A landmark trial has begun against the oil giant Chevron. A San Francisco district court is hearing a case brought by Nigerian plaintiffs who accuse Chevron of recruiting and supplying Nigerian military forces involved in the May 1998 shooting and killing of protesters in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The protesters were occupying a Chevron-owned oil platform called the Parabe, demanding jobs and compensation for environmental damage to their communities. We play an excerpt of Democracy Now!'s award-winning documentary, Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria's Oil Dictatorship, and we speak with two activists. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: A landmark trial has begun against the oil giant Chevron. A San Francisco district court is hearing a case brought by Nigerian plaintiffs who accuse Chevron of recruiting and supplying Nigerian military forces involved in a May 1998 shooting and killing of protesters in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The protesters were occupying a Chevron-owned oil platform called the Parabe platform, demanding jobs and compensation for environmental damage to their communities.
Soon after landing in Chevron-leased helicopters, the Nigerian military shot to death two protesters and wounded several others. The eleven activists were detained for three weeks, thrown into the notorious Nigerian jails. During their imprisonment, one activist said he was handcuffed and hung from a ceiling fan hook for hours for refusing to sign a statement written by Nigerian federal authorities. Chevron claims force was used to defend the platform from a violent assault and hostage-taking by the protesters.
Chevron is being sued under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreign nationals to take legal action over crimes against them overseas.
In a moment, we’ll be joined by two human rights activists involved in the case, but first I want to turn to an excerpt of the documentary Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship. Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill and I traveled to the Niger Delta to investigate Chevron’s role in the killings in 1998. In the documentary, a Chevron official acknowledged to us that on May 28, 1998, the company transported Nigerian soldiers to the Parabe oil platform. This is an excerpt of Drilling & Killing.
AMY GOODMAN: Until now, Chevron has claimed that its only action against the occupation was to call the federal authorities and tell them what was happening. But in a startling admission in a three-hour interview with Democracy Now!, Chevron spokesperson Sola Omole acknowledged that Chevron did much more. He admitted that Chevron actually flew in the soldiers who did the killing. And he further admitted that those men were from the notorious Nigerian navy.
SOLA OMOLE: I guess —
AMY GOODMAN: Who took them in?
SOLA OMOLE: What’s that?
AMY GOODMAN: Who took them in?
SOLA OMOLE: Who took them in?
AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday morning, the Mobile Police, the navy?
SOLA OMOLE: We did. We did. We did. We, Chevron, did. We took them there.
AMY GOODMAN: By how?
SOLA OMOLE: Helicopters. Yes, we took them in.
AMY GOODMAN: Who authorized the call for the military to come in?
SOLA OMOLE: Chevron’s management.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Chevron’s management. So, Chevron authorized the call for the military and transported the navy to the barge. On top of that, Chevron’s acting head of security, James Neku, flew in with the military the day of the attack.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you on that helicopter?
JAMES NEKU: Yes, I was in the helicopter.
AMY GOODMAN: And how many people were there in that helicopter?
JAMES NEKU: That helicopter had seven — six of us. There were six of us, six officers.
AMY GOODMAN: Including the Chevron pilot or not including?
JAMES NEKU: I think excluding the pilot. Including the pilot would be seven.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, was it a mix of navy and —
JAMES NEKU: A mix of navy and the police. The police were armed with tear smokes.
AMY GOODMAN: Was it the regular police or the Mobile Police?
JAMES NEKU: Mobile Police.
AMY GOODMAN: The Mobile Police, also known as the "Kill ‘n’ Go." That’s the Kill and Go. Shell Oil, the largest producer of oil in Nigeria, came under heavy international condemnation in recent years for their use of the Mobile Police, forcing them to publicly renounce the use of the Kill and Go because of their brutal record in Ogoniland.
ORONTO DOUGLAS: They shoot without question. They kill. They maim. They rape. They destroy.
AMY GOODMAN: Environmental lawyer Oronto Douglas was one of the lawyers on Ken Saro-Wiwa’s defense team.
ORONTO DOUGLAS: The Kill and Go are a murderous band of undisciplined paramilitary Mobile Police force. Their order is to kill. When they go to a community, it’s not to maintain peace, it is not to maintain order.
AMY GOODMAN: It was for exposing the relationship between the Mobile Police, the Nigerian regime’s henchmen, and a multinational oil giant that Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was ultimately executed.
OGONI MAN: Great Ogoni people!
OGONI MAN: Great Ogoni people!
OGONI MAN: I have devoted all my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief and from which I cannot be intimidated or blackmailed.
JEREMY SCAHILL: An Ogoni man reciting the last speech of Ken Saro-Wiwa.
OGONI MAN: I have no doubt at all about the ultimate success of my cause, no matter the trials and tribulations which I and those who believe with me may encounter on our journey. Neither imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory. I repeat that we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial, and it is as well that...
JEREMY SCAHILL: When we visited the parents of Ken Saro-Wiwa a few days before coming to Ilajeland, this man stood up and recited Saro-Wiwa’s closing statement before the military tribunal that would ultimately hang him.
OGONI MAN: In my innocence of the false charge I face here, in my utter conviction, I call upon the Ogoni people, the peoples of the Niger Delta and the oppressed ethnic minorities of Nigeria to stand up now and fight fearlessly and peacefully for their rights. History is on their side. God is on their side. Bene Ogoni!
AMY GOODMAN: Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa’s final words of resistance continue to echo throughout the Niger Delta, but so does the fierce response from the Nigerian regime and its multinational partners.
This is a Democracy Now! special, Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship.
JEREMY SCAHILL: And so, here we have, on May 28th, 1998, Chevron flying in the Nigerian navy and the Mobile Police to confront a group of villagers who thought they were in the midst of a negotiation with the oil giant, which brings us to another admission by Chevron spokesperson Sola Omole. Again, listen carefully.
AMY GOODMAN: Were any of the youths armed?
SOLA OMOLE: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. So I cannot say that they came armed with — there was talk about local charms and all that, but that’s neither here nor there.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you don’t think that they came onto the boat armed, you’re saying?
SOLA OMOLE: No. No.
AMY GOODMAN: The youths.
SOLA OMOLE: Mm-hmm.
ORONTO DOUGLAS: It is very clear that Chevron, just like Shell, uses the military to protect its oil activities. They drill. And they kill.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Again, environmentalist Oronto Douglas.
ORONTO DOUGLAS: They are shooting our people for just demanding for their right.
AMY GOODMAN: Chevron contends that when the helicopters landed on the barge, the soldiers got out and issued a warning that if the villagers calmly dispersed, they would not be hurt. Villagers say there was no such warning, that the soldiers simply started shooting. Either way, where could those who had occupied the barge disperse to? The barge was surrounded by water in the Atlantic Ocean, miles from shore.
JEREMY SCAHILL: They were then tear-gassed and shot. While Chevron security chief James Neku says that two of the villagers tried to disarm a soldier, which is why they were shot dead, Chevron contractor Bill Spencer says one of the men who was killed was actually trying to mediate the situation.
The final tally: two dead, one shot and seriously wounded, and reports of other injuries. And what of the eleven activists locked in the shipping container? They say they were held there for hours in what they described as suffocating heat. They were then transported to several jails in the dreaded Nigerian prison system. After three weeks, they were released.
AMY GOODMAN: Bola Oyinbo was one of the eleven activists imprisoned after the barge occupation. He says the prison authorities tried to extract a confession of piracy and destruction of property from him by torturing him. They began with handcuffs.
BOLA OYINBO: They used the handcuff to hang me on a fan for almost five hours.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait a second. They put you in handcuffs and hung you?
BOLA OYINBO: Hung me. And there’s a hook they use for ceiling fans. So they put me there for almost five hours.
AMY GOODMAN: They hung you from a ceiling fan hook?
BOLA OYINBO: Hook, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: For five hours.
BOLA OYINBO: Five good hours.
AMY GOODMAN: Your feet weren’t on the floor?
BOLA OYINBO: My feet were not on the floor. I was hung, suspended in the air.
JEREMY SCAHILL: We asked Bill Spencer what he thinks of the torture Bola Oyinbo says he endured.
BILL SPENCER: I don’t think anybody here really is under the impression that when you go to jail in Nigeria, it’s pleasant.
AMY GOODMAN: Was there concern about the young people who were held in detention? Was there any follow-up?
BILL SPENCER: By me? Not at all. No.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you concerned about them in detention?
BILL SPENCER: I was more concerned about the 200 people that work for me. I could care less about the people from the village, quite frankly.
AMY GOODMAN: But once your people were safe?
BILL SPENCER: Did I personally have any concern for them? Not one little bit.
ORONTO DOUGLAS: Two people dead, several people injured, and there is now still a threat of clampdown on the local people.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Again, environmentalist Oronto Douglas.
ORONTO DOUGLAS: What have they done? They have simply asked for: take care on our environment; give us a cup of water to drink, because you have polluted our water; give us the means of livelihood so that we can survive as a people. Is that too much?
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship, my documentary with Jeremy Scahill, based on our trip to the Niger Delta in 1998.
We go now to San Francisco, where the lawsuit against Chevron is being heard. I’m joined by two guests: Laura Livoti, founder of Justice in Nigeria Now, a group that’s helped bring this case to the United States — their website is justiceinnigeria.wordpress.com — and Sowore Omoyele. He is a longtime Nigerian human rights activist, arrested and tortured by the Nigerian military government for his political activities. He runs the Nigerian news website saharareporters.com and went with us to the Niger Delta.
Welcome, both, to Democracy Now! Laura Livoti, let’s begin with you. Where does this case stand now in court? The court case began yesterday?
LAURA LIVOTI: Hi, Amy. Yes. We are at a historic moment. Yesterday, a jury was selected in the case. A jury of folks gathered from San Francisco, because the company is headed in San Ramon, California, which is the Greater Bay Area. And today, opening arguments will begin.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the judge and exactly how the case is shaping up.
LAURA LIVOTI: The judge is Judge Susan Illston, and she — this is San Francisco district court. She’s the same judge that heard the BALCO steroids case with [Barry] Bonds.
AMY GOODMAN: And the lawyers for this case, and who will be testifying?
LAURA LIVOTI: The lawyers for this case are a broad-ranging team of attorneys, the non-profit firm Earth Rights International out of Washington, D.C., the Center for Constitutional Rights out of New York, and several private firms, including Traber & Voorhees, among others.
AMY GOODMAN: I do want to point out that we did invite Chevron to join us for this broadcast. They declined to appear on the program, however, citing a gag order imposed by the judge in the case. But Chevron did provide us with a statement. It says, quote, "Chevron’s lawyers will present evidence that shows the hostage takers put Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL) employees and contractors in danger... The incident began when plaintiff Larry Bowoto and other members of the Concerned Ilaje Citizens, an unsanctioned Nigerian community group, threatened CNL with violence and sea piracy if the company did not pay them money and give them jobs. Weeks later, they followed through on their threats by seizing the oil platform, an adjacent barge and a tug boat on May 25, 1998, holding CNL employees and contractors hostage and demanding money and other considerations. CNL attempted to negotiate a resolution without success. Although plaintiffs say they were peaceful protestors, eyewitnesses have testified in deposition that the hostage takers poured diesel fuel on the barge and threatened to
set it on fire. Fearing for the safety of its workers, and with tensions mounting, CNL asked for assistance from the Nigerian Navy. Under Nigerian law, only the country’s military can provide armed security. During the rescue, some of the rescue team members were attacked by the Ilaje and shots were fired, according to an investigation conducted by CNL immediately after the incident. Some of the fleeing hostage takers then forced seven of the workers to go to a village, where they were held for three more days before their
release was secured.” That’s the press release. That’s the statement of Chevron.
Sowore Omoyele, your response to that statement?
SOWORE OMOYELE: Well, we’ve made it very clear that Chevron continues to fish for evidence of hostage taking by these peaceful protesters. But what we know, Amy, you and I and Jeremy and Oronto Douglas were one of the first people to visit the village where this incident took place in Ilajeland, and we saw clearly that there was nothing like violence involved in all of this. And I am quoting also directly from some of the documents that we saw at that time, from correspondence between Chevron and the US embassy, saying that these were peaceful protesters. And we saw the villagers. We saw that there was no weapons involved.
And also, it’s important to say here that the Nigerian government does not tolerate people who are armed protesters. If these guys were armed in any way, after they were arrested and tortured and jailed for several weeks, they would have been arraigned before a kangaroo tribunal, like they did to Ken Saro-Wiwa, and they are still doing now, to be prosecuted for being in possession of weapons to attack Chevron facilities, because Nigerian government does not play with those facilities at all. When it comes to enforcing justice, they won’t do lightly. And broadly in the society, justices are not available to the people of Nigeria and the Niger Delta region, in particular.
So, we don’t have any evidence that anybody was ever prosecuted or any attempt was made to prosecute any of the so-called hostage takers from Ilajeland. So this is part of Chevron’s elaborate blackmail against the people of Ilajeland and particularly these protesters. Somebody has died, someone is injured. Chevron is unable to present anybody in court from the security team that they claim were attacked by these villagers, except just constantly fishing and putting around information in American mainstream media that it is hostage takers. And it’s very unfortunate that they continue to do this. And I hope that the jury will not let them get away with this.
AMY GOODMAN: Sowore, can you talk about the significance of this case, of a case that took place in the Niger Delta, being tried in a California court? What does this mean for Nigerians who have worked in the Niger Delta, for the community, for Ilajeland? You’re an Ilaje yourself.
SOWORE OMOYELE: Yes, it’s very important to say that this is a very important day. I am very happy to be in San Francisco yesterday, because I was one of the first person to visit the village after the attack and one of the first person from that region to also witness this trial. And, by the way, it’s important to say that there are about seventeen individuals from Ilajeland, family members of the plaintiffs, plaintiffs themselves, who are currently in San Francisco. And this is one very historic moment.
And for me, it is victory that you can get an exposé on Chevron activities on their home turf. Otherwise, they have controlled the media, they have controlled the propaganda machinery, and they have absolutely controlled the Nigerian government on how they conduct the issue of justice in Nigeria. But the fact that we can take this over the head of the Nigerian dictatorship, as it is going to today, and get somewhere else that somehow is a neutral ground — let me say, just a little bit of neutrality is better than what one obtains in Nigeria — is something that I’m sure the villagers are very proud of and are happy about. And whatever happens out of this trial, one thing is certain, that Chevron can no longer pretend to be the saint that it claims it is in its operation in the Niger Delta region in Nigeria. Their honorability has been exposed, and right here in San Francisco. That is something that I think is very good for all of us, that the facts of the case are out, no matter how much Chevron wants to spin this.
LAURA LIVOTI: I think it’s important to say —-
AMY GOODMAN: Laura Livoti.
LAURA LIVOTI: —- the only people on the platform who had guns were the Nigerian military, who were present when the villagers arrived on their boats and explained why they were there and then boarded the platform. The only other guns that arrived arrived in Chevron-leased helicopters flown in by Chevron pilots with the Chevron head of security on board and overseeing the Nigerian military. Those were the only guns that existed. They were in the hands of the Nigerian military, who was providing security for Chevron. The protesters were unarmed, and they were acting in the tradition of the civil rights movements and the lunch counter sit-ins or in the Gandhian tradition in India. They were peaceful, and that was their intent, and they remained peaceful.
AMY GOODMAN: I think it’s very significant, in our documentary, when we went to Lagos where the Chevron compound was and talked to the spokesperson, Sola Omole, who admitted that they didn’t have weapons and then actually brought in James Neku, who we heard in the documentary, the head of security, because at that time, in 1998, Chevron was not saying they had flown in the Nigerian military, and this was the first admission, as we sat there with our tape recorder on Sola Omole’s desk, that he admitted that it was Chevron that flew in the Nigerian military and the Mobile Police. The Mobile Police — maybe, Sowore Omoyele, you can talk more about this, who is known in Nigeria as the kill ‘n’ go. That’s the kill and go. Sowore?
SOWORE OMOYELE: That’s right. I mean, I’ve been a student activist since 1989. And my village, which is a smaller village in the Ondo State, Kiribu, in 1980 was also invaded by the kill and go, on the Christmas Eve of 1980. And during and up until now, the kill and go, which is the Mobile regiment of the Nigerian police, is still very notoriously known for killing people and just walking away. That’s why they call them kill and go in Nigeria. They still do that up until now.
And Chevron knew quite well that the kill and go brooks no respect for human rights and have respect for order, have no respect for law. That is why they are a very, very interesting, I mean, you know, manpower of choice in the attack against the villagers, because they know that when they get there, the kill and go will just kill people, and that was Chevron’s intention. Look, there is the regular police, there’s several other police regiments that could have been used, but the mere fact that Chevron used the equivalent of American SWAT, you know, in attacking peaceful villagers tells you the intention from the beginning. It was aimed at killing people on the platform and ensuring that every other person, every other community, will be scared from engaging in any form of protest against Chevron.
And they continue to do this. I mean, the facts are clear that Chevron continues to do this, even after this event, and they’ll continue to do this ’til tomorrow, that they have paid and continues to pay into a slush funds that are being used by the Nigerian government to suppress the Niger Delta region. Right now they have the joint task force again — I mean, the military task force that is comprised of the kill and go, the navy and all the regiments that are well-known for disrespecting human rights in Nigeria, operating entirely and blanketing and carpeting the Niger Delta region with their own form of local occupation. It’s a well-known fact. So, it’s very clear.
But Chevron is appealing to one thing in the American psyche at this time. That’s the fact that oil prices are up and that this insurrection in the Niger Delta, and they think that if they play into that consistently, they keep telling this lie, it will become the truth. I hope it will not be so and the jury in the San Francisco high court, where this is happening, will understand very well that this is time for justice. Don’t forget that they have delayed justice for ten years. They’ve brought motions upon motions for ten years before this is going to trial, and it started yesterday. So it’s been their tactic to delay, blackmail and lie, hoping that they will get away with this. I hope they won’t.
AMY GOODMAN: Sowore Omoyele and Laura Livoti, I want to thank you both for being with us. Sowore Omoyele is a Nigerian human rights activist, runs the website, Nigeria news website, saharareporters.com. Laura Livoti is the founder of Justice in Nigeria Now. Their website, justiceinnigeria.wordpress.com. And we will post at our website, democracynow.org, the full video and audio documentary Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship.