Monthly Archives: April 2012

French oil firm Total SA says natural gas leak ongoing at a plant in Nigeria’s Niger Delta

Total benzinestation Calandstraat

(Photo credit: Gerard Stolk)

The Washington Post, LAGOS, Nigeria — French oil firm Total SA said Saturday that a natural gas leak at one of its plants in Nigeria’s crude-rich southern delta may have been going on for weeks.

The leak at its Obite natural gas site has forced the company to evacuate those nearby and led to daily monitoring of air and water surrounding the plant in Nigeria’s Rivers state. However, Total’s Nigerian subsidiary hasn’t made any public statement about the leak since it likely began following an incident March 20, though the company has given near-daily updates about a similar leak at a plant off the United Kingdom in the North Sea.

In a statement, Total’s Nigerian subsidiary said workers noticed a mix of water and natural gas bubbling up from an uninhabited site near the Obite plant on April 3. Total said there had been no injuries from the leaks, which it said likely followed the “technical incident” on March 20.

Total spokesman Charles Ebereonwu said Saturday he did not have details of the incident.

“All necessary means to ensure the protection of nearby communities and personnel and to limit the impact on the environment have been immediately mobilized,” Total said in a statement on its subsidiary’s website dated Thursday. “Strict monitoring of the environment is ongoing and a safety perimeter has been established.”

The statement said testing has not found any “toxic elements” in the environment.

Rumors about an accident at a Total operation have circulated in Nigeria for weeks, though the company remained silent. Asked why the company hadn’t publicized the Obite gas plant leak, Ebereonwu said Total’s Nigerian subsidiary had been posting updates on its website. However, the company has not sent any information to journalists. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with more than 160 million residents, is a top energy supplier to the U.S. The OPEC member nation also has seen foreign oil firms boost production of natural gas in recent years.

However, environmental and industry regulations lag behind spills and violence in its oil-rich Niger Delta, a region of mangroves and swamps about the size of Portugal. Some environmentalists say much as 2.1 billion liters (550 million gallons) of oil have spilled during more than 50 years of production. That would be at a rate roughly comparable to one Exxon Valdez disaster per year in a region where oil still stains beaches and waterways.

Many foreign oil firms blame thieves for much of the oil spills now happening in the region, as they tap into pipelines to steal crude. However, there have been a series of major spills and accidents in the last six months, including a spill by Royal Dutch Shell PLC at its offshore Bonga facility that saw some 40,000 barrels of oil spill.

Total’s Obite gas plant exports a capacity of 10.65 million metric cubes of natural gas, and collects oil condensate to mix with crude oil it produces from another area, the company has said. Total operates in the plant in partnership with the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. Total said it has stopped production at the Obite plant and shut down its wells.

Dispatches from Women’s Rights Events in Nigeria

March 8th was International Women’s Day and I attended several women’s events across Rivers State throughout the month.  There was the women’s march of the Roman Catholic Church in Ogoniland, the worker rights training for the women members of PENGASSAN (the national labor union for oil workers), an awards dinner for a gender-focused Nigerian NGO, and the NLC Women’s Committee International Women’s Day Celebration.  The first event represents rural mobilization, the second workplace, the third non-profit, and the last state-sponsored, since the NLC has close ties with the government and there were many state representatives there. All in all, I was able to make observations about the public rhetoric surrounding women’s rights in quite varied environments.

I had intended to compare and contrast my observations to see how they differed, but instead I couldn’t help identifying commonalities among all the events. Like all meetings in southern Nigeria, they were opened with an enthusiastic prayer asking Jesus to bless the day, which was led by a male speaker who reminiscent of a Pentecostal preacher.  Nigerians are avid church attendees and everyone identifies with a denomination, so the opening prayers seemed second-nature to most of those present.  I don’t know if there were Muslims or other non-Christians there.

I have some mixed opinions on invoking Christianity at secular women’s rights events.  There is of course the concern how this affects the non-Christian attendees, perhaps marginalizing them from the discussions. Additionally, believers in gender equality have a right to mobilize at such events outside of religious parameters, and when nearly every speaker references God then one’s religion becomes the gateway through which one must mobilize.  This makes one’s belief in a certain type of Christianity a sort of precondition for her involvement in the gender movement.

Conversely however, church services are a familiar platform for most Nigerians, and presenting the day events as such has immense power to communicate a message to attendees. Nigerians embrace the singing and dancing of lively church services here, as they did at the women’s events too. Framing the improvement of women’s status in religious terms may also make mobilization acceptable for women who would otherwise see it as “looking for trouble,” as my interviewees call it.

Along with Uganda, Nigeria is arguably one of the most overtly anti-gay countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with parliament passing a very strict bill last fall that allows for ten year in prison for anyone who even aids same-sex unions. There is a common belief that homosexuality is a Western import, with Europeans and Americans “spreading it” to Nigeria. My observations last month made me wonder if the LGBT cause wouldn’t be strengthened if some of its messages were presented in a way more compatible with the strong religious sentiment in the country, since respect for the LGBT community and religion need not be totally incompatible (as they are here). The nascent Nigerian LGBT movement could perhaps take a cue from successful women’s rights campaigns in this regard.

The second observation I made is there were no men in the audience, yet the emcee and over half of all speakers were male at each event.  In a room of over 100 women in support of the improvement of their own status, it is paradoxical that men were the interlocutors the majority of time. What message does this send? It may convey that men’s voices matter more than women’s, or that women should mobilize with men leading the way. It makes men the gatekeepers of the gender discussion. It furthers entrenches the idea that it is men with the confidence and education to speak to large groups of people, and women are best as the listeners. Disturbingly, all but a few of the male speakers made jokes about women’s role in the kitchen or bedroom, one even remarking that empowered women make better lovers. It is probably logical to assume that more female speakers would have meant less objectification of women’s bodies as a form of humor. When I asked an organizer of one of the events why there were so many men speaking, she essentially said that men’s presence validates the legitimacy of the event. Since she wanted powerful people as the speakers and most powerful people are male, naturally there is male dominance on stage.

Lastly and most importantly, the gender movement in Nigeria has a long way to go in respecting women’s rights simply because they are people and not because of their role as wives, mothers, or caregivers. The single most dominant message that was conveyed by speakers, well received by the audience, and then reiterated during discussion sections was that we should help women access improved political participation, education, health care because of their role in the family.  Women should go to the polls more so they can vote for policies that benefit their husband’s industry or their children’s well-being. Women should have health care so that they live long enough to raise their children and care for their husbands in the home.  Women should be educated so that they can help their children with their homework and be more responsible with the household budget.  One of the most charismatic male speakers at the NLC event conveyed the principal message that women should complete secondary school so they don’t embarrass their husbands with their ignorance, “When your wife no speak English-o when your friends are in the house, then the shame is for the husband like the wife.” I think he was trying to convey that educating women is everyone’s responsibility, but he did so in a paternal way.

Two elements of this last point are important I think.  First, women’s rights must be based on the fact that they are human beings, on their humanity, and not on their relationship to men and society at large (See MacKinnon’s Are Women Human?). Often times in a effort to protect women, and I use the word “protect” purposefully, they are granted special or distinct rights that I think further remove them from the realm of basic human rights.  Thus, human and civil rights end up being “male” while separate women’s rights are “female.” This spreads the idea that women matter only in terms of their relation to the family, and limits their importance in the outside community. Where does this rhetoric leave widowed, barren, or unmarried women? To be meaningful and enduring, women’s rights cannot depend on their relation to men in order to legitimate their status.  Such rights must be rooted simply in their status as human beings.

 Second, by further reinforcing women’s role in the home, the private sphere, they are moved even farther away from the roles of men in the public sphere.  All of the gender events I went to last month buttressed the perception of men and women’s inherent differences. One of the longstanding debates in gender studies is about the sameness-difference versus equality model (See Frug’s Postmodern Feminism).  Supporters of the sameness-difference model argue that there are clear distinctions between men and women, e.g. physical strength and childbirth, and that there is nothing wrong with acknowledging those distinctions. The problem with society is that we privilege the male condition over the female one, male qualities over female ones. They find that if we could just enhance respect for what women bring to the table, then there will be gender equality that benefits all.  However, the equality folks, one of which is me, find that by validating such differences between men and women we provide the context in which prejudice takes root; for it is only by acknowledging inherent differences that we can justify unequal treatment. Differences provide an excuse for discrimination. “Separate is inherently unequal” whether one is referencing racial segregation in American schools fifty years ago or African women’s access to public office today.  And although I realize that the equality model will probably never been culturally accepted in most places in the world, it is still a noble ideal towards which societies should strive.

 

 The head speaker at the NLC Women’s Day Event.

2012 APSA Africa Workshop

Although the deadline for applications has passed, APSA will have its Africa Workshop at the University of Botswana, July 15-27, 2012.  The theme is “Local Communities and the State in Africa.” The workshop is targeted principally at university and college political science faculty residing in Africa, who have completed their Ph.D. and are in the early stages of their academic career. Up to 22 Africa-based fellows will be selected. Four advanced Ph.D. students residing in the United States will also be accepted. See: 2012 APSA Africa Workshop.