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Suing Shell

Four farmers and a fisher from three villages in the Niger Delta together with Friends of the Earth Netherlands are suing Shell over environmental destruction of their land and fishing ponds. The case is being heard in The Hague, which has now confirmed that the Dutch courts do have jurisdiction over Shell Nigeria. 

The four Nigerian farmers  are from Goi [Rivers State], Oruma [Bayelsa State] and Ikot Ada Udo [Akwa Ibom State] – villages which have been severely affected by the oil that flowed from a leaking Shell pipeline and polluted their farm lands and fish ponds. They demand that Shell clean up the oil left in the soil and compensate them for the damage to the environment and their possessions. They also want Shell to improve its maintenance of the pipelines and facilities in the future.

The first case is due to take place in the spring and relates to an oil spill in Oruma (Bayelsa State) in 2005 which left the fishing pond and farm land of Alai Efanga sodden with oil and unfit for fishing or farming. This is now the third lawsuit in the past 12 months filed against multinational oil companies operating in Nigeria. 

In the first case, Bowoto v Chevron, Chevron Oil was cleared of any responsibility for the May 1998 shooting and killing of protesters from Ilaje in the Niger Delta. Some 100 local villagers occupied Chevron Platform for three days, protesting over compensation for environmental damage and demanding jobs. The Nigerian army, who were flown to the platform on Chevron helicopters and paid by Chevron to disperse protesters, killed two people and wounded many others. Despite Chevron winning, the case has serious implications for local communities suing multinationals for human and environmental rights violations.

The second took place in May 2009 when the families of the Ogoni 9 murdered (including Ken Saro-Wiwa) by the Nigerian state on 10 November 1995, sued Royal Dutch Petroleum, Shell Petroleum Development Corporation and Brian Anderson, former CEO of the SPDC. The case was settled out of court on 9 June 2009 for a sum of $15.5 million. As I wrote at the time, this was a victory of sorts but the question remains as to whether justice was done:

‘While the families of the Ogoni 9 can celebrate a partial victory and breathe a sigh of relief in the fact that years of anxiety and hard work in bringing the case to court are now over, it is hard not to think that there will remain a bitter after-taste of polluted waters, poisoned rivers, noxious gases, toxic fumes and destroyed communities living under stress and exploitation – a burden borne by the Ogoni people over decades. The destruction of their communities and environment has to be laid at the door both of the multinational corporations, including Shell, and the Nigerian state.
That Shell were forced to pay – albeit without admission of guilt – is a victory of sorts. But we should be careful, in the euphoria of the moment, not to confuse that victory with justice. It is justice neither for the families of the Ogoni 9, nor for the Ogoni people. That struggle for justice, and the bringing to justice of those who carry out such crimes, remains still the task of the day.’

The present case is quite different from the previous two, which both dealt with the complicity of Chevron and Shell in the death of the respective plaintiffs. This case directly addresses the environmental crimes committed by Shell and if successful will set the precedent for similar cases to be brought against other oil companies in Nigeria and elsewhere, such as in Ecuador. Each of the cases focuses on massive oil spills between 1996 and 2004. As the spills occurred over a sustained period and occurred in three Niger Delta states, the plaintiffs will be able to emphasize Shell’s systematic irresponsibility towards communities across the region and possibly force the company to clean up all oil spills in the region and not just the three in this suit. It is inconceivable that a multinational earning billions of dollars from oil in Nigeria can cause such damage, act with such impunity and lack of accountability and then walk away without cleaning up their mess. And walk away is exactly what Shell is planning to do, as talks are taking place between Shell and possible buyers of their oil assets in the Niger Delta.   

‘Two Chinese government-controlled companies are among front-runners in a £3 billion battle for control of oil assets in Nigeria that have been put up for sale by Royal Dutch Shell. Both Sinopec and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) are understood to have expressed interest in the fields, which the Anglo-Dutch group has put up for auction as the violence-prone African nation prepares to impose tougher terms on foreign oil operators next month.’

However, it is not just Shell and other operating oil companies in the region that need to be held accountable. The Nigerian Government has not only been complicit in the oil companies’ neglect of the environment but openly protected and defended them against the interest of local communities.  The next step would be to sue the federal government and in some cases the state governments for their role in failing to ensure oil companies work within accepted international standards and uphold the human and environmental rights of the people.   

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