Day Two–Witnesses

In Trial Notes on October 28, 2008 at 8:34 pm


Prince Philemon Ebiesuwa

Attorneys for the plaintiffs called their first witness–Prince Philemon Ebiesuwa–an Ilaje community leader.  Ebiesuwa testified on the traditional hierarchy of Ilaje society: from youths (aged 18-45), elders, chiefs, baale (community leaders) and the king or Olubo.

He also elaborated on the federated structure of the Nigerian government under the past dictatorships. This fact set is relevant in establishing how community associations such as Concerned Citizens of Ilaje (CIC) gained recognition as a legitimate representative of the Ilaje people.  On this point, the witness noted that Chevron practiced a ‘divide and rule’ strategy in ‘accrediting’ certain community groups as legitimate  negotiating partners and excluding others, specifically the CIC.  This marginalization was one of the key motivating factors in the platform occupation.

Under questioning by counsel for the plaintiffs, Mr. Ebiesuwa spoke at length about his educational and professional background in  geology and oil extraction.  He also testified about the environmental impact  of dredging, gas flares, sea incursion, salination and oil spills on the ecosystem of the Ilaje lands.

State of Mind

Mr. Ebiesuwa’s testimony was interrupted by numerous objections by counsel for Chevron.  What became immediately clear was the defense’s intention to object to any evidence speaking to the environmental degradation of the Niger Delta.

Judge Illston made it explicitly clear to the jury that evidence on the environmental impact could be considered in order to establish the state of mind of the plaintiffs when they carried out their actions on the Parabe barge.  Despite the ruling on admissibility, the defense continued to object–perhaps to cast doubt on the environmental claims in the minds of the jurors.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of Mr. Ebiesuwa’s testimony touched on the content of the letters written by his organization, the CIC, to Chevron in the months before the Parabe incident.  Mr. Ebiesuwa insisted that the letters expressed the CIC peaceful intentions and were merely solicitations to Chevron to negotiate with the group and cease marginalizing them. Unfortunately, those intentions were unclear on first reading of the letters.  Through their questions, counsel tried to defuse  the inflammatory tone of the letters–it remains to be seen how effective they were.

With lines like–“If Chevron fails to heed this advice…it could lead to mass riot,” “Which language do you now understand? Is it violence or sea piracy, war or peace? You are at liberty to choose any of the options mentioned above.”–the CIC’s letters seemed to undermine Mr. Ebiewusa’s assertions.

In cross-examination, counsel for the defendants gleefully leaped on these extracts and on Mr. Ebiewusa’s attempt to explain the harsh tone of the letters by comparing it to a parent telling a child they will get a spanking if they continue their behavior. Chevron’s attorney (name??) kept repeating the questions “Is a mass riot peaceful protest?”  “Did you compare a riot to a spanking?”

Mr. Ebiewusa–whose English was excellent, if at times strained–was at pains to explain that the letter-writers’ intention was to encourage Chevron to negotiate in order to prevent a heightening of tensions. Under counsel’s pointed cross-examination this language may well have taken on a threatening undertone for the jurors.

The cross-examination pushed hard against Mr. Ebiewusa–an effort which I believe was aimed at provoking him to anger.  Maybe Chevron’s attorneys thought that the sight of an angered Nigerian, speaking in a foreign accent and wearing foreign dress would support their effort to paint the Ilaje protesters as ‘violent sea pirates’.

Mr. Ebiewusa and counsel for the plaintiffs managed to end with one poignant rebuttal: Nigeria does indeed have sea pirates, but do pirates submit petitions with the signatures of bishops and pastors? Do pirates conduct book-length scholarly environmental impact assessments and submit them to government officials? 

Professor Michael Watts

The second witness was Michael Watts, a UC Berkeley professor of African Development.  We only heard about 30 minutes of Michael Watts testimony, so I will lump it in with its conclusion in tomorrow’s summary.


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