By Godwin Tsa, Abuja
Attempt by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), to review the N17 bn judgment debt to some Ogoni Communities in Rives State failed on Friday at the Supreme Court where it’s application was dismissed.
The Oil giant has specifically filed an application seeking to review the January 11, 2019 judgment of the Supreme Court ordering it to pay N17bn to some Ogoni communities in Rivers State affected by an oil spill from the company in 1970.
But in a unanimous judgment, a five-man panel led by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour dismissed the application after upholding the preliminary objection filed by the communities’ legal team.
Justice Centus Nweze prepared the lead ruling that was read by his brother Justice, Justice Chukwudumebi Oseji, who is not a member of the five-man panel.
Before last year’s final judgment by the Supreme Court, the legal tussle had dragged for about 31 years.
In it’s January 11, 2019 judgment, the apex court had issued the N17bn order in favour of Ejama-Ebubu in Tai Eleme Local Government Area of Rivers State, represented by Chief Isaac Agbara and nine others.
The apex court in the said judgment upheld an earlier decision of the Court of Appeal over a June 14, 2010 judgment of the Federal High Court, which awarded damages against the oil company in an oil spill at Ejama-Ebubu in Tai Eleme Local Government Area of Rivers State.
The communities’ lead lawyer, Lucius Nwosu (SAN), said on Friday that the judgment sum with the accrued interests for the 32 years period stood at about N182bn.
At the September 22, 2020 hearing leading to the Supreme Court’s ruling delivered on Friday, Nwosu had urged the apex court not to only dismiss the application, but to also make an order against all the senior lawyers in Shell’s legal team as “deterrence” for the filing of the judgment review application which he alleged was aimed at ridiculing the integrity and finality of the decisions of the apex court.
Shell’s legal team which was led by Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) includes Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), a former Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Kanu Agabi (SAN), Dr Wale Babalakin (SAN), and Wale Akoni (SAN).
In a preliminary objection, representatives of the victims of the spill, led by Chief Isaac Agbara, argued that Shell’s application was an affront to the dignity and constitutional finality of the Supreme Court.
Arguing the preliminary objection on Tuesday, Nwosu, who is the lawyer to the victims and judgment creditors, queried the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to entertain Shell’s application, which he said was intended to make the apex court sit on an appeal over its decision.
The lawyer contended that Shell’s application was an abuse of court process because there was no longer a pending appeal on which it wanted the court to act.
He noted that, on learning about Shell’s fresh application, his clients wrote the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) to enquire about the status of the oil company’s appeal.
Nwosu said in a reply, dated February 14, 2020, the CJN’s response showed that Shell’s appeal “is a spent appeal”.
Nwosu queried: “If the CJN has said the appeal is spent, how can the same appellant come and revive the spent appeal?”
The lawyer, who said his clients had taken steps to execute the judgment, added that the same Shell, which was reluctant to compensate victims of its oil spills in Nigeria, had paid about $206 million damages in similar circumstance in Mexico.
He regretted that Shell was unwilling to abide by the decision of Nigeria’s apex court after subjecting the victims to over 30 years of strenuous litigation in courts across the country.
In a counter-argument, lead lawyer to Shell, Wole Olanipekun (SAN), faulted the preliminary objection on the grounds that it raised no jurisdictional issue.
Olanipekun argued that what Nwosu referred to as judgment of the apex court was just a ruling, given when the case was not heard on its merit.
Citing past instances where the Supreme Court had granted a similar application as the one filed by Shell, Olanipekun said: “What we are asking to be set aside is a ruling, not a final judgment.”
The lawyer argued that an appellant, whose appeal was either struck out or dismissed, can approach the court to set aside the decision.
He averred that his client’s appeal had not been heard on its merit at the Court of Appeal and at the apex court.
According to him, an appeal not heard on the merit cannot be said to have been dismissed.
Olanipekun also faulted Nwosu’s claim that his clients had started executing the judgment, stressing that they had recovered only N2 billion out of the N17 billion total judgment sum.
The lawyer argued that his client’s case was supported by the refusal of a United Kingdom (UK) court to grant the request by Nwosu’s clients for the execution of the judgment on the grounds that the respondents admitted that there were errors in the computation of the damages awarded in the verdict.
Olanipekun, who frowned at Nwosu’s attack on the lawyers in the case, urged the apex court to reject the preliminary objection.
A five-man panel of the court, led by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, adjourned till November 27 for ruling.