After decades of environmental pollution and relentless litigations, it is commendable that the Shell Petroleum Development Company has finally agreed to pay the sum of N45.9billion as compensation to Ogoni communities for losses precipitated by oil spills as ordered by the Supreme Court. It brings to an end the litigations to remedy one of the worst cases of environmental degradation in recent times. Although the compensation is heart-warming, the pains may take much longer time to heal. For the Ogoni people, it was a painful, unforgettable journey that began about 32 years ago. Represented by Isaac Agbara and nine others, the Ejama-Ebubu community in Tai Eleme community Local Government Area of Rivers State, filed the suit seeking damages against Shell for Ogoni oil spillage. On June 14, 2010, the community obtained a favourable judgement from the Federal High Court, sitting in Port Harcourt. Shell had appealed against the judgement at the Court of Appeal, where it again lost, but went further to the Supreme Court. On January 11, 2019, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgement in favour of Ogoni people.
However, Shell disregarded the Supreme Court’s verdict and filed an application for a review of the judgement. On November 27, 2020, the Supreme Court dismissed the request. In a major twist, the multinational oil company brought the case back to the Federal High in Abuja in continuation of its pushback against the Supreme Court’s unanimous judgement on the matter. However, the Counsel for Shell, Mr. Aham Ejelamo (SAN), announced last week, the decision of the oil firm to pay the court-ordered damages, and informed the court accordingly. He said the decision was arrived at after talks between the parties. He sought the order of the court to deposit the N45.9billion with the Chief Registrar of the Court. The judge endorsed the payment, and ruled that the money should be paid directly to the lawyer representing the Ogoni people, Chief Lucious Nwosu (SAN). This has apparently brought to an end years of litigations over oil spillage.
That notwithstanding, the Ogoni clean-up exercise still leaves much to be desired. Oil spillage is still ravaging the area. It is sad that over 25 years after the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni leaders for fighting to protect the environment, not much has been achieved.
The outcome of this case should significantly affect how oil companies treat their host communities. A survey by Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth in 1976 and 1991 showed that over two million barrels of crude oil polluted Ogoniland in 2,976 separate oil spills. Also, many pipelines by International Oil Companies (IOCs) still traverse the land, creeks and waterways of the oil-bearing communities. Leakages, caused by corroded pipelines remain visible in these communities. This typifies corporate impunity. The vast stretch of black, lifeless landscape is troubling and calls for global attention.
It is time, however, to bring lasting solution to the situation in Ogoniland. Mere monetary compensation is good, but not enough. For example, in 2011, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released a damning environmental assessment of Ogoniland, exposing extensive oil pollution and severe health risks, including polluted drinking water. The report recommended, among other things, a sustained concrete action in line with the Environmental Guidelines and Standards for the Petroleum Industry in Nigeria (EGASPIN). It asked Shell to clean up every oil spill caused by its operation, no matter the cause.
It also recommended the establishment of Ogoni Environmental Restoration Authority and Fund, with an initial capital of $1billion. That is still work in progress, though a Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) headed by an Ogoni indigene, has been set up by the Federal Government, under the supervision of the Ministry of Environment, to undertake the implementation of the clean-up. Unfortunately, the exercise has not witnessed appreciable progress. That is why it has continued to attract both national and international attention. The issue of land dispute among the communities is reportedly impeding the progress of the exercise. Government should be committed to closing the ugly chapter of the Ogoniland by implementing all the recommendations that will ensure peace in the area. We urge the Ogoni communities to cooperate with those in charge of the clean-up. The compensation agreed by Shell should not be allowed to tear the communities apart.
While the recent Petroleum Industry Act may have addressed some of the challenges facing the communities, we advise that the compensation should be utilised to address the problems that prompted the litigations in the first place.