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Day Three–Witnesses

In Trial Notes on October 29, 2008 at 8:23 pm

Third Witness: Professor Michael Watts

We heard the conclusion of UC Berkeley professor Michael Watts’ testimony. An expert in African development, Prof. Watts spoke at length about the Niger Delta geography and about oil politics in Nigeria since its independence from Britain in 1960.

Watts’ testimony conveyed the delicate balance between freshwater and sea water that is crucial to the flora and fauna–and to the peoples–of the Delta.  Dredging, oil spills, industrial pollution–the legacies of oil production–have undone this balance throughout the Delta states.

Mr. Watts also discussed the series of repressive military regimes which ruled Nigeria until the late 1990s. According to his testimony, the mid-1980s saw Nigeria descend into utter authoritarianism with a violent repression of social movements that eventually led to the 1995 execution of human rights activist Ken Saro Wiwa. Roundly condemned by the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union, Sami Abache’s dictatorship–in power at the time of the Parabe protest–was known to commit extrajudicial assassination and torture.  By inference, Chevron must have known the brutality of the armed forces it was flying out to the Parabe platform.

In cross-examination, counsel for Chevron pursued a rather weak line of questioning, asking Mr. Watts whether he had seen in his research examples of Nigerian youths kidnapping oil industry workers and whether he himself condoned such acts.  Chevron’s attorney also made the insinuation that because the violent repression of which Mr. Watts spoke occurred in River State–two states removed from Ondo–it could not reflect on the armed forces used on Parabe.  That’s a pretty weak inference. Same dictatorship, same federal soldiers, same mobile police.

Chevron’s lawyers had a hard time dismissing Nigeria’s dismal human rights and environmental record, so they leaned on their familiar strategy of vilifying indigenous peoples as pirates and bandits. That was their approach in cross-examining the next witness: Boyo Johnson, a Itsekiri worker who witnessed the Parabe incident.

Fourth Witness: Boyo Johnson

Mr. Boyo (as he is called) received his job on the barge at Parabe following a March 1998 demonstration by the Tsekiri people at the same platform.  It was this event–and its successful outcome–that presumably inspired the Concerned Ilaje Citizens to take a similar action at the Parabe.

As an eyewitness to the Parabe platform occupation in May 1998, Mr. Boyo’s testimony provided a strong counterbalance to Chevron’s efforts to paint the Ilaje protesters as violent pirates and hijackers. According to Mr. Boyo, the Ilaje protesters were unarmed and non-threatening.  At no point did he feel that he was in danger and at no point did he observe the armed guards aboard the barge show any signs of apprehension. Mr. Boyo’s account of the occupation corroborated the plaintiffs’ account set forward in opening arguments. His harrowing description of the attack on the Parabe protesters also matched plaintiffs’ description: by his account, the peaceful protesters were suddenly attacked by the soldiers as the helicopters landed on May 28th.

A potential flaw in Chevron’s strategy might have opened up in their cross-examination. Chevron’s attorney asked whether the captain at Parabe ordered work to stop out of safety concerns–overcrowding, etc. Here they seem to be equivocating with the meaning of ‘safety’. There’s a big difference between stating that the situation was unsafe because of overcrowding (where the danger would originate in the conditions of the worksite) and stating that the situation was unsafe because the protestors themselves were dangerous.

Chevron wants to establish that the platform was unsafe for its workers, thus it was justified in asking the Navy to ‘deal with the situation’. Hopefully plaintiffs’ counsel will be able to point out the fallacy in Chevron’s argument. I’m pretty sure that shooting and torturing protesters wasn’t the best way to address overcrowding on the barge…

The session ended with the first part of Larry Bowoto’s testimony, leading up to his account of the May 28th attack on the Parabe protesters. I will cover all of Mr. Bowoto’s testimony in tomorrow’s post.

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