Today's ruling in the Netherlands which found the Nigerian subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Royal Dutch Shell guilty of causing pollution, is a historic legal victory for oil producing communities in Nigeria and probably across Africa.
72 year old fish farmer Friday Akpan, from Akwa Ibom State, one of Nigeria's richest oil producing states, was one of four fish farmers who was able to prove that Shell Nigeria, the subsidiary of one of the world's most profitable companies Royal Dutch Shell, which made more than $30 billion dollars in profit in 2011, failed to properly maintain oil pipelines and other installations in Ikot Ada Udo community. Shell Nigeria's negligence led to oil spills that devastated Friday Akpan's 47 fishponds.
Friday is waiting to find out exactly how much compensation Shell Nigeria will have to pay, and when the company will conduct a clean-up of the environmental damage its caused.
Wednesday's ruling is the culmination of years of legal struggles for oil producing communities in Nigeria to get Shell Nigeria to take responsibility for pollution it causes on their land. Shell has been mining oil in Nigeria for close to 40 years, and is responsible for thousands of oil spills, the environmental non-governmental organisation Friends of the Earth says. It may also set a legal precedent and may have far reaching implications for the subsidiaries of many multinational companies operating in Nigeria. The ruling could also lead to more compensation claims from oil producing communities against Shell and other oil companies operating in Nigeria.
And though the ruling did not find Shell Nigeria's parent company Royal Dutch Shell responsible, lawyers from Friends of the Earth representing the farmers say they will not give up the fight to prove that RDS is held responsible for the activities of its subsdiary Shell Nigeria. They explain that RDS was exonerated from responsibility for causing oil pollution was because Friends of the Earth’s legal team were denied access to internal RDS documents showing that RDS determines the daily affairs of its Nigerian subsidiary - which would prove responsibility. RDS owns 100% of Shell Nigeria and the estimated profits of 1.8 billion euros of profit the company turns over annually.
The ruling also will be a relief for oil producing communities who have failed to get their cases of oil pollution against oil companies adjudicated within the Nigerian legal framework.
It was necessary for the Nigerian farmers to take the case to the Netherlands, where Shell is headquartered, with the help of the environmental non-governmental organisation, Friends of the Earth, following years of failure to get the case heard in Nigerian courts. Oil producing communities say multinational oil companies operating in Nigeria yield tremendous political power and influence. Nigeria, Africa's largest energy producer and its government, relies almost exclusively on oil exports, and hence foreign oil mining companies for revenues. Oil producing communities we spoke to cannot recall a case ever won against an oil company for oil pollution heard in Nigeria.
But the ruling was not all good news. Four other farmers lost their case against Shell on the grounds that they could not prove that the pollution and damage to their farms was not caused by sabotage to Shell’s oil pipelines and other infrastructure. Shell argued that their pipelines are routinely damaged by Nigerians to feed hundreds of illegal refineries operating in the region. Lawyers representing the farmers dismiss the decision to uphold Shell's sabotage argument. They say Shell has hundreds of kilometres of unprotected and unguarded pipelines and other installations in the Niger Delta, so it is therefore responsible if sabotage leads to pollution and damage. The four farmers who lost their case against Shell intend to appeal the verdict.
Even with 1-5 to Shell, millions of people in oil producing communities across Nigeria look at Friday Akpan's victory against Shell as the beginning of the end of oil company immunity when oil spills and oil disasters happen on their land. Shell say they are “happy” with the outcome. But Friday Akpan says he's happier.
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