Competition over oil jobs fuels ethnic violence

Jul 24, 2002 02:00 AM

Elisabeth Omogobohe brushes against the crumbling walls of what was once her home and points to the bedroom where rival tribesmen hacked her husband to death. "The Ijaws burned down my house. They killed my husband. Everything burned, finished," said the 60-year-old widow as she recounted the attack on her village three years ago. Today she lives next door in a hut made of tin scraps.
Competition over oil money fuelled the ethnic violence that has shattered villages across southeast Nigeria's Niger Delta, killing thousands in the past decade. The prospect of more ethnic violence lingers, even after Omogobohe and other women from her village won promises of jobs, electricity and other amenities after a peaceful 11-day occupation of ChevronTexaco's multimillion dollar Escravos export terminal.

Villagers accuse oil companies of fanning resentment between the two main tribes in the area surrounding Escravos -- the Ijaws and the Itsekiris -- by forcing the long-time rivals to jostle for scant jobs. The Ijaws' resentment toward the Itsekiris dates to the 19th century, when the Ijaws accused Nigeria's former British rulers of giving the Itsekiris preferential treatment.
The Ijaws say that kind of treatment continues today under foreign oil companies. The rivalry played out sharply. After Itsekiri villagers launched their unprecedented all-woman takeover of the Escravos oil terminal, which exports nearly a half-million bpd of crude oil, the Ijaw quickly sprang into all-women occupations of their own.

Ijaw women seized at least four pipeline stations that feed into the Escravos terminal. They are demanding that half of all workers at Escravos' new gas plant be Ijaws, that tribe members be given management jobs in human resources and public affairs departments, and that the company appoint an Ijaw director.
That is more than what the Itsekiri women got: a promise of 25 new jobs over five years at the Escravos terminal and an assurance that 15 contract workers will be made permanent staff. Some more radical Ijaw activists have threatened violence if their demands are not met. Kingsley Kuku, spokesman for the tribal Ijaw Youth Council warned Ijaw men would "burn down all Chevron oil facilities" and attack Itsekiri villages. ChevronTexaco negotiators continued talks with the Ijaw women, the company's spokesman Wole Agunbiade said.

Nigeria is the world's sixth-largest exporter of oil and the fifth-largest supplier to the United States. Nigeria's production of 2 mm bpd of oil -- almost all from the Niger Delta -- leads that of African nations.
The Niger Delta remains one of the Nigeria's poorest and least developed regions, despite its oil wealth, however. Bloody conflicts are common in an impoverished region where people have little to lose. A dispute over municipal boundaries in 1997 escalated into a three-year war between the two tribes, leaving entire villages razed and hundreds killed.

The tribes attacked each other with machetes and guns, believing their rivals were trying to gain control of oil land so they could press oil multinationals for demands. Both sides remember that dark period as "the crisis." Accusations are now flying that protests by women of both tribes are aimed at advancing each tribe's influence over ChevronTexaco. "If we do not do this, the Itsekiris will say this is their own place," protest leader Josephine Ogoba said, explaining why Ijaw women took over the pipeline stations.
ChevronTexaco insists no one tribe is favoured. "The policy for hiring is a very open and competitive," Agunbiade said. "If you have what they want, they will hire you, wherever you come from." Company negotiators offered to hire one villager and provide business-start-up loans to women, Ogoba said. ChevronTexaco also pledged to upgrade two contract workers to permanent staff and create three new contract positions, she said.

The day's negotiations also dealt with the women's other demands, including electricity and clean water for impoverished villages surrounding the captured oil facilities, Ogoba said. Other demands, including scholarships and a community training centre, were tabled until next week to give ChevronTexaco more time to create a plan, Ogoba said.
Tribal patronage is still seen by many Nigerians as the only way to advance in government and private enterprise. Ijaws accuse Itsekiris of winning favour because their culture is more open to outsiders, explained Esther Tolar, a playwright who is part of the Ijaw occupation.
Tolar wrote a play about "the crisis" showing the strain on marriages between Itsekiris and Ijaws. In the piece, the Itsekiri husband goes into a rage upon learning his Ijaw in-laws killed his father. "It's not as bad as it was before," Tolar said of relations between the two tribes. "But people still carry a lot of anger. You're still reminded this person made me fatherless, this person made me a widow or a widower. The pain goes on and on."

Source: AP
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