For the last three weeks, Nigerian women who have challenged the exploitation of some of the world’s largest oil and gasoline companies have received major media coverage. Perhaps, the attention is due to the primarily non-violent nature of the activism, perhaps, it is because the movement is largely comprised of women, but there is something to be said about the David and Goliath nature of struggles.
The women of Nigeria are not the first ones to protest injustice and given the spirit of the Nigerian people, they certainly will not be the last. For centuries, the proverbial West and the more recent North have raped and pillaged the African continent. And, while independence may have inspired new beginnings, the aftermath of colonization still leaves a trail of blood and tears with which to sow new seeds of life. The road ahead is long, but if there is something about the people of Nigeria it is their conviction to overcome obstacles.
This piece is not about the numerous protests or battles that the Nigerians have launched in the name of rights and freedom. This is piece is about what it means to stick to one’s principles and even in the face of death maintain them. The other day, I received an e-mail from Arun Gandhi, the great-grandson of Mahatmas Gandhi. He was replying to an e-mail I sent him, asking him what he thought of dissent. His reply had two main points: dissenters and protestors today are weak, they protest because it is fashionable and a token gesture, they do not do it because they are whole-heartedly committed to the cause. His other point was that no one teaches protesters and dissenters how to deal with dissent within their own ranks. Arun’s remarks might be true of the West and the North, but Ken Saro-Wiwa would say otherwise. Like many Nigerians, he not only risked his life for justice and freedom, he died in the name of something more powerful than Shell or than other capitalist hegemons, he di ed in the name of people, the Ogoni people.
Anyone can pick a cause, but few are picked to lead movements of freedom and perseverance. So what makes the difference? To begin, there is great empathy and even greater solidarity among human beings. When a heart has been bruised by the suffering of others, the spiritual connection among those people has extraordinary strength. This is precisely why someone like Saro-Wiwa could die and his fellow countrymen could carry-on the struggle. They not only wanted justice, they wanted to take Saro-Wiwa’s spirit and manifest it into action. The women who are fighting Chevron now are taking the spirit of struggle and doing the same thing. They not only believe in their cause, they believe in one another and in their resolve to overcome barriers and hurdles. This belief in the human capacity for transcendence and change is what turns a small group of movers into a larger movement.