Chevron stands accused - did the oil giant pay troops who killed Nigerian villagers?
American oil giant Chevron has found itself embroiled in an ugly legal battle as Nigerians saying the company was behind military attacks on their villages take their claim to the courts.Chevron has vehemently denied the villagers' claims and argues the facts have been grossly distorted.
Two cases, one in Californian state court and another in US federal court, have been launched with the Nigerians represented by human rights group EarthRights International (ERI) and other lawyers.
The plaintiffs are claiming soldiers were paid by Chevron's Nigerian subsidiary, CNL, to attack the villages of Opia and Ikenyan in the Niger Delta in reprisal for 'peaceful protests' at the company's nearby Searex rig.
The villagers also believed their right to demonstrate were breached when protesters who had occupied Chevron's Parabe platform were forcibly removed by security forces who killed two men in the eviction process.
But Chevron, best known in the UK as parent company of Texaco, is arguing protests at Parabe were far from peaceful and amounted to kidnap and hostage taking and that while it admitted to paying Nigerian soldiers on a regular basis it did not, and would not, sanction offensive attacks on villagers.
"It is important to look at the allegations of this lawsuit against the background of violence and communal unrest in Nigeria," said Jeff Moore, a spokesman for Chevron.
"Nigeria's Niger Delta has been, at times, a violent place as a result of tribal warfare and civil unrest.
"Chevron's subsidiary has been the victim of that violence, with employees being kidnapped, injured and killed."
He said the 1998 occupation of the Parabe platform, described by the plaintiffs and their representation as a peaceful sit-in designed to highlight environmental grievances, was nothing of the sort.
"In May 1998 more than 100 Ilaje took over the Parabe platform, an adjacent barge and a related tug boat and held scores of workers hostage for three days.
"CNL tried to negotiate a peaceful solution.
"After negotiation proved unsuccessful, Nigerian forces undertook a hostage rescue operation.
"The rescue operation's success - all of the hostages being held on the platform and barge were safely released - was regretfully marred by the death of two individuals, who according to eye witnesses, were attacking the hostage rescue team."
He did not elaborate on who the eye witnesses were.
In the second incident ERI says that villagers from Opia visited the Chevron's Searex rig seeking compensation for environmental damage caused by development of the area by industry, including harm to their fishing catch and drinking water.
"They were met by soldiers who fired warning shots and warned them not to return," says ERI.
"Later that day, soldiers in helicopters leased by Chevron, accompanied by a Chevron employee, came to Opia and the nearby village of Ikenyan, shooting unarmed villagers and burning the villages."
Chevron denies involvement with the Opia incident. However, an invoice and receipt published on ERI's website suggests soldiers were paid by the company on January 5, 1999, the day after the attacks on the villages.
The receipt, which Chevron appears to accept as genuine, says CNL paid Nigerian military 15,000 Naira, about US$100.
The hand-written invoice is, in places, difficult to decipher but seems to read: 'in payment of services carried out by Capt [name blanked] and 22 soldiers whom left from Escravos[a Chevron facility]/Madangho to reduce attacks from Opia village against security agents guarding Searex 4 with weapons including dynamites on 4/1/99'.
Mr Moore told edie there was nothing untoward about the receipt, which reflected a longstanding industry practice of paying a small amount for providing security to people and facilities in the Niger Delta.
"The receipt shows about US$100 was paid to 22 (sic) members of the military - about US$5 each - who protected the Searex rig after it was attacked, which at that time was located near the village of Opia," he said.
"CNL personnel were not present during any 'offensive' attacks of the type plaintiffs describe at Opia and Ikenyan, nor would CNL have ever requested or authorised such attacks."
ERI says its clients claim a helicopter and 'sea truck' boats leased by Chevron were used in attacks on both villages and were accompanied by a Chevron employee.
Since proceedings began, several of the Nigerian plaintiffs have dropped both their federal and Californian case. But both are set to continue and the federal case is currently due to be heard in San Francisco in Autumn 2006.
Mr Moore said Chevron, a company which 'strongly supports universal human rights', was confident it would win the case.
"We believe that in the end Chevron will be vindicated and the court or jury will find that they were not responsible for the tragic events that occurred in Nigeria in May 1998 and January 1999."
The timing of the legal turmoil is awkward for the oil company, which has just bought out Unacol, whose Yadana pipeline project in Burma is embroiled in similar human rights lawsuits where soldiers allegedly paid by the company are said to have raped and murdered villagers and forced them to work for no pay.
Meanwhile, trouble continues for the oil multinationals in Nigeria too as Shell faces an ultimatum from the Ijaw people to pay 98 million Naira compensation, around US$6.5 million, for environmental damage caused by a major oil spill in 1998.
The Ijaw have said that if Shell does not pay the money within two weeks they will disrupt its operations by blockading plants, 'forcibly evacuating' its employees and dismantling pipelines.
By Sam Bond