24 July 2019
For over thirty years, Nigerian Delta communities have suffered from oil spills from pipelines and equipment owned by the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), a subsidiary of the UK-Netherlands based Royal Dutch Shell. Activists had long been frustrated by legal technicalities making it virtually impossible to hold the multinational to account, but on 24 July 2019, lawyers acting for 40,000 villagers were finally cleared to have their claim for damages heard by the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court.
Previously, in February 2018, the Court of Appeal had ruled that British courts did not have jurisdiction over claims originating in Nigeria, even though the company’s main share listing is on the London Stock Exchange and its imposing corporate headquarters stand on the South Bank, only a few minutes walk from London’s Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament.1 The British-Dutch multinational is ranked as the ninth largest corporation in the world, with net profits of over £1 billion a month in the last quarter of 2019, much of it deriving from the oil resources of the Niger Delta.2
Despite the David versus Goliath challenge, Daniel Leader, a partner at Leigh Day, the legal firm representing the Bille and Ogale Delta communities in the action, was encouraged by the UK Supreme Court’s ruling: ‘We are delighted to have been granted permission to take this case against Shell to the Supreme Court… We believe the era of corporate impunity is drawing to a close. It is no longer acceptable for companies to make billions out of developing world resources whilst causing devastating damage.’3
Previously, multinationals had benefited from the difficulties facing claimants taking action in Nigerian courts where such complex cases typically take 20 years or longer. King Okpabi, the ruler of the Ogale, explained: ‘The English courts are our only hope because we cannot get justice in Nigeria. So let this be a landmark case.’4 He also feared the influence of Shell’s billions on Nigerian justice. ‘Shell is Nigeria and Nigeria is Shell,’ he elaborated, adding ‘You can never, never defeat Shell in a Nigerian court. The truth is that the Nigerian legal system is corrupt.’5
During 2018 alone, SPDC admitted to over a hundred spills in the Niger Delta, although it claimed these were all due to sabotage and theft. A dubious assertion given that the company’s 3,750 miles of flowlines and pipelines were decades old and shoddily maintained.6 Amnesty International attributed at least ‘two massive oil spills’ near the village of Bodo in 2008 to ‘poorly maintained Shell pipelines,’ adding that as of February 2020, the company ‘has yet to clean up Bodo’s devastated waterways.’7 According to Tadaferua Ujorha, a Nigerian freelance journalist, a blanket of black oil smothered local waterways and vegetation ‘as far as the eye can see’ and mortality had risen so sharply following the toxic spill that locals referred to a ‘festival of funerals.’8
Even if poor maintenance or equipment were not to blame for all the spills, Shell should have been held responsible for failing to protect its facilities and pipelines. It had also long been aware of how oil wealth in the Delta had been siphoned away by the corrupt Federal Nigerian Government. While it comprised about half of the government’s revenue, with Shell paying over $5.6 billion in taxes and fees during 2019, only a tiny proportion ever filtered down to local communities.9 Michael Peel, author of a Swamp Full of Dollars focusing on the environmental and social devastation caused by the exploitation of the Delta’s oil resources, describes in compelling detail the glaring enormity of the wealth disparity.
‘….As we pull away from the Ikebiri jetty… Commander Freeman (a rebel leader) gestures to a house on stilts at the river’s edge. ‘See where we toilet, he says urgently. ‘See the houses that we are living in. Can you believe we live in an oil producing community ?’10 The boat later passes ‘villages where the only light is from oil lamps and the occasional generator-powered electric bulb. Beyond them is a ghostly orange glow behind the tree line. It is the oil company’s gas flares, burning constantly as if in some cruel experiment in sleep deprivation.’11
- Phil Miller, ‘Shell case: Nigerians Cleared to appeal,’ The Morning Star, 25 July 2019, p. 3.
- The company’s profits were actually lower in the last quarter of 2019 than they had been the previous year due to lower oil prices. Jillian Ambrose, ‘Shell’s profits dented by fall in oil price,’ The Guardian, 31 October 2018, accessed online at url https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/oct/31/shell-profits-dented-by-fall-in-oil-price
- Leigh Day cited in John Donovan, ‘Pollution: Niger Delta Communities Drag Shell to UK Supreme Court,’ royaldutchshellplc.com accessed online at url https://royaldutchshellplc.com/2019/07/24/pollution-niger-delta-communities-drag-shell-to-uk-supreme-court/
- Phil Miller, Op. cit..
- Alice Ritchie, AFP, ‘A Nigerian king is taking Shell to court in London over oil pollution,’ BusinessInsider.com, 22 November 2016 accessed online at url https://www.businessinsider.com/afp-polluted-water-in-hand-nigerian-king-takes-shell-to-court-in-london-2016-11?r=US&IR=T
- Ron Bousso, ‘Shell sees rise in Nigeria oil spills in 2018,’ Reuters, accessed online at url https://www.reuters.com/article/us-shell-spills/shell-sees-rise-in-nigeria-oil-spills-in-2018-idUSKCN1RE1A0 and Kelly Giblom, ‘Shell Tries to Come Clean on its Dirty Past in Nigeria,’ Bloomberg Businessweek accessed online at url https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-09-28/shell-tries-to-come-clean-on-its-dirty-past-in-nigeria. See also Michael Peel, A Swamp Full of Dollars: Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria’s Oil Frontier, I.B. Tauris and Co. Ltd., 2013, p. 159.
- ‘Nigeria: 2020 should be Shell’s year of reckoning,’ Amnesty International, 10 February 2020, accessed online at url https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/02/nigeria-2020-could-be-shell-year-of-reckoning/
- Tadaferua Ujorha, ‘Nigeria: Is Bodo oil spill triggering epic number of funerals ?’ Daily Trust, 10 November 2019 via AllAfrica.com accessed online at url https://allafrica.com/stories/201911110050.html
- Bassey Udo, ‘Shell paid $5.63 billion in taxes and fees to the Nigerian government in 2019,’ Premium Times, 7 April 2020. ‘https://www.premiumtimesng.com/business/business-news/386482-shell-paid-5-63-billion-tax-fees-to-nigerian-govt-in-2019-report.html
- Michael Peel, A Swamp Full of Dollars: Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria’s Oil Frontier, I.B. Tauris and Co. Ltd., London, 2013, p. 187.
- Ibid., p. 193.
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