Shell Acquitted of Most Nigeria Pollution Charges
The case involved five allegations of oil spills in Nigeria, four of which were quashed by the court
By Fiona Harvey
Shell was acquitted in a Dutch court on Wednesday morning of most of the charges against it for pollution in Nigeria, where disputed oil spills have been a long-running source of contention between the oil company, local people and environmental campaigners.
Photo by Jenn Farr
The case involved five allegations of spills in Nigeria, and four of these were quashed by the court. On the fifth count, Shell was ordered to pay compensation, of an amount yet to be decided.
The case was brought in the Netherlands because of Shell's dual headquartership, being both Dutch and British, and was brought by four Nigerian farmers co-sponsored by the international green campaigning group Friends of the Earth.
In a statement, Friends of the Earth Netherlands said: "This verdict is great news for the people in lkot Ada Udo who started this case together with Milieudefensie [Friends of the Earth Netherlands]. But the verdict also offers hope to other victims of environmental pollution caused by multinationals. At the same time, the verdict is a bitter disappointment for the people in the villages of Oruma and Goi – where the court did not rule to hold Shell liable for the damage. Fortunately, this can still change in an appeal."
Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International's Africa programme director, said: "Clearly it's good news that one of the plaintiffs in this case managed to clamber over all the obstacles to something approaching justice. However, the fact that the other plaintiffs' claims were dismissed underscores the very serious obstacles people from the Niger Delta face in accessing justice when their lives have been destroyed by oil pollution."
Shell's subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, said the main cause of oil spills in the country was from people taking oil for illegal refineries. Mutiu Sunmonu, managing director of SPDC said: "We welcome the court's ruling that all spill cases were caused by criminal activity. Oil pollution is a problem in Nigeria, affecting the daily lives of people in the Niger Delta. However, the vast majority of oil pollution is caused by oil thieves and illegal refiners. This causes major environmental and economic damage, and is the real tragedy of the Niger Delta."
He added: "SPDC has made great efforts to raise awareness of the issue with the government of Nigeria, international bodies like the UN, the media and NGOs. We will continue to be at the forefront of discussions to find solutions. For SPDC no oil spill is acceptable and we are working hard to improve our performance on operational spills. In the past years we have seen a decline in operational spill volumes. These spills, however, were caused by sabotage and the court has, quite rightly, largely dismissed the claims."
The case turned on whether Shell was responsible for the spills, through negligence and a failure to invest in proper safety systems of the kind that are required in developed countries, as the campaigners alleged, or whether – as Shell argued – the spills were mainly the result of local people attempting to steal oil from pipelines.
It is understood that the court took the view that four of the spills were caused by sabotage, as people tried to extract oil for their own purposes. In the case of the fifth, the finding was that Shell had been negligent in failing to prevent such sabotage.
But the farmers and green campaigners are expected to appeal against the verdict to a higher court.
Shell is accused of widespread spills across the regions of Nigeria where it operates, but the allegations in question concerned incidents in Goi, Ogoniland, Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom.
"There is an atmosphere of celebration here — the community feels that some justice has been done," said Ken Henshaw, a Niger Delta activist from campaign group Social Action which has closely followed the case. "A precedent has been set, it has been made known that Shell can be liable for damages and loss of livelihood."
"We didn't win all the cases, but we won one, and that one is a precedent," Henshaw added. "We are prepared to appeal the other ones. Shell tries to give the impression that the oil spills are caused by sabotage, but we are convinced that it was not sabotage. It is the result of equipment failure and neglect on the part of Shell."
"We are emboldened by this victory, we feel confident that we will definitely succeed on appeal. This is a major threshold, now that we have crossed it, we can bring more claims. The communities who have had their lives ruined by oil companies now feel galvanized to take action."
Plantiffs from Ikot Ada Udo, Akwa Ibom State, whose case was successful, said they were now looking forward to compensation for their loss of livelihood.
"We were successful today, and I am happy, I know that the judgment has been divinely directed," said Elder Friday Akpan, 55, from the Ikot Abasi area of Akwa ibom state, whose 47 catfish farms were destroyed following pollution from an oil spill, a claim which the court upheld as caused by a breach of Shell Nigeria's duty of care.
"The fishes died completely. I was confused because it left me completely empty," Akpan added. "I did not have some money to pay school fees for my twelve children, and nothing to allow me to earn my livelihood again. Debts I had borrowed I could not repay. There was nothing for me. I was finished."
One lawyer involved in the case said that it was right to see it as a victory.
"There are positives and negatives from this case," said Prince Chima Williams, head the legal affairs department at the Environmental Rights Action group. "It is positive in the sense that the court has found Shell liable for the environmental destruction in Akwa Ibom State. It is positive because it means that Nigerian citizens can now drag Shell to court in Holland for its actions and inactions in their communities."
"The negative aspect is that the court refused to agree with us Shell's negligence caused the other oil spills. Because we disagree with the court on that position, and that is why our first priority now is going to be to appeal the judgment," Williams added.
The case has cast a spotlight on the power which Shell wields in Nigeria, amidst allegations that the Nigerian authorities would not have enforced the judgment had the case been brought in local courts.
"Shell do not admit mistakes," said Akpan. They would not obey a judgment in a Nigerian court. When they know that the judgment is in Holland it's better."
"We considered all the options and the history of litigation in Nigeria before deciding to take the case to Holland," said Williams. "We could not have confidence in the judiciary in Nigeria because, coming from our experience, when the judiciary gives a judgment, the enforcement of that judgment by the executive becomes a problem."
"Shell is a very stubborn company, and in Nigeria, in some situations, it is more powerful than the Nigerian government," Williams added.
Activists believe that the case will have a longer-term effect on attitudes within communities affected by oil spills in Nigeria.
"In the long run a case like this will promote self-help among communities, because they know that if they know they can go to court in Holland, they can obtain a judgment that will be complied with, from which they can reap the benefits" said Williams.
The level of damages is yet to be determined. "In the case itself we didn't make specific demands for an amount, so the next step will be for the community to assist the court with an assessment of the actual loss that should be compensated," said Williams.