-What triggered my fighting spirit - Ann Kio Briggs, N'Delta activist
By Emma Amaize,
Regional Editor, South-South
WOMEN drawn from Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross- River States in Niger Delta took a striking step at the 12th Niger Delta Dialogue held in Port Harcourt, capital of Rivers State, last week.
As the theme of the conference, "Raising Women's Voices towards Nation Building", typifies, Niger Delta women, stunned by the violence that marked the just concluded elections in parts of the region have risen to find ways of taming the dreadful monster.
The communiqué illustrates the path the women have decided to walk. It read in part, "Niger Delta women are tired of the violence in the region and wanton killings of their husbands and children and have decided to mobilize themselves in nonviolent ways to address the issues plaguing the region."
The women frowned at the "persistent militarization of the region and prevailing culture of violence expressed as cultism, rape, intimidation, domestic violence and environmental degradation in communities of the region."
They "agreed to continue to monitor developments in the region and respond with nonviolent efforts to challenge the adverse effects of violence and conflicts in the region," adding, "Niger Delta women are ready to engage with state Governors, elected representatives, traditional institutions, companies, civil society organizations to seek nonviolent ways for addressing the issues affecting the region."
The Dialogue facilitated by AA PeaceWorks and sponsored by the European Union, EU created a space for Niger Delta women to examine issues affecting the region and proffer solution.
Omu of Anioma Kingdom in Delta State, Her Royal Majesty, Obi Martha Dunkwu, presided over the 12th Dialogue, exclusively for women.
Senator Stella Omu, Ambassador Nkoyo Toyo, Hon Victoria Nyeche, Niger Delta activist, Ann Kio Briggs, President, Ijaw Women Connect, IWC-Worldwide) Rosemary Greham-Naingba, SDP House of Representatives candidate in ONELGA, Rivers, Patience Uche, Patience Aselemi, and other prominent women leaders attended the summit.
Who are we, why are we here?
Lolo Hailshawn spoke on the topic: "Who are we? Why are we here? What is our goal? How will we achieve it? She answered the question by saying, "We are women who have come together for a course, we are women who have come together because we believe that our society is falling apart and when it gets to that point, you see women coming out to do justice."
She said the women gathered to nip in the bud a regional problem, recalling what happened in the presidential and governorship elections in the country.
Hailsham noted that women were resisting oppression even at their places of work, adding, "Even women working in the civil service and parasatals are speaking out against vices so we must give them kudos."
According to her, "Our goal for why we are here is to raise the voices of women towards nation building," She said this is to give impetus to women to participate in politics, not to fight men but enlighten them that long-term practice was not working well, hence the need for a change.
She said women could achieve their goals by supporting each other, mentoring other women, learning from the experiences of one another and keeping focus on the big picture, which is "you think global, but act local".
"Quarantined and held hostage at gunpoint" - Tamunobereotan-ari, G-5
Sharing experiences of "woman power", representative of the Gallant Five, G-5, the women group that spearheaded the non-violent resistance against soldiers that wanted to snatch ballot boxes during the March 9 governorship elections in the area, Barrister Christiana Tamunoberetoan-ari, retold the intriguing drama.
Tamunobereotan-ari, who is the vice chairman of Ogu/Bolo local government area, said G-5 comprises five ladies, whose authority "is not just political, but cuts across other areas of influence like mentoring young ladies, identification of other female groups, empowerment as much as we can across the local government."
She narrated that before the elections, there was a perception of Rivers State as a war zone, especially in the year 2000 when so many lives were lost and properties destroyed. Due to these, the community came together and took an oath in an Anglican Church where they vowed that there should be no more violence despite the political differences.
She said that three days to the last governorship elections, there was mass arrest of innocent young men, which prompted the G-5 to call women to come out in defence of their community and to defend their votes for in her words, "this fight is not for men alone."
Saturday Vanguard had told the Ogu/Bolo women story in a previous publication, but Tamunobereotan-ari recaptured how after discovering that soldiers "quarantined and held hostage at gun point" agents of political parties at the collation centre, they decided that their votes must be protected at all cost.
"In Ogu/Bolo communities, there were vibrant, strong and agile young men who were ready to face any battle, but because in every woman, there is a daughter, wife and sister, we calmed down, told our young men not to do anything to the soldiers for that could lead to avoidable loss of lives and properties," she added.
The vice chairperson recalled that six vans full of soldiers were on ground to take the results from the centers and they flogged the women for the resistance against their plan. Her words, "When the Army came out, they flogged the women but they were not scared despite their threats to run them over with their vehicles. They refused, sat on the floor singing and shouting."
"As women, we have different ways of averting violence, so we have to remove our clothes and went bare which the soldiers could not stand and they were pushed back, and that was a major victory for us," she chipped in.
"Up till Sunday, they were still there. Then Amayanabo (King) used town crier to ask the whole town to come out and over 800 women came to resist the carnage intended by the Army. The very old women all came out, pleading with the soldiers to let peace reign. It was pathetic; they could not go in. the next morning. They even gave the army breakfast to show they were not enemies. That was how our votes were secured,"she announced with an air of relief.
Army took us hostage, compelled us to write fictitious results - Sobere, polling officer
Coordinator of female youths in Okirika, Ibiwari Iyama, narrated how after observing the charade that was the presidential election in the area, women protested to the various kings in the clan to prevail on them to speak to the authorities to ensure a free and fair Governorship/House of Assembly polls. She said on their way to the palace of the Amayanabo of Okochiri, King Ateke Tom, they heard gunshots and found out later that his palace was under siege by soldiers.
Iyama invited one of the girls, Rachael Sobere, who served as an agent and polling officer in Ward 6, Unit 27, Isaka Island to share her experience on March 9.
Sobere said she received election materials to proceed to her RAC centre and not too long, soldiers in several gunboats whose mission was to hijack the election materials started shooting indiscriminately from the direction of the sea.
According to her, the community heads locked the primary school at Ogbogbo, used as RAC centre, but the military came, demanding that they open the gate, while the elders and chiefs vehemently refused.
She said the soldiers jumped in through the back gate, ordered everyone out, forcing party agents and INEC ad hoc staff to carry the materials on their heads as if they were refugees. It was when they got to the ATC waterfront where 4 flying boats and 3 gunboats were on standby that they notified them that they were security personals, who would take them to Isaka Island.
Sobere stated that when they got to the open River, instead of going to Isaka, they diverted and took them to a creek. On getting there, they asked everyone to start working by bringing out their materials to thumbprint and share the number of total registered voters between AAC, PDP and others.
She said soldiers forced them to write the results in favour of the AAC, which they wrote before thumb printing the ballot papers. She narrated that she thumb printed until she was exhausted and famished, adding, "They collected everything from us, including necklaces, rings, phones, earrings, everything."
The female youth leader said that after everything, the soldiers thanked all INEC adhoc staff and party agents, stating that all they wanted was the result and since they have it, they escorted us back to the ATC waterfront, adding, "That was what happened to my unit that day."
Another female youth leader, Juli Ikisa, representing Wakrike Women Congress in Okirika, also narrated how soldiers flogged women, who resisted their plot to rig the polls and told Niger Delta women not to be afraid, but be courageous in the face of oppression.
How we tackled Odenwari cultists- Lafieghe
Kinere Lafieghe from Odenwari in Southern Ijaw local government area in Bayelsa state, told the story of how she galvanized other women to challenge politicians, who sponsoring cultism in the area.
In her words, "We organized ourselves and started working with the boys. Phone calls, physical visits, advocacy outings and meetings were some of the measures we started with. We did not allow them space or gap, even without funding or support. We tasked ourselves to ensure that little funds were available for logistics. We needed to build trust and confidence with them and continuity and transparency was the key, hence we did not allow them space for any more violence."
"The pathetic thing is that these boys were between the age 13 - 15 years, who were supposed to be under the tutelage and care of their parents. Wherever I am called to give talks, I advise parents to be responsible for their children, by giving birth to only the numbers
they can take care of," Lafieghe added.
The trigger points, by Ambassdor Toyo
Ambassador Nkoyo Toyo regaled the women on the second day of the Dialogue with her clued-up narration of what triggered Niger Delta women to rise to action. What really was the trigger? She logically presented the events and issues that led to the conversation.
She stated that in the wake of 2016, there was chaos in the Niger Delta with the resultant destruction of oil and gas facilities. Toyo asserted that there were sentiments in the region, sentiments in which dwellers of the region felt a little bit forgotten, which permeated the whole space and from that sentiment, came other issues like the militarization of the region. In addition, the militants, the past president's wife (Mrs. Jonathan) and some Niger Deltans became targets of the centre due to the ouster of the past president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan.
"For us at the dialogue, in spite of where the region has found itself, the region was not talking to the centre and the centre seemed not to be talking to the region," she noted.
She said there was real economic crisis as the boys in the creeks were blowing up major oil installations, prompting certain persons, who had worked with AA PeaceWorks to approach the founder, Dr. Judith Asuni, seeking her intervention.
"That was the trigger because some things were not working, the country was at a standstill, the region had been militarized and chaos was the order of the day. Dr. Asuni invited a number of us to Uyo, where the first dialogue was held," she stated.
Ambassador Toyo said the first Dialogue was to answer the question, "What do we do" as the military was picking up the boys in a way that would have precipitated a counter reaction.
"It was a very precarious moment in our history and it required a woman to step in and Dr. Asuni did step in. By the time they held the 3rd Dialogue, they began to have representatives of the boys from the creeks, with all of the key traditional rulers from the Niger Delta present.
She asserted that AAPW did not hijack the process, but allowed a fluid process largely determined by the region because people made inputs and the inputs presented to the participants, while EU came in with funds that allowed AAPW to create the space for conversation.
In her own words, "The European Union came in, tested us with the first one or two interventions then gave us a longer support for shorter time and quite a lot more support to see how far we can go in driving the process".
She unequivocally mentioned that it had been the EU, which had consistently supported the NDD.
In conclusion, she added that shortly after PIND came, some group of people approached the NDD and said that they could not be talking about the Niger Delta without talking about the issues of the environment and the Ogoni clean up, and this led to a meeting in Benin Edo State on purely issues of the environment.
She talked about the emergence of Pan Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF, and the 16-point agenda of the regional body presented to the Federal Government on behalf of the Niger Delta people, shocking discovering that the people have no knowledge of the Strategic Implementation Work Plan, SIWP, prepared by the Federal Government, which led to its rejection.
She said that NDD has been working for many years, reminding the women that AAPeaceWorks invited militants from all nooks and corners of the region, ethnic leaders and cult groups for dialogue in Warri, years ago, to de-escalate tension.
NDD brought some of the youth militants from all the nooks and crannies, including ethnic leaders, leaders of cult groups and as many as could be identified were all brought to Warri. "They also took one dialogue to Bayelsa where they looked at the Presidential Amnesty program and interrogated the workability of the program and its future.
"We have done a lot in terms of projecting a lot of concerns that the region is having. The dialogue space is to get the ideas that you want, the dialogue space is a space go with the ideas and we move out of that space with it and turn it into ideas that will affect the people of the region.
"This is the journey so far with the dialogue, the 12th overall and the very first for women. She clarified that the Niger Delta dialogue is not a nongovernmental organization, but the secretariat which manages it, the Academic Associate Peace Works (AAPW) is an NGO," Nkoyo said.
Bayelsa, next flash point
From the experiences shared at the meeting, violence did not occur in the entire Rivers state during the elections, peace prevailed in some areas. However, with available information, Niger Delta women see Bayelsa state as the next flash point and decided at the meeting to "take action early enough to prevent violence during the governorship election slated to take place in November 2019."
Generally, the women resolved that they should be value re-orientation of young men and women from the home, cohesion and unity of purpose among women, women to support fellow women and be courageous and development of programmes to forestall election violence in their areas through peace building.
They also agreed on the need to always take quick action on early warning signs of conflict and election violence, advocate an end to use of youths by politicians as political thugs and integrity of women involved in politics. Furthermore, the women stressed the need to provide mentorship and spiritual guidance for young people, building synergy among themselves even when in power, increased sensitization of women, love and commitment for social change.
Lori-Ogbebor to PANDEF: Focus on environmental issues, not politics
Senator Omu counsels women
Senator Stella Omu in her speech, admonished the women to understand the peculiarity of their inner strength and use it. She said it was important that they understand the constitution of their organization because it is one of the available strengths.
She also advised that they should never leave any meeting venue until the end because people could a decision based on signatories and whatever decision they take is binding on you.
"When we talk about good governance, we are talking about equity, not impunity; we are talking about fairness, not greed," she said.
She warned that as women, wherever they find themselves in positions, they should be fair and not greedy, show integrity, not corruption and be peaceful, not violent.
How I started activism - Ann Kio Briggs
Ann Kio Briggs, who also shared her experiences at the occasion, said what she is today had a lot to do with her upbringing. "I was raised to have a say" was her comment as she narrated her experiences from 1998 when General Abacha died.
She lamented that her first experience with injustice was KenSaro Wiwa's murder, which was what began the resistance in her. It was from then she met people like Douglas Oronto of blessed memory and the likes of Nkoyo in the struggle for women issues.
For her, the environment was one major element that kicked off the activism spirit within her because while growing up in Abonema, the environment was pure, but what she later came back to see was not pleasing.
She noted, "When you are truthful in your heart in what you are doing, there is something in the heart of the other person that connects because it is a spiritual thing, so you must be truthful as women,"
"I do not accept this concept of we must be carried along, because nobody is carrying anybody along, we are all going together in the same direction," she argued
She said that once anybody accepts that concept, it would look to the other person like they are doing you a favour, adding, "Women's participating in politics is not a favour".
"When you stand up to represent more than yourself, you must be honest in what you are doing and that is what people key into and you have voices that are raised," she said.
HRM Dunkwu commends Dr Asuni
Chairperson of the 12th Dialogue, HRM Dunkwu, thanked the chief convener, Dr Asuni for creating such a huge platform to galvanize women of the Niger Delta to realize and fulfill their purpose on earth.
She prayed for quick recovery and successful health check-up of Asuni, who was abroad on medical grounds during the meeting.
Women have unique role in Nigeria, particularly N'Delta - Dr. Asuni
Why Dr Asuni in an electronic mail to Saturday Vanguard, said, "Okrika and Ogu/Bolo have interested me for the past 20 years, as Academic Associates PeaceWorks worked on the Okrika/Eleme interethnic conflict. Then, in 2003-2005, we worked on the Peace Accord in Rivers State, which centered on Ateke Tom and Alhaji Dokubo-Asari. As we know, Ateke later became a king in Okrika. Therefore, when there was military intimidation in Okrika during the presidential election on February 23 and later the military ransacked Ateke's palace on March 7, two days before the second election, we were watching carefully to see what would happen."
"Soon women in both Okrika and its sister local government, Ogu/Bolo began a process of nonviolence resistance to prevent the electoral process from being derailed. With the aid of social media, videos of women sitting in or lying down to block access to the election centres, women pulling soldiers off the fence, who were trying to climb over to seize the election materials, became viral. It was fascinating to watch these women simply use their presence to stop the military in their tracks.
"Through our meetings on March 21 and April 9-10, these women as well as the Odenwari women from Southern Ijaw in Bayelsa State, have been able to share their experiences and inspire other women to raise their voices in not only protecting their governance process, but also in contributing to nation building.
"There were panels on women in the political space and women in the civil space, looking at how women can play a larger role in improving life in the Niger Delta specifically and in Nigeria in general. For the April meeting, we invited women from all six states of the Niger Delta. Since that meeting, the Bayelsa women have met and mapped out a plan for protecting their up-coming election later this year. The Edo women have done the same.
"Women from states, which have already had their elections, can consolidate the governance process through their active participation," she said.
Her words, "Women have a special place in Nigeria, especially in the Niger Delta, women are considered sacred, and it is forbidden to manhandle a woman, especially someone else's wife. Therefore, the military is very reluctant to shoot at a group of women, while a group of men, especially youths, could be attacked."
"Also, as mothers, wives and sisters, women have a kind of spiritual or mystical power. We procreate and protect the next generations. This is woman power," she asserted.