The Federal Government must swiftly take steps to enforce the ruling of the Netherland court against Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) over an alleged oil spill it caused across some Niger Delta coastal communities in 2008, a rights group said on Friday.
Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), which described the ruling as a landmark, said enforcing the judgment against Shell would show to the world that the Nigerian government has the political will to bring oil transnationals to account over their conducts in its domain.
Also, the groups said enforcing the ruling would confirm to other multi-national companies doing business in Nigeria that they can no longer hide under the country’s weak regulatory environment to perpetrate criminalities in the country against the people and get away with it.
Between 2004 and 2007, a massive oil spill was reported which polluted a large expanse of streams and farmlands in several communities in the Niger Delta.
Although the spill was contained, but leaking oil pipelines traversing three communities, Ikot Ada Udo, Oruma and Goi in the Niger Delta region, remained, with their attendant impact on the environment.
Worried by the impact of the incident, which disrupted normal economic activities of the people of the area, particularly farming and fishing, the four farmers from the affected communities took up a legal challenge against SPDC in 2008.
Supported by the environmental rights group and its Netherlands affiliate organization, Milieudefensie, the four farmers filed an application against the SPDC over an alleged oil spill incident in a Netherlands high court.
The suit was novel as it was the first time a Dutch firm and its affiliate would be sued in a Dutch court to defend themselves for alleged damages perpetrated against their hosts in a foreign land.
In a counter application filed against the legal process by the farmers, Shell argued that its alleged offense committed in Nigeria cannot be tried in the Netherlands court.
Besides, the oil firm, which accounts for more half of Nigeria’s oil production capacity, denied responsibility for the spill allegedly traced to facilities located with its operations concession.
Rather, the company blamed the incident on criminals and third-party interference in the oil concession which resulted in the oil spill, which impacted farmlands in the affected communities in 2008.
But, the communities, which insisted on its culpability, demanded that Shell take steps to clean up the oil spills, remediate the environment and pay compensation to the people for the damages caused.
Besides, the people asked the company to improve the maintenance of its oil pipelines and installations traversing the communities to prevent future spill incidents.
In its ruling in December 2015, the Dutch court held that Shell was culpable in the alleged oil spill incident, and should be held liable to pay compensation to the affected communities and take steps to repair the pipelines and restore the environment.
Court of Appeal ruling
Although Shell had appealed against the ruling, resulting in the case dragging on for over 13 years, the Court of Appeal in The Hague on Friday upheld the ruling of the lower court that the SPDC was liable and must be held responsible for the spill incident.
The court said it could not be established “beyond a reasonable doubt” that saboteurs or third-party interference were to blame for the oil spill, which polluted rivers, fishponds and farmlands in the affected communities.
The court wants SPDC to pay huge compensation to the affected communities, an amount that is yet to be determined.
The SPDC is yet to issue an official reaction to the ruling to indicate its next line of action. But an official who requested that his name should not be revealed as he is not authorized to speak on the matter told MEDIATRACNET on the telephone on Friday that it was certain the company would file an appeal at the Supreme Court.
Rights group reacts
But, while the last word has not been heard of the case, Nigerians and rights groups are already hailing the ruling and demanding for its enforcement by the government.
In his reaction to the court ruling, Executive Director, ERA/FoEN, Godwin Ojo, described it as a landmark judgment the group is very proud of.
Mr Ojo said the judgment has sent a strong signal to the oil companies in Nigeria, particularly Shell, that the days of criminalizing local communities and framing them up for sabotage of crude oil pipelines are over.
“Shell no longer has any hiding place. This victory will open up a floodgate of court cases against Shell and the oil companies doing business in Nigeria which are hiding under weak regulations, lack of enforcement of its extant rules, and taking advantage of the lack of political will of the Nigerian government to bring oil transnationals to account.”
Mr Ojo said the significance of the judgment was that it has addressed the question of access to justice that is very much in question in Nigeria when it comes to holding the oil companies accountable for their human rights violations and environmental degradation.
He called on the Nigerian government to take steps to revamp its regulatory bodies in the oil industry, to empower it to ensure criminal acts of the oil transnationals were punished severely.
Besides, he said the country must start to take concrete steps to wean Nigeria off its dependence on revenues from oil and gas, build a new economy on the back of a clear renewable energy framework as quickly as possible and ensure the gradual phasing out of oil and gas activities in Nigeria.
“The judgment is urgent and strategic as the world transits away from fossil fuels there is the need to ensure that the devastation done to our environment by Shell and other oil companies operating in the Niger Delta region is cleaned up and appropriate compensation paid to communities that have suffered in many cases irreparable losses,” ERA/FoEN Legal Officer, Nosa Tokunbor, said in a statement on Friday.
Calling on the Niger Delta communities and CSOs not to relent in their pursuit for justice for the oil-bearing communities in the region, Mr Tokunbor urged the court to proceed to do the needful by awarding compensation and preventive costs to the affected communities.
He also advised Shell to accept the judgment and comply with the court order to pay compensation.