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Bowoto v. Chevron: The Oil Men and the Juju Man

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What happens when an oil company gets its back to the wall in a human rights lawsuit? Like a cornered hound, it goes on the attack. That's exactly what Chevron Corporation has done in the first three weeks of the Bowoto v. Chevron trial in San Francisco.

Accused of complicity in the shooting and torture of Niger Delta villagers by Nigerian Naval forces aboard an oil platform in 1998, Chevron has been playing Goliath to lead plaintiff Larry Bowoto's David.

So far, the case has been a study in contrasts. Sitting opposite Chevron's fine-tailored team of lawyers is lead plaintiff Larry Bowoto. In a sea of navy blazers, pants-suits and pearls, Bowoto's colorful agbada robes stand out as a reminder of just how far he's come: from the Delta oil region all the way to Chevron's headquarters in California.

Faced with these serious allegations, Chevron's team of attorneys have done what any good defense counsel would do: press the offensive. Chevron's lead attorneys have deflected the trial's focus back onto the unarmed Nigerian protesters who demonstrated aboard a Chevron platform without incident before the military's sudden assault: "This was not a peaceful protest; this was an illegal invasion."

What's more, whenever the Nigerian activists take the stand to explain their demands for dialogue and reparations, the defense blasts them with rapid-fire interrogation: "Does ransom mean holding someone against their will and asking money for their release? Boarding a platform and not letting workers go is kidnapping, correct?" So far the strategy hasn't worked, but perhaps the hope is that an ad nauseum repetition of terms like 'pirate' and 'hostage' will color the jury's judgment.

Clearly, Chevron's main goal is the vilification of the Nigerian plaintiffs. With all the aspersions being cast, I wondered if we might finally see the elephant emerge in the courtroom: would Chevron play on racial fears? Here were black Niger Delta villagers defending their claims -- at times through an interpreter, at times through broken English -- before a predominantly white audience. Their dress is exotic; their accents are foreign; their hand gestures and body language might seem strange to the American juror.

Now with another week of testimony behind us, a racial subtext behind Chevron's strategy is beginning to emerge. In his opening, Chevron attorney Bob Mittelstaedt admitted that Chevron paid Nigerian soldiers for their services, but justified it on rather shaky grounds: Africa is a tough neighborhood where paying (bribing) officials is a fact of life -- just because the soldiers were paid by Chevron doesn't mean they were paid agents of Chevron. At first glance, this argument struck me as a Heart of Darkness defense: business in Africa plays by different rules. Apparently international law doesn't flow up the river Niger.

I thought that Chevron would avoid the racial pitfalls of this approach, but I seem to have overestimated them. On November 5th, we saw a videotaped deposition of co-plaintiff Bassey Jeje. Jeje was shot in the hand while he waved at the soldiers aboard the platform, begging them not to shoot. At the end of the interview, Mittelstaedt asks: "Mr. Jeje, did you think that if the bullets hit your body, they would bounce off?" After a puzzled pause, Jeje responds: "No. If a bullet hits your body, it will penetrate."

What was this magical thinking all about? Chevron's lawyers seem poised to bring racial stereotypes and associations to the foreground. All along, Chevron has claimed that the villagers pirated the platform and held the workers for ransom. There's just one problem: according to all the testimony, the villagers were unarmed. How did 150 unarmed protesters hold an equal number of workers and an armed detail of Nigerian soldiers hostage? According to a motion filed on November 6th, Chevron's lawyers will claim the protesters believed they were using juju.

The defense intends to submit into evidence a photograph of a supposed juju man or witch doctor among the villagers. The jury has yet to see the photos, but by all accounts, the argument will go as follows: the protesters were 'armed' with juju charms with which they intimidated the oil workers. Then, when Chevron helicopters shuttled Nigerian soldiers to the barge, the activists attacked them with their bare hands, believing their juju could block a bullet.

Never mind that saying the villagers were armed with charms is like saying a nun is armed with a rosary; there is still a gaping hole in this argument. Many of the platform workers were American and European employees who kept separate quarters from the local workers. Even if Chevron manages to find a Nigerian worker willing to testify that he was held captive by juju, I doubt that any American worker could make the same claim.

So what's behind the juju man theory? I think it speaks to Chevron's effort to paint the Nigerian activists as irrational and volatile. Any litigator knows that certain appeals and emotional triggers can sway a jury. The more menacing the demonstrators appear, the more justified will seem Chevron's brutal response. And so Chevron is tiptoeing up to the red line of racism. The pirate/savage/witch doctor figures lie pretty deep in the Western imagination -- a legacy of slavery and colonialism. By evoking this bogeyman, Chevron hopes to side step the legitimate environmental and economic grievances of the Delta villagers.

Will this strategy play to a cosmopolitan Bay Area jury? I have my doubts. For a company with an image problem, this approach could easily backfire. Nonetheless, Chevron seems to be backed into a corner. And when times get tough, you reach for whatever's at hand. In the coming week, we'll see what Chevron has tucked away in its briefcases. Who knows, we might even find a few juju charms in there. Stay tuned.