is not satisfied with the results of the $36 million the company has spent on community development in the last decade. In addition to increasing the community development budget to $80 million over the next five years, Mr. Pryor says the company will create a “longer term strategic plan” for community development. Worldwide, Mr. O’Reilly, the chief executive, said the company would focus on “sustainable development” projects in education and the creation of local businesses, working with organizations like USAID and the United Nations (news – web sites). Perhaps then the money will be less likely to disappear.
Across the delta, there is little to show for the $36 million spent by Chevron or an additional $54 million spent by the government on community development in the last decade. Over the years, the oil companies have handed out large numbers of development contracts to chiefs and other delta leaders. But like the country’s top rulers who stashed away billions in Swiss bank accounts or built fabulous villas, the local leaders used their contracts to build large houses in Warri or Lagos. They left behind a delta littered with half-finished or shoddy projects.
Privately, oil company officials have long singled out this local corruption as the central obstacle to development; their critics, however, say that oil companies cynically give contracts to these local leaders to buy their silence.
Mr. Pryor is careful not to point fingers, though he suggests that some people of the delta have not given back enough to their community. “We’ve hired a number of people from those communities,” Mr. Pryor said. “How much have they done to help their community is something we’ve got to work on.”
Though he has never visited Ugborodo he has been to two delta villages and seems to understand how the neighbors of ChevronTexaco’s terminal might feel. “Put yourself in their situation,” he mused. “If you lived in New York City in a slum and you saw this big mansion sitting right next to you, and the people in the mansion had new cars, color TV, everything, and you grew up that way from 20 to 30 years, what would you think? You would think that what you had wasn’t good enough anymore.”
Tapping African Oil, Striking African Rage
Africans these days are quicker to express their anger. That was true even inside Chevron’s Nigerian headquarters in Lagos. Chevron security guards, Nigerian men, played a tape of “I.T.T.,” a song by Fela, Nigeria’s best-known singer and political critic. The 1981 song, in Fela’s pidgin English, is an attack on American multinational companies like the old conglomerate I.T.T. and the Nigerian politicians who side with the corporations, and it captures a mood that is close to the surface here. The lyrics go like this: International thief thief! I.T.T.! International thief thief! International rogue!
The big newspapers in Lagos eventually compared Ugborodo’s women to the legendary Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Nigeria’s most celebrated campaigner for women’s rights and the mother of Fela. In 1997, when Victor Omunu first saw ChevronTexaco’s national headquarters in Lagos, with its large office buildings and elegant residences, he fell into a depression.
“I almost felt like killing myself,” he said. “This was our oil.” Few Ugborodo residents have seen the ChevronTexaco headquarters that is a couple of hundred miles away in Lagos. But Mr. Omunu, 40, was part of Ugborodo’s elite, one of perhaps 20 boys of his generation who had gone on from the town to a university.
For years delta rulers dealt exclusively with the oil companies, demanding money and development for their communities, but mostly enriching themselves. This contributed to the rage of young men who, in 1998, occupied oil stations and kidnapped workers all over the delta, at one point shutting down half of Nigeria’s daily oil production. In response, the oil giants paid ransoms or protection money.
The delta’s young educated men, like Mr. Omunu, then took the lead in dealing with the oil companies. As the secretary general of Ugborodo’s Manpower and Social Development Forum, Mr. Omunu became a powerful figure. The oil companies and foreign contractors hire some workers through his organization.
One Dutch dredging company servicing ChevronTexaco employs about 40 workers and pays Mr. Omunu $420 a month as a “community liaison officer.” Mr. Omunu lives in Warri, 40 miles east of here, but comes regularly to Ugborodo. In the last year, he married, had a son and was able to buy his first car, a secondhand Opel.
On an October morning, Mr. Omunu joined a reporter making the descent from Warri to Ugborodo aboard a small, twin-engine boat. As the rain clattered on its roof, the boat made its way down the Escravos River, which feeds into the creeks that are eroding Ugborodo. “Every year, the place is sinking,” Mr. Omunu said. “Over the next 20 or 30 years, if nothing is done, we will disappear.”
Attached to his shirt pocket was a card that identified him as a community liaison officer for the company and allowed him to enter ChevronTexaco’s terminal. Dark wraparound sunglasses masked his nervous energy. He had not visited Ugborodo in a few weeks and was dreading coming back. He knew that the young men he employed would bombard him with complaints, and he had not slept well the night before.
Mr. Omunu shouted to be heard above the rain and the roar of the boat engines. Yes, he said, the federal government had failed in its responsibility, but he blamed ChevronTexaco and the United States more. “We know the Americans influence the policies of this government,” he said. “If you have the interests of this community at heart, why is it that you can’t draw the attention of the federal government? The Americans are so particular about certain things. `Take this I.M.F. loan.’ `Don’t take this I.M.F. loan.’ ”
He continued: “The Americans who claim to be freedom fighters, the Americans who claim to want to better mankind for us, they are the devil. They are worse than Lucifer. Can you tell me they are not worse than Saddam Hussein (news – web sites) or Osama bin Laden (news – web sites)? To me, they are worse. I want to be clear. Americans are like terrorists to us. They come, take and leave without putting back.
“The only security is for them to improve the lot of the people. If they don’t, Chevron is sitting on a powder keg.” He grew silent. His anger seemed to have drained him, and his big body was slumped forward. The boat’s roof leaked, rain dripping down on his left shoulder.
Soon Chevron’s Escravos Terminal came into view. Even the terminal’s name seemed to demean him. Escravos means “slaves” in Portuguese. He knows that Portuguese slave traders once took his ancestors from the hinterland and shipped them down this river to the New World. Victor Omunu’s first stop was the house of Ugborodo’s traditional leader, or eghare aja, whom he called Pa.
The eghare aja, Wellington Ojogor, 70, glared. He was upset because a section of Ugborodo called Ode-Ugborodo had been without electricity for three days. Like most delta villages, the community depends on a generator for light. Every month, ChevronTexaco gives Ode-Ugborodo eight 53-gallon drums of diesel to run its generator; Shell gives 10 drums. The village limits the generator’s use to several hours each evening.
Even so, the generator had run out of engine oil in October. The eghare aja had sent emissaries across the creek, but the oil company replied that none was immediately available. In this community of ethnic Itsekiris, the eghare aja is the embodiment of customs and traditions. A retired government surveyor, he recalled how the arrival of the American oilmen, on the heels of Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960, heralded a period of great hope for Ugborodo.
Bringing a map from his bedroom, he traced with his finger the creek, which he said the Americans had dug separating Ugborodo from the terminal. Though Chevron says its records show that the creek was there before the terminal, the eghare aja said the Americans had widened and extended it through a section of mangrove forest that Ugborodo had long used as a cemetery. This creek and others that the oilmen had dug in the area for pipelines will be the death of Ugborodo, he said.
Each morning’s high tide floods parts of Ugborodo. Villagers with rubber boots wade ankle-deep in the water; people without boots roll up the bottoms of their trousers. If this oil terminal were in Texas, it would be regulated by state and federal environmental agencies. But here, the eghare aja is on his own, and he blamed the company for not taking proper precautions.
“They leave our burial grounds to wash away,” the eghare aja said. “But they are protecting their terminal with their embankment.” In the last decade, the eghare aja has presided over an increasingly divided community. Another elder is claiming to be the rightful head of Ugborodo.
Mr. Omunu, an ally of the eghare aja, worries that the women’s new assertiveness had weakened the ruling elders’ leadership. Traditionally, the elder men made the decisions and went to the shrine to seek divine blessings. A woman’s presence in the shrine is considered an abomination. “You know women,” Mr. Omunu said. “Any little thing makes them big-headed. So after the Chevron protests, some women said they wanted to be in this committee or that committee. So we told them, `Do you want to come to the shrine now?’ ”
Seeking a Way Out of a Dire Situation
Mama Ayo, as everyone here knew Felicia Atsepoyi, 48, was one of the small group of women who organized the occupation of the oil terminal. Part of the reason they had taken action, she said, was that they knew the Chevron guards would be less likely to brutalize women.
But Mama Ayo also felt moved to act because she believed the men had failed Ugborodo. The situation here had become dire since 1999, when much of the village was destroyed during clashes with a rival ethnic group. Frustrated, she and a small band of women created the Young Ladies Progressive Wing. “We created it because the men were cheating us,” she said, explaining that men monopolized the oil jobs. “Look at this community. Do you see any development?”
Her small room was cluttered with clothes, a stereo, plastic bags, cooking pots, two tomato cans, orange juice and a can of Raid. A ceiling fan and two naked light bulbs hung over the bed. Cardboard patches covered holes in the ceiling. Unlike the other women here, Mama Ayo had already seen the inside of ChevronTexaco’s terminal. She had secured small landscaping contracts with the oil company or its service companies over the years. She had learned the business from her late father, a successful fisherman before he became a petty contractor to ChevronTexaco.
Because her mother died when she was a girl and she was the only daughter among 10 children, Mama Ayo grew close to her father. He had used the money from his fishing to build a compound of small houses, which he rented out, and he regularly won contracts to mow the lawn inside the oil terminal. She married a Shell engineer, a Nigerian, and lived in Warri for several years rearing her children, only to return here after her husband died from an illness 15 years ago. Looking after an aging father took up much of her time.
Today, Mama Ayo can usually be found sitting in front of her one-room store, chatting with neighbors and greeting passersby, her big eyes dancing. She had owned a much bigger store, but it burned down in the 1999 violence. Parts of her family compound were also destroyed, leaving her 18 small rooms. She now lives in two of the rooms, renting out the rest for $3 each a month.
Her store sells corned beef, canned and powdered milk, sardines, Raid, soap, toothpaste, custard powder, gin, rum, beer, Coke, Fanta and other basics. Before the clashes in 1999, American workers used to visit this side of the creek. Mama Ayo could sell 120 bottles of red wine in two weeks. Since the clashes, the bottles have been gathering dust.
Mama Ayo lost more than business in the violence. Her 96-year-old father was shot to death in the creek as the two tried to flee to safety. She escaped to her son’s home in Warri before returning here to Ugborodo. “I don’t like to live here,” she said. “But this is our father’s land and our mother’s land. Who will stay? “Suppose we have good lights, good roads,” she said. “Your house you can make it O.K. Wouldn’t it be O.K. to live here? One of the few decent-paying jobs for a woman here is prostitution. In their bright miniskirts, tank tops and halters, the girls at the Bush Bar flit from one American to another, sitting on one’s lap, holding another’s hand, rubbing another’s shoulders. They called themselves Esther and Patricia, Milla and Helen, Gina and Joy.
“I love the people and culture of Nigeria!” one middle-aged American oilman said. The Bush Bar and another establishment, Mama Lolo’s, are in a section of Ugborodo that abuts the ChevronTexaco terminal. Named Ugbolegin, the section is better known as Back of Fence. Separating the terminal from the village are two parallel barbed-wire fences the inner one 12 feet high, the outer 15 feet. Where the fences end are two heavy swivel gates, linked by a tunnel, encasing workers as they move between the Escravos Terminal and Back of Fence.
The gates open nightly at 6 and close at exactly 10. During those hours, the oilmen head for an evening of pleasure at Back of Fence, which ChevronTexaco has supplied with uninterrupted electricity, water and a paved walkway. The oilmen filing into Back of Fence do not stray far from the swivel gates, heading for one of two signs: “De Bush Bar. The Ideal Place” and “Mama Lolo Inn & Supermarket. 24 HRS Service.”
At the Bush Bar one night in October, Americans sat on white plastic chairs around a table, as the girls swarmed around. Some of the men wore name cards identifying them as employees of service companies that contract with ChevronTexaco. From a table nearby, Victor Omunu quietly watched the Americans. He and his friends drank Nigerian beer; the Americans preferred Heineken. Radio Delta played Fela.
The middle-aged American oilman, who is white, said he worked a five-week shift before flying home to Mississippi for a five-week break. He has stopped trying to explain this overseas life to his American family. “I have a 140 I.Q., and I had no idea until I came overseas,” he said. “They can’t relate to the third world.”
His co-worker, Terry, also white and from Mississippi, said he joined the oil business six years ago, after high school. Three years ago, he came here because, he said, he wanted to expand his horizons. A girl in a light blue halter top moved behind Terry and rubbed his shoulders, then sat beside him. Terry a big man in overalls with a shaved head and beard took the girl’s hand in his.
“They’re very friendly and very Christianlike,” Terry said of the Nigerians he had come to know. “There’s nothing personal over here. Everybody’s here working, to make a profit. We’re producing oil and gas. That’s all there is about it.”
A Secret Strategy and Public Impact
When it comes to Americans, Mama Ayo is more tolerant than Victor Omunu or the eghare aja. She believes that Americans would do right if they could just be made to understand the plight of the delta’s people. This was why Mama Ayo and women wrote a letter to ChevronTexaco early this year detailing their community’s problems. But when company officials did not respond Chevron says it receives hundreds of such letters daily the women felt disrespected.
“We women grew annoyed,” Mama Ayo said. So annoyed that they began formulating their plan to take over the terminal, which is protected by the company’s private security force, as well as the Nigerian police, the paramilitary mobile police, the army and the navy. They went to see the eghare aja and asked his permission. He gave his blessing. The women picked July 8. According to accounts provided by Mama Ayo and many other women, the plan was kept secret from the men, but relayed from woman to woman, from shack to shack, from dugout canoe to dugout canoe, across the river and creeks.
At 2 a.m., Mama Ayo and the others paddled across the Escravos River to a dock facing ChevronTexaco’s terminal. Hundreds of women gathered by the riverfront. They watched the sun rise and the male workers fill the Ginuwa, the boat that ferried them inside the terminal every morning at 6:30. “We drove the workers out, and we took the boat,” Mama Ayo said. About 150 women jammed the Ginuwa and ordered the captain to take them across the river to the terminal. “He was afraid. We told him not to say anything.” She continued: “The guards believed it was the workers coming. Before they knew it, we were inside.”
Reinforcements followed aboard a smaller boat. Eventually, several hundred women from young mothers with babies on their backs to 90-year-old great-grandmothers occupied the oil company’s terminal. They scattered throughout the complex and trapped some 700 oilmen by blocking the airstrip and the docks. The women had no guns, but they did have a powerful weapon: they threatened to disrobe in front of the oilmen. Showing nudity, especially by older women, is a weapon of last resort, considered an act of deep shame here and a great curse directed at men.
Villagers recall that Chevron’s negotiator, Mr. Filgate, arrived in Ugborodo on a particularly flooded day. He was accompanied by the police as he made his way to the town hall built by Shell. Meanwhile, inside the terminal, production had ground to a halt. “If you don’t have control of a certain aspect of your business, you’ve got to shut it in,” Mr. Pryor said. “Because if anything happens, bad things can really happen. So we started giving an order to shut things down.”
At the town hall, the eghare aja presided over the talks for the Nigerians, with several women, elders and young leaders like Mr. Omunu at his side. Mr. Filgate, who declined to be interviewed for this article, spoke for Chevron.
ChevronTexaco pointed out it was already doing a lot for the delta. More than 90 percent of its work force of 1,800 is Nigerian. In this area, the only health care is provided by a mobile boat-clinic run by ChevronTexaco. In Benikrukru, a village not too far away, almost everything except the private houses has been provided by Chevron: a generator, a water tank, a primary school.
For their part, villagers were frustrated that most of the workers at the terminal are actually employed by service companies that contract with ChevronTexaco. These are the lowest-level jobs, in the laundry or cafeteria and paying less than $100 a month. Company officials said that they understood the frustration, but that the problem was that most people living near the terminal had little education and were not qualified for the better jobs. The villagers had started negotiations demanding 100 jobs. They had also asked for new roads, 500 two-bedroom houses and embankments to stop Ugborodo’s erosion.
On July 17, the two sides signed a seven-page memorandum of understanding. The oil company agreed to provide electricity and water to the community by creating a direct connection to the terminal. It agreed to build schools, a community center and houses for the eghare aja and the rival traditional leader. It agreed to increase student scholarships and help the women set up poultry and fish farms to supply the terminal’s cafeterias.
Chevron also pledged to resume construction on its New Town project for the people of Ugborodo. The on-again, off-again project began in the mid-1990’s, with the clearing of land less than a mile away so the people of Ugborodo would have a place to live when the creek, river and ocean finally wash over their village.
But even with this popular project, the company has faced considerable criticism and distrust. Ugborodo’s people want New Town, but they also want the company to stop the old town from disappearing. Mr. O’Reilly, the chief executive of ChevronTexaco, said there were limits to what big companies should do. “We can’t take the place of government,” he said. “It’s unrealistic; it’s not our role.”
Mr. Pryor understands Ugborodo’s mistrust and suspicions. “It is a no-win situation in a way,” he said. “But the worst thing we could do is nothing.” Perhaps. But Mama Ayo is unconvinced by ChevronTexaco’s promises. She believes in the Lord and sees signs of his divine presence, even in Ugborodo. Three days after she and the other women left the terminal, lightning struck an oil storage tank and set it on fire.
Because of the fire and the protests, ChevronTexaco stopped pumping crude for four days and failed to meet its export quotas for more than 10 days. To Mama Ayo, the lightning was a sure sign that God stood on this side of the creek. One afternoon a while back, she visited the terminal to see if she could win a lawn-mowing contract. She wore a ChevronTexaco card that identified her as a contractor’s assistant.
After several hours, Mama Ayo returned. She was unsuccessful, she reported. But being Mama Ayo, she was not without hope. She had been thinking. The women had won several concessions by getting the attention of Chevron’s managing director in Lagos. Imagine the power of the managing director in America.
“If Chevron’s M.D. from America comes here and sees the way we are living,” she said, “he will do good. I’m sure of that.” She is sure because she says she believes that Americans are not bad people. “We are still friends,” she said. “We are friends forever. But we are pleading with them to come and develop us.”