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The willpower of women to overturn unfriendly policies was at play in The Naked Option: The Last Resort. The documentary film is focused on all-female protests that blocked oil production in the Niger Delta in 2002. The 90-minute film by Candace Schermerhorn and Sam Olukoya revived memories from another part of Nigeria’s history of protests.

The Naked Option

In protest against grievances perpetrated by Shell and Chevron, women in the affected Niger Delta communities took to the streets in ‘naked protest.’ Image courtesy Sam Olukoya

In collaboration with the Nigerian Field Society, the film was screened at the Goethe Institut on Thursday, June 14. It was a screaming reminder of the many sorry stories emanating from Nigeria’s Delta region and a sharp pointer to the fact that not much has changed in the last decade.  The film’s co-producer Olukoya, who is also a journalist with the British Broadcasting Corporation was present at the event.

Pivotal to the documentary’s unfolding action is Emem J. Okon. She mobilises women across the Niger Delta communities to wake up to their roles as nation builders in the face of ineffectiveness of their male relatives. Through Okon’s advocacy, the women were better equipped to protest their grievances against the oil companies, particularly Chevron and Shell. Okon’s Kebetkache Women’s Development and Resource Centre teamed up with Annkio Briggs’ Agape Birthrights Organisation to train the women in different self-improvement skills.

Speaking about what the women’s challenges, Okon said while the entire region was involved in the struggle for a better life, the women had the “extra struggle” of making their voices heard in a male-dominated society. Consequently, the women set a new task for themselves beyond the normal domestic chores. “Since the oil companies have refused to respond to the men, we feel it’s time to step in,” Okon said, explaining what motivated her to round up the women and ensure their struggle was cohesive, their issues properly articulated and their energies effectively channelled towards positive result.

Gas flaring, water pollution and the oil firms’ nonchalant attitude towards providing education and employment opportunities for their husbands and children were some of the issues topping the women’s lists. What brought the protest to a head though was when a group of women in Amukpe, one of the affected communities was displaced from their residences because it was located near a gas flaring site. Ironically, the only benefit of this for the women was that the flares functioned as kilns for drying their cassava. Two important facts at this juncture are that one, gas flaring has been outlawed in Nigeria since 1984, and two, while it took the sun four days to dry the cassava, the flares took only five hours to do same.

With no access to their cassava, no jobs for their husbands and no schools for their children, the women took to the streets. Over at Ugborodo, women of different ages bombarded the Chevron camp. For ten days, they held up activities at the site disrupting the daily production of 500,000 barrels of oil. The oil firm called on the government to intervene but the women would not shift until the companies acquiesced to their request. Drawing on more than the skills they had been trained in, the women fell back on one of their traditional taboos: stripping naked in front of their offender.

The naked protests would steal the headlines in local and international media for a while. The women were able to win the promise of schools for their children and jobs for their husbands. But similar to the unsuccessfully short-lived protests over in Amukpe, where Shell operated, none of these promises have been fulfilled.

Like the footages of this year’s Occupy Nigeria protests and the many that have gone before, what Naked Option does is to celebrate the women’s bravery. The fact that they left their families and livelihood to band together and fight a bigger and armed adversary is truly honourable. One of Okon’s most successful prodigies was Stella Fyneface. Capturing the essence of the women’s empowerment and sensitisation programme, she said it was no longer a case of “everybody carry your cassava.” For her, it was better to be a participant than to watch from the sidelines.

The documentary captures the women’s energy effectively and while it is obvious that the women still revel in their ability to have carried out the protest, the pain of broken promises was apparent in their eyes, but most vividly in their surroundings. The environmental degradation there continues to make the headlines and the high level of unemployment remains a threat to security in the region. In Okon’s words, “Every community in the Niger Delta is impacted negatively by oil and gas activity. They (the oil majors) owe the people environmental justice and economic justice.”

There was no narration in the documentary, but the women’s first-hand recollections and the featured talking heads were insightful. These included Owens Wiwa, Prof. E.J. Alagoa, Anine Porbeni, and Annkio Briggs. While some in the audience wanted more roll-tape dedicated to the government’s inaction in this region, including this in the film seemed more like a repetition of what many already knew. One of the featured commentators spoke heatedly about government and the oil companies working in cahoots to ensure the region’s continued underdevelopment. He revealed that one of the men, who had threatened to kill the women protesting at the Chevron site, was now a top member of the Delta State Government’s kitchen cabinet.

Corroborating this stance, co-producer of the film, Olukoya said the issue of underdevelopment across Nigeria was more a class thing than it was ethnic-oriented. Responding to questions from the audience, he said the film had taken roughly eight years to make since 2003, after a newspaper headline inspired Schermerhorn to make a film about the women’s naked protest. She had been struck by the idea and what impact such action would inspire. Unfortunately, the women’s tale remains one of broken promises as nothing much has changed in their existence, Olukoya revealed.

Responding to a call to make a comparative analysis highlighting the discrepancies between how oil companies behave in Nigerian host-communities and other communities around the world where they operate, Olukoya said this was the focus of his previous work titled Environmental Racism.

Following this initial screening, the producers are in talks with some TV stations to air the documentary; they also plan to host the film at festivals. The film makes a bold statement not just for women, but human rights as a whole and questions the continued oppression of Nigerians as the nation’s government looks on.

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