SAN FRANCISCO—The bodies of the dead Nigerian villagers hadn't yet grown cold when a navy captain presented Chevron with a bill: 15,000 naira, or $165, for responding to "attacks from Opia village against security agents."
Within 24 hours Chevron paid up, but it would be years before the California-based company would acknowledge the role it played in the destruction of Opia and another small village called Ikenyan in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger River Delta.
The receipt for the Jan. 4, 1999, military raid, which left four villagers dead and nearly 70 missing and presumed dead, came to light this summer as part of a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the victims in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
Chevron has denied any responsibility for the deaths or injuries that occurred that day. Charles Stewart, a Chevron spokesman, said its payment to the captain reflected "a longstanding industry practice of paying a small amount for each day" to military personnel who protected "the people and the property of the oil companies located in the Niger Delta."
The appearance of the receipt came at a ticklish moment for Chevron, the second-largest U.S. oil company, based in San Ramon, Calif. Chevron has offered $17 billion to buy Unocal, an oil-and-gas exploration company, and had used China's human rights record as one of its arguments against a competing bid by CNOOC, China's third-largest oil producer.
CNOOC withdrew its bid for Unocal Tuesday, citing political opposition in the United States. "This political environment has made it very difficult for us to accurately assess our chance of success, creating a level of uncertainty that presents an unacceptable risk to our ability to secure this transaction," CNOOC said in a statement. Unocal shareholders are scheduled to vote on Chevron's bid on Aug. 10.
Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of several law firms representing the plaintiffs in the San Francisco case, said Chevron's own human rights record is worthy of examination, in light of complaints about China's record.
"If that's their argument, it's important to look at Chevron's own record in that regard," she said.
Chevron argues that the violence at Opia and Ikenyan was due to tribal rivalries. "It's important to look at the allegations of this lawsuit against the backdrop of violence and communal unrest in Nigeria," Stewart said.
But company documents that have surfaced in the litigation describe how the attacks took place a day after Opia youths had visited a nearby Chevron drilling rig and demanded compensation.
Such demands have been common since the mid-1990s, as tribal communities around the delta have sought a greater share of oil wealth and compensation for spoiled fishing areas and blighted farm land.
When oil exploration began in the 1950s, residents hoped for an economic bonanza. But the anticipated boom never materialized. Half a century later, the 20 million residents who live in the Niger River Delta continue to eke out a bleak existence while the oil fields surrounding their communities rank among the top producers of high-grade petroleum in the world.
By the late 1990s, local demands were being met with violence. In 1995 the military government executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, a prominent playwright and activist with the Ogoni tribe, along with eight sympathizers, and in May 1998, Nigerian forces attacked about 100 members of the Ilaje tribe who were occupying an offshore oil platform belonging to Chevron's Nigerian subsidiary, killing two protesters.
Later that year, Ijaw youth began holding oil company employees hostage.
In December, Ijaw activists issued "The Kaiama Declaration," which called on all oil companies to stop "exploration and exploitation" activities in Ijaw areas by Dec. 30.
"We are tired of gas flaring; oil spillages, blowouts and being labeled saboteurs and terrorists," the declaration stated. "It is a case of preparing the noose for our own hanging."
Chevron began evacuating staff from Ijaw areas and preparing for mayhem.
In late 1998, activists from Opia, a community of thatched huts along Robin Creek, decided to press their grievances with a local Chevron representative.
Months earlier, they had submitted a list of items, including fishing nets, traps, hooks and other materials, that had been destroyed by Chevron's tug boats and floating barges.
Attorneys representing surviving villagers say their clients, who live without running water, electricity and newspapers, set out to seize a drilling rig Jan. 3.
They found the rig deserted, except for guards who told them to leave. "They rushed at them and they started beating them, you know, and they fell into the river," Anthony Lawuru, the chairman of the community, testified during a deposition in April 2005.
Back at the village, there was an urgent meeting.
"We'd been having a cordial relationship, even with the security men," Lawuru said. A delegation that included women and elders decided to return with the youths to the rig the next day in order to demonstrate that the youths had community support.
The next day, the guards greeted the delegation with gunfire.
Shaken, the villagers returned to Opia. Not more than 15 minutes had passed before a blue-and-white helicopter dropped out of the sky. As it hovered above the center of the village, just below the level of the coconut trees, the helicopter door opened and gunfire sprayed out, according to Lawuru's deposition.
"We were running into the bush; we heard the gun as it was going round," Lawuru said.
He estimated the fusillade continued 15 to 20 minutes. When villagers emerged from the bush nearly all the houses in the village were burning. Canoes, fishing materials, boats had been shot up and burned. Lawuru's brother lay dead.
There was panic as villagers rushed to pack their canoes and flee. In the confusion, Lawuru recalled, four boats known as "sea trucks" arrived, full of men in army uniforms. "They did not land before they started shooting," Lawuru said. "Then we started running again. Another round of running."
The soldiers then moved downstream to Ikenyan. There, the scene was replayed.
In a declaration submitted in federal court in San Francisco, John Ikenyan, the son of the village chief, said a helicopter first appeared over the houses. "I thought maybe that Chevron was coming to see my father again as they had before," Ikenyan said. Women and children waved.
A shot was fired from the helicopter and then another. Villagers fled to the bush.
When the villagers returned, they found their homes on fire. With no fire engine, no hoses and no pumps, they were unable to squelch the flames.
The sea trucks arrived. Once again, the villagers ran for the bush. Ikenyan said his father, the chief, stayed behind and was shot by the riverside.
"I later learned that many people had been killed or disappeared or were wounded at both Opia and Ikenyan on January 4," Ikenyan said.
According to Human Rights Watch, a total of four bodies were recovered from the two villages. Sixty-eight people were missing and believed dead.
Barbara Enloe Hadsell, an attorney for the villagers, said that in addition to paying the security forces, Chevron loaned them the helicopter that was used in the attack.
She said Chevron personnel not only accompanied the soldiers as they flew to Robin Creek but also directed the pilot to "deviate from his course" to pursue villagers who were "getting away."
Stewart, the Chevron spokesman, said Chevron's Nigerian subsidiary helped transport the military reinforcements to the rig after gunfire was heard on the radio. He also acknowledged that a Nigerian military officer aboard one of the helicopters "discharged a gun during flight."
But Stewart said Chevron hadn't authorized the weapons to be fired and said the shooting occurred when no village was in sight.
"We are confident as the case progresses, Chevron will be vindicated," he said.
A jury trial on the villagers' claim is currently scheduled for the fall of 2006 in federal court in San Francisco.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050802 NIGERIA CHEVRON
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