While some recent studies have focused on the gender dimension of the struggle for environmental justice in the Niger Delta, limited attention is devoted to the role of women in the oil-related conflict and the implications for peacebuilding in the Niger Delta.1Kenechukwu N. Anugwom, “The other side of civil society story: women, oil and the Niger Delta environmental struggle in Nigeria,” Geo Journal 74, no. 4 (2009): 333-346. The feminist essentialist notion that women are naturally peaceful is being challenged by the growing evidence of women’s participation in militant agitation against the injustices pervading the oil-rich but impoverished Niger Delta. A nuanced understanding of the roles that Niger Delta women have played and could play in the conflict and their potential contributions to peacebuilding in the region is vital in designing strategic measures to resolve the intractable conflicts.

Women’s Agential Roles in Petro-violence

Oil extraction and its associated environmental damage have remained a constant threat to the well-being of many people in the Niger Delta. The massive oil spills, gas flaring, and other oil-related activities have severely degraded the environment, resulting in the near total decimation and destruction of the local economy.2Michael Watts, “Petro-insurgency or Criminal syndicate? Conflict and Violence in the Niger Delta,” Review of African Political Economy 34, No.114 (2007):637–60; Cyril Obi, “Oil Extraction, Dispossession, Resistance and Conflict in Nigeria’s Oil-Rich Niger Delta,” Canadian Journal of Development Studies 30, nos. 1-2 (2010): 219-236. Among the emerging actors in the struggles against oil pollution and environmental degradation are local women known for their traditional supporting roles in the sustenance of the family as farmers, fisher-folk, traders, producers, and caregivers. In spite of the losses women suffer as a result of environmental despoliation, they are largely excluded from the token compensation paid for pollution and the devastation of their farmlands and fishing waters because they are usually not recognized as owners of land and water resources.3Scott Pegg and Nenibarini Zabbey Oil and Water: The Bodo Spills and the Destruction of Traditional Livelihood Structures in the Niger Delta. Oxford University Press and Community Development Journal 48, no. 3 (2013): 391–405. This situation makes the women more vulnerable to various forms of deprivation and poverty, forcing some to resort to desperate survival measures. Women also account for a disproportionate number of victims of armed conflict, including acts of gender-based violence such as rape, physical assault, maiming, murder, and destruction of their property.4Akachi Odoemene, “The Nigerian Armed Forces and Sexual Violence in Ogoniland of the Niger Delta, Nigeria, 1990–1999,” Armed Forces and Society 38, no. 2 (2012): 225–251.

However, the notion that all women are victims of violent conflict in the Niger Delta is changing as there is increasing evidence that some women are playing important roles in social movements protesting the depredations of the oil industry and demanding a fairer share of the benefits from oil wealth.

Information gathered from interviews conducted during fieldwork in the Niger Delta, indicates that some women have acted as spies, emissaries, spiritualists, and fighters in the insurgency, sometimes engaging in gun duels with security agencies.5Temitope Oriola, “I Acted Like a Man”: Exploring Female Ex-Insurgents’ Narratives about Nigeria’s Oil Insurgency,” Review of African Political Economy 43, no. 149 (2016): 1–19. There are also reports of women involved in illegal bunkering activities which have continued unabated, resulting in the loss of oil revenues estimated at $6 billion each year to the Nigerian treasury.6Dominic A. Akpan, “Impact of Illegal Oil Business and Nigeria Economy: The Experience of Crude Oil Theft, Bunkering and Pipeline Vandalism in the 21st Century,” International Journal of Advanced Academic Research: Arts, Humanities & Education 2, no. 8 (2016): 1–10. Some women operating within the informal economy may also unwittingly provide support for Niger Delta militants. The agency of Niger Delta women operating in spaces of conflict, though often overlooked, has profound implications for the peace processes in the Niger Delta.7Edlyne E. Anugwom, “Wetin We for Do?” Women Entrepreneurs and the Niger Delta Conflict,” Journal of Small Business and Entrepreneurship 24, no. 2 (2012): 243–252.

It should be noted that the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) granted to militants in 2009 by the late President Yar’Adua initially targeted men to the exclusion of some ex-militants, mostly women. The later inclusion of a few women by successive governments in the next phases of the reintegration process has received similar criticism.8Olakunle Michael Folami, “The Gendered Construction of Reparations: An Exploration of Women’s Exclusion from the Niger Delta Reintegration Processes,” Palgrave Communications Vol. 2, Art. 16083 (2016). Even at that, it is important to note that no woman from the grassroots level was included in the Pan Delta Consultative Forum convened by President Muhammadu Buhari.9Abosede Babatunde, “From Peaceful to Non-Peaceful Protests: The Trajectories of Women’s Movements in the Niger Delta,” in Cyril Obi and Temitope Oriola (eds.), The Unfinished Revolution in Nigeria’s Niger Delta: Prospects for Environmental Justice and Peace (London and New York: Routledge, 2018).

The Niger Delta case shows how the agential capacity of women continues to reconfigure gendered power relations by precipitating social, economic, and cultural shifts in gender identity. Though scholars have argued that the conflict in the region reflects less-visible forms of women’s political participation, the driving forces behind their involvement require further scholarly investigation and analysis.10Marie E. Berry, War, Women, and Power: From Violence to Mobilization in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Conclusion

It is important for present and future generations to understand the significant contributions women can make to peacebuilding and development in African societies. Women have played important roles in the protests against oil pollution and agitation for environmental and ethnic minority rights; they have also promoted peace as peace activists. In cases where some women have either engaged in violent conflict or illegal oil bunkering activities, they have been implicated in environmental degradation. In developing measures to tackle environmental problems in the Niger Delta, the different roles local women play must be taken into account at the national and global levels. Women’s roles as active actors have several implications for the region: first, they are a contributing factor to the already fragile security situation linked to oil-related conflict. Second, they are a key factor in shaping the prospects for peacebuilding in the Niger Delta. It is important that peacebuilding policies and practices in the Niger Delta are gender-sensitive, inclusive, participatory, and equitable to resolve the costly conflict that has engulfed the region.

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