Nigeria captured global headlines when Shell Oil faced accusations of environmental devastation in the Niger Delta in the early 1990s, as well as complicity in acts of mass killings, rapes and the torching of villages by the Nigerian military.
Leading the resistance against Shell and the Nigerian government was writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, the spokesperson for the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), which caused the oil company to suspend operations in the region in 1993. Two years later he was executed following a trial many foreign human rights groups denounced.
Despite Saro-Wiwa’s death, the movement lived on. Domale Keys was just a child growing up in Nigeria then, but the Black feminist scholar remembers her family fighting for their rights in the Ogoniland region.
She lacked the words to describe what she witnessed at the time. It was only later, while studying social science at the University of California, Los Angeles, that she realized what made the Ogoni movement so powerful was its insistence on non-violent protest — a political strategy with roots in the politics of Mahatma Gandhi and the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King.
“The Ogoni were very direct and clear about what they were trying to do,” says Keys. “They borrowed their strategies from both the American Freedom Movement and what was going on in South Africa at about the same time.”
Non-violent resistance is the practice of demanding social change through symbolic protests, civil disobedience, and economic or political non-cooperation while refraining from violence and the threat of violence. King called it “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love,” and according to the United States Institute of Peace it is proven empirically to be twice as effective as armed struggle in achieving major political goals.
Looking back, Keys says she was struck most by the power of women in her community. So much so that she devoted her academic career to exploring their role in the resistance more deeply.
“I realized how it empowered communities who would otherwise have no power at all, communities that had been very oppressed.
“The women would communicate with each other, set meetings, pray and sing. You wouldn’t think these little things would change the history of a country, but they really did — I was so inspired by that.”
The non-violent demonstrations of the Federation of Ogoni Women’s Association (FOWA), the women’s wing of MOSOP, and others in the resistance ultimately forced Shell to leave its drilling site in the Ogoniland.
Keys’ exploration of the power of those women resulted in a PhD from UCLA in social science and comparative education, parts of which have appeared recently in publications such as Ms. Magazine.
Her book manuscript on the Ogoni women’s resistance movement will be published later this year as For Our Survival. It was awarded the 2020 University of Illinois Press and NWSA Book Prize.
Keys is one of 12 new tenure-track Black scholars hired last year as part of the U of A’s Black Academic Excellence Cohort Hire. She joined the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies last fall.
“A lot of the Ogoni women I looked at were older,” says Keys. “They didn’t have a chance to get an education, and would tell me unequivocally that before the movement they really had no hope. Their condition was dire, and they were suffering.
“Once they began to implement these strategies (of non-violent resistance), they raised their profile in their community and created a voice for themselves. They had a voice within the movement and within national and even international politics.”
Since the ’90s, other women’s associations in Nigeria have looked to the Ogoni for advice, says Keys. FOWA leaders often travel to Europe and other parts of Africa helping to develop effective resistance practice in other countries.
“One of the things I write about is the way women were instrumental in keeping the movement alive,” she says. “Once the government cracked down on male leaders, the movement could have died completely. While many men were forced into hiding, the women were able to keep a lower profile.”
The Ogoni movement was able to convince the United Nations to conduct an environmental assessment on the Niger Delta oilfields, which provided the evidence to force Shell off the land.
Today the movement is pressing the government to clean up oilfields damaged by spills and compensate farmers for lost crops. Two years ago in a historic verdict, The Hague’s Court of Appeal found in favour of four Nigerian farmers in an oil spill case filed against Royal Dutch Shell in 2008, forcing the company to pay damages.
In 2015, the Niger Delta’s Bodo community successfully sued Shell for $84 million, resulting in one of the largest payouts ever from an oil company to a community for environmental pollution.
Keys’ next research project will examine how strategies of political non-violence in the public realm might be translated to the personal.
“Let’s say you’re dealing with issues of domestic violence or sexual assault. How do these strategies that operate so successfully on the larger scale — in terms of communities and governments — translate into those spheres?”