Nigerian soldiers guarding Chevron oil rigs billed the company for
$109.25 a day after they allegedly attacked two villages in the volatile
country, killing four people and setting fire to homes.
The company paid.
The money was requested in a small invoice -- stamped with Chevron's
logo and the name of its Nigerian subsidiary -- that surfaced this year as
part of a lawsuit against the San Ramon oil giant. Residents of the Opia and
Ikenyan villages are suing Chevron in San Francisco's federal court, trying to
hold the firm responsible for the fatal attacks in 1999.
In cramped handwriting, the invoice asks for 15,000 naira to pay 23
soldiers who responded to an alleged assault by men from Opia against a
Chevron oil rig, called Searrex. Villagers said they had gone to the rig to
meet with Chevron representatives and returned home to see soldiers open fire
from a hovering helicopter.
To the villagers' lawyers, the invoice shows Chevron knew of the attacks
and should be held accountable for them.
"It's an important piece of the story," said Cindy Cohn, legal director
of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and one of several attorneys on the case.
"Chevron knew what was going on, and Chevron paid the day after."
The company disagrees. Chevron spokesman Charles Stewart said the company
is not convinced that the attacks detailed by witnesses in the lawsuit even
Chevron acknowledges it paid the soldiers but considers it as one of the
regular payments it makes to soldiers guarding its facilities in a part of
Nigeria known for piracy and ethnic combat. Although the government covers the
soldiers' salaries, Chevron pays them an additional sum for taking a
"hardship" post, Stewart said.
"They're a per-diem fee that you pay the military for the general
protection of the rigs and facilities and assets," he said. "It's not about
going to villages and killing people."
Stewart said he didn't know if the company had heard of the attacks on
Opia and Ikenyan before paying the men. He also suggested the villages might
have come under fire from another ethnic group, if they were attacked at all.
"What we're saying is, to the extent that there were any attacks --
because there's a lot of disagreement on this -- no Chevron Nigeria
personnel were present or authorized any such attack," Stewart said.
The invoice's fractured language doesn't mention attacks on the villages.
Instead, it requests payment for "services carried out" by an unidentified
captain and 22 of his men responding to "attacks from Opia village against
security agents guarding Searrex."
The lawsuit is one of several that seek to hold American companies
accountable for human rights abuses or environmental damage abroad. Chevron
also faces a suit in Ecuador charging that Texaco, before its 2001 acquisition
by Chevron, polluted and poisoned a swath of the Amazon rain forest.
In Nigeria, the company relies on government military forces to protect
employees and equipment in a country racked by poverty, government corruption
and tension among ethnic groups. Villagers who have seen little benefit from
the country's immense oil wealth have boarded and staged demonstrations on oil
rigs, demanding jobs. Anti-government rebels occasionally threaten to attack
Fighting between different ethnic groups in 2003 forced Chevron to shut
down some of its wells in the Niger River delta. A year later, contractors
working to reopen those wells came under fire, leaving six people dead.
"We've had employees kidnapped, injured, killed," Stewart said.
The company and the residents of Opia and Ikenyan offer two very
different accounts of the incidents at the heart of the lawsuit.
On Jan. 4, 1999, the company received word of an attack on its Searrex
oil rig, Stewart said. The military responded by sending a group of soldiers
to the rig in helicopters owned by a joint venture between Chevron's Nigerian
subsidiary and the Nigerian government. En route, one of the soldiers' guns
"discharged" as the helicopter was flying over a river.
"No village was in sight," Stewart said.
Opia residents say they sent a delegation to Searrex to talk about how
Chevron's operations had hurt their fishing. They were turned back by guards,
returned to the village and soon after saw a helicopter descend over their
Anthony Lawuru, who had been part of the delegation, said in a deposition
this spring that soldiers aboard the helicopter had thrown open a door and
started firing from the air. Villagers scattered into the nearby brush as the
shooting continued, lasting perhaps 15 to 20 minutes, he said.
When Lawuru went back to the village, he said, nearly all of the houses
were on fire, and his brother lay dead.
"They shot him down outside in the village," Lawuru said in the
Perhaps 20 minutes after the helicopter left, another group of soldiers
opened fire from boats. By the end of the day, at least two people had been
killed, the villagers' lawyer said. Two more died in a nearby attack a short
time later at Ikenyan. Others remain missing.
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