Tens of Thousands of Nigerians Sue Shell

Over 13,000 Nigerians are in the process of suing Shell, demanding compensation and cleanup of decades of oil spills they say have destroyed their communities. Shell is denying responsibility, as it prepares to withdraw operations from the region after 86 years.

Back in 2015, the Ogale and Bille communities of the Niger Delta filed claims against Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary, SPDC, in the British High Court. While their case was dismissed, the Ogale and Bille communities did not give up, vowing to bring an appeal to the UK Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal in 2021, and determined there was a “good arguable case” against Shell. Now, in late January this year, 13,562 further claims were added by individuals and institutions from the communities, to be handled alongside the original case.

The Damage

Both Ogale and Bille have seen dozens of oil spills over the decades Shell has spent pumping oil in their communities.

In Ogale, most of the water from wells or borehole taps smells strongly of oil, and is noticeably brown or has a sheen. When the tide rises in Bille’s rivers, oily water comes right up to people’s houses, causing property damage. Most of the fish and shellfish in the waterways has been eradicated, leaving residents without a source of food or income.

“If you don’t have money, you can’t drink water,” Bille Chief Bennett Dokubo told The Intercept. “It’s like we are living in a desert, while we are living on the water.” He said the oil-polluted water had caused Cholera outbreaks in his community.

Amnesty International has called the Niger Delta one of the most polluted places on earth,” and a 2011 UN study revealed the massive scale of oil damage in the region, calling for an urgent cleanup. In the 20 years since, no such cleanup has been organised by Shell or SPDC.

“As we speak, oil is spilling in my community every day, people are dying,” said King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, Ogale community leader. A report by the University of St Gallen in Switzerland concluded that infants in the region are twice as likely to die in their first month of life if their mothers live near an oil spills.

The average life expectancy in the region is just 41 years old – ten years less than Nigeria’s average.

How Has Shell Responded?

Shell has refused to acknowledge legal responsibility for cleaning up oil spills or paying compensation to the plaintiffs.

As their spokesperson told The Guardian, the company’s line is that the spills in the Delta are the fault of illegal oil theft: “We strongly believe in the merits of our case. The overwhelming majority of spills related to the Bille and Ogale claims were caused by illegal third-party interference”.

At the end of last year, a group of farmers from the region successfully won compensation from Shell in The Hague – an unprecedented case. While Shell agreed to pay damages, they did not admit liability. The victory gives hope to the thousands of claimants bringing claims against the company in the British Supreme Court.

They have also tried to distance themselves from their subsidiary SPDC, and assert that individuals cannot seek reparations for spills which happened over five years before their legal claims.

“It appears that Shell is seeking to leave the Niger delta free of any legal obligation to address the environmental devastation caused by oil spills from its infrastructure over many decades,” says Daniel Leader, a partner at the legal firm representing the claimants.

“At a time when the world is focused on “the just transition”, this raises profound questions about the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for legacy and ongoing environmental pollution.”

The trial is scheduled to take place next year.

Cover photo: “Kegbara- dere community oil spill, Ogoniland, Nigeria” by Friends of the Earth International is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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