Nigerian farmers win right to sue Shell over pollution. But who’ll clean up the mess?

Crude oil at the bank of a polluted river in the Bidere community of Nigeria. Photo by: Akintunde Akinleye / REUTERS

LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigeria is the largest exporter of oil in Africa, with these exports accounting for 90% of the country's foreign exchange and more than half of government revenue. But more than six decades of oil exploration have wrecked communities in the Niger Delta.

In 2015, two communities from the oil-producing Niger Delta initiated legal proceedings for compensation against Royal Dutch Shell PLC in U.K. courts. The Ogale and Bille communities hoped for a positive outcome.

On Feb. 12, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that both communities can pursue their claims against Royal Dutch Shell and The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria — the former’s Nigerian subsidiary — in English courts.

“The ruling is in the right direction; it is something the people of Ogale have been expecting,” said Bandyson Ngawala, a farmer in Ogale.

Part of our The Future of Food Systems series

Find out how we can make food fair and healthy for all. Join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems and visit our The Future of Food Systems page for more coverage.

Home to about 40,000 people, the farming and fishing community of Ogale is located in Rivers state in southern Nigeria, as is Bille, a remote riverine community that has 2,335 claimants in its proceedings.

“We are very happy with the ruling,” said King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, leader of the Ogale community. “We hope that the Royal Dutch Shell will stop dragging us from court to court and then sit down with us on how to remediate the underground water in Ogale and our land.”

Passing the buck

In January 2017, the High Court of England and Wales in London held that Royal Dutch Shell, also known as RDS, was only a holding company that did not exercise operational control over The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, also known as SPDC, and therefore did not owe a duty of care toward the communities affected by SPDC’s activities. In February 2018, the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court’s judgment and said there was not sufficient evidence to prove that RDS had active operational control of SPDC.

Bennett Dokubo, chair of the Bille Council of Chiefs, said the U.K. Supreme Court’s judgment would serve as a warning to other oil companies operating in the Niger Delta region that “they are not above the law” if they cause severe damage to host communities.

“Ordinarily, companies ought to know that if they cause damage, they do not need to wait until the people sue them before they compensate,” Dokubo said. “Companies ought to work with a safety consciousness and not just to make money … and then abandon the people.”

The real cost of oil

Before oil spills began to ravage Ogale in 1989, Ngawala, a father of five, was a farmer working in fisheries and farming cassavas, yams, cocoyams, maize, and vegetables in large quantities. As a result of the numerous spills, he lamented, the agricultural land, waterways, and groundwater have become heavily contaminated and unfit for drinking, washing, fishing, and farming.

“Most of our farm areas have been destroyed. Even if you plant crops there, we do not get good results,” he said, adding that Ogale people are struggling to feed their families.

“Companies ought to know that if they cause damage, they do not need to wait until the people sue them before they compensate.”

— Bennett Dokubo, chair, Bille Council of Chiefs

“Our people are not known for [menial] jobs or going to other communities to weed in people’s farms. But now they are into [these activities] just to survive.”

Dokubo shared similar tales about the loss of livelihood and suffering among his people. “A lot of [our] young men have migrated to the city to work on construction sites for daily pay,” he said. “A lot of young men who were into fishing no longer fish due to the polluted nature of the rivers.”

More than six decades of oil exploration have wrecked oil-producing communities in the Niger Delta, leaving fishing habitat, swamps, agricultural land, groundwater, waterways, and more in ruins.

Growing disenchantment with both the government and oil companies has led to the rise of militant groups that attack oil facilities and cause huge revenue losses.

Not just compensation

Environmental activists and farmers from the affected communities say the Supreme Court’s ruling sets an important precedent in the fight against environmental degradation in the Niger Delta, citing a recent case on Jan. 29 in which The Hague Court of Appeal ruled that SPDC, RDS’ Nigerian subsidiary, was responsible for environmental degradation caused by pipeline leaks in the villages of Oruma and Goi and ordered the company to pay compensation to the affected villages.

“The oil companies must be responsible,” Okpabi declared, saying that oil companies should not come to Nigeria and gain political favor to “lower their standards and destroy the environment.”

“Some of the pipelines that they have here are over 20 years old,” he said.

Erabanabari Kobah, an environmental scientist and campaigner in the Niger Delta, said that the communities continue to fight oil companies because they believe they will receive justice some day.

“It [the Supreme Court judgment] is going to be like a floodgate of litigation that will be opened against the oil companies,” Kobah said, adding that people will continue to seek redress in London and other foreign courts in the hope that oil companies will pay compensation.

“Apart from the weak judicial system we have in this country, which the oil companies continue to exploit, there is a high level of lack of transparency when it comes to administering justice against oil companies in Nigeria,” Kobah said.

“Getting access to justice is difficult” in Nigeria, according to Calvin Laing, acting executive director at Stakeholder Democracy Network in the southern Nigerian city of Port Harcourt.

“The ruling is necessary and important because the people have lost their lives as a result of the oil spills,” Laing said, adding that cleanup can help communities “bounce back” again.

“Paying compensation is a good thing, but cleanup is the most important thing for the communities,” he said.

“The cleanup has to be done properly. With that, there is a potential to bounce back. [It is] worth noting that a comprehensive response to the needs of communities is needed, which falls mainly on the government, not just oil spill cleanup and compensation.”

An unhealthy legacy

Meanwhile, Okpabi, the king of Ogale, said RDS has not cleaned up or remediated the community’s contaminated water sources.

“We are still drinking the [contaminated] water,” he said. “That is the extent of the damage. All the streams in Ogale have been polluted; our lands have been polluted.”

He said people in his community now have “strange diseases” due to the high levels of water and land contamination caused by the spills.

The water has a significant amount of benzene, a carcinogen, and many residents also have elevated liver enzymes, possibly indicating damaged cells and putting them at risk of liver disease.

“We are now losing up to 20% of our crop yields [compared with those before the oil spills],” Okpabi said, adding that community members rely on a shifting cultivation system requiring them to move from one land to another within a 10-year interval.

“We have over 20 different portion areas that we farm, [but] about 15 of the farm areas have been destroyed,” he said.

“They [Shell] need to come and repair what they have destroyed. They need to come and pay compensation to our people. They need to come and discuss how to give us the livelihood they have destroyed.”

Visit the Future of Food Systems series for more coverage on food and nutrition — and importantly, how we can make food fair and healthy for all. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems.

About the authors

  • Linus Unah

    Linus Unah is a Nigerian journalist covering global health, conflict, agriculture, and development. His work has appeared in The Guardian, IRIN, NPR, NewsDeeply, The Christian Science Monitor, among others.
  • Kelechukwu Iruoma

    Kelechukwu Iruoma is a Lagos-based multi-award winning freelance journalist covering global health, environment, politics, and business. His works have been published by Al Jazeera, Thomson Reuters Foundation, NPR, The Fish Site, African Business Magazine, TRT World, Global Sisters Report, among others.