Over the coming weeks, don’t be surprised to see an increasing amount of news coverage for a Nigerian militant named Larry Bowoto. Bowoto claims that 10 years ago he was a peaceful, environmental protestor, visiting an oil platform off his country’s coast when, without warning, he was shot by the Nigerian military at Chevron’s request.
That’s the story Mr. Bowoto wants people to believe as he teams with lawyers from Nigeria and the U.S. in an attempt to coerce Chevron into paying money or facing trial next month in San Francisco. The reality is that Mr. Bowoto and his team of lawyers are playing a game of jackpot justice with the hopes of winning a big settlement from Chevron.
The ultimate problem for Mr. Bowoto and his legal team is that once you move beyond the headlines and his false claims, the facts and evidence paint a much different picture of Mr. Bowoto, his motivations and his anything but peaceful actions.
Here are the facts as we see them:
Mr. Bowoto and his group were dissatisfied with the way in which the respected, legitimate leaders from his community allocated jobs provided by Chevron Nigeria. Letters were sent to the company, signed by Mr. Bowoto and his group, threatening “sea piracy,” “violence” and a possible “mass riot” if their demands for jobs and money were not met. Chevron Nigeria (CNL) was specifically instructed by the recognized community leaders not to negotiate with Bowoto and to ignore his bullying and threats, which CNL did.
Unfortunately, Bowoto made good on his threats of violence. With more than 100 fellow militants, Bowoto took the law into his own hands and seized a Chevron Nigeria oil platform, a barge and a tugboat. According to eyewitnesses, his group blocked the barge and platform helidecks so the crews could not leave, and at one point his men poured diesel on the floor of the barge and threatened to set it ablaze. They also made verbal threats and used physical force to intimidate Chevron Nigeria crews, who considered themselves hostages and feared for their lives.
For three long days Chevron Nigeria’s workers were held hostage and the company attempted to negotiate their release without incident. At the end of third day, Chevron Nigeria asked local authorities to stop the takeover and move the protesters out. That is when — according to eyewitness accounts — the hostage takers attacked the law enforcement rescue team and shootings occurred. Even after the rescue effort, Mr. Bowoto’s group forcibly took some of the workers to onshore villages where they were held for several more days.
Mr. Bowoto’s attempt to manipulate these facts into an intentional plot by Chevron Nigeria for the law enforcement authorities to shoot members of his group is outrageous. A rival tribe’s invasion of the same barge three months earlier ended peacefully because that tribe did not attack law enforcement personnel. Chevron Nigeria fully intended that the siege by Mr. Bowoto’s group would end peacefully as well. Our concern was for the safety and freedom of everyone, including the Chevron Nigeria crews.
In the U.S. judicial system, it will be up to the jury to weigh the credibility of Mr. Bowoto’s testimony against that of the workers who have testified that Mr. Bowoto and other kidnappers held them hostage and threatened their lives.
Unfortunately, in the Niger Delta today, kidnapping by ethnic militants has become an all-too-favored tactic. As one of Mr. Bowoto’s sympathizers wrote: “Kidnapping of oil workers for ransom is a favored tactic of the militants.” And as one of his lawyers wrote, “… we think it [the case] will likely settle before trial — Chevron doesn’t want to face a jury on this ….”
This type of criminal conduct, and blatant attempt at extortion, has no place in civilized society. And Mr. Bowoto and his fellow tribesman had no business being on the platform in the first place. Simply put, their actions were illegal.
Chevron Nigeria is proud of its record of building and supporting hospitals, schools, job training, employment and educational opportunities for the people of the Niger Delta, including Mr. Bowoto’s tribe. Mr. Bowoto is entitled to his opinion that a company should do even more in this regard. But he is not entitled to hold innocent people hostage to extort money and secure more jobs from Chevron Nigeria or anyone else. That does not constitute a “peaceful protest” by any standard.
If Mr. Bowoto had seized an offshore oil facility in the United States, he would be behind bars. Instead, he is a free man taking improper advantage of the U.S. judicial system and using America’s press to spread his outrageous and false charges.