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Shell still avoiding oil spill justice


Oil polluting the waters of the Niger Delta. © Sarah Shoraka

The Nigerian community of Bodo hit the headlines this week. In a spectacular jiu jitsu manoeuvre, they forced a £55m ($83 million) settlement from Shell over two oil spills that destroyed their homes and livelihoods.

While this is an important victory for social movements, it’s not the end of the story. It’s part of a larger battle for justice in the Niger Delta, and this year will be pivotal.

While the settlement is valuable to those who lost their income, there is a long way to go before justice is done. It must be seen in the context of a neo-colonial resource grab with oil companies profiting from the suffering of communities, and a complicit Nigerian elite that uses military power to ensure business as usual.

Bodo is a small part of the story. Hundreds of oil spills happen every year in the Niger Delta, making it one of the most polluted places on earth. Shell has tried to use its PR spin to blame communities for the problem, but this has been disproved by research by Amnesty International and Nigerian organization CEHRD.

Shell lied about the numbers of barrels spilled at Bodo, claiming that it was less than 1 per cent of the actual size – just like BP did in the Gulf of Mexico, throwing its assessment of all spills into doubt.

Whatever the cause or size of the spills, oil companies are required by law to remediate the pollution. But this is not happening.

My research in Ogoniland shows that three years after a damning UN report came out, documenting decades of Shell’s pollution, almost nothing has happened. I witnessed creeks and soil reeking of oil, in areas that Shell claims to have remediated.

Communities report oil crusts on their land, rotten crops and poisoned fish. Emergency water supplies have not been delivered, forcing local residents to drink oil-polluted water. Shell’s lack of action means that people are getting sick, are unable to feed themselves, and are dying.

Shell claims that it will now clean up the pollution in Bodo – six years after the first spill. This promise rings hollow, as we know that Shell had already been aware that the pipeline in question was of ‘immediate and utmost concern’ and that ‘there [was] a risk and likelihood of rupture’; knowing this, it failed to take action to prevent the spills.

Communities in the region are now speaking out about a complete breakdown of trust between them and Shell. In November last year, I heard reports about a new oil spill at Bonny, in the Niger Delta.

Shell says that the spill was caused by oil theft, but an investigation by Niger Delta organization Social Action shows that it was caused by the company’s own excavation work. Again, the community says that the spill is much bigger than Shell is acknowledging.

Buoyed by the victory for Bodo, the Bonny community is seeking legal advice. Unless there is concerted and immediate action from Shell, the company is likely to face a deluge of legal claims.

In 2014, a campaign led by Nigeria’s civil society, and supported by organizations such as Platform led to Shell and the Nigerian Government pledging money and starting a process to clean up Ogoniland.

It’s a welcome step forward after years of deadlock, but it is still too early to know if it will lead to lasting change. Meanwhile, communities have yet to experience any benefits.

November 2015 will see the 20th anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni people for campaigning against Shell destroying their home.

Social movements in Nigeria are building up momentum to that November anniversary, using protests, events, gatherings and public interventions. The plan is to use Ken’s legacy and memory as a catalyst for change, and to push for a wholesale clean-up of the Niger Delta. We must support their movement for justice.

Sarah Shoraka is an activist and campaigner at Platform.
For more on the resurgence of resistance in the Niger Delta, see ‘The Spirit of Saro-Wiwa rises’ by Patrick Naagbaton, in our recent ‘Big Oil RIP?’ issue.

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