The king of Ogale, Chief Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, cut an interesting figure and made global news when he travelled from Nigeria to attend a hearing in a suit instigated by over 40,000 inhabitants of Ogale and Bille communities of the Niger Delta. In his golden finery and jewels, he was a stark contrast to the suits of the assembled lawyers and journalists.
The reason for his presence in the UK court though was far more important than the outfit he was putting on. The inhabitants had gone to the UK to seek a ruling impelling Shell to clean up the oil spills from their pipelines that had polluted drinking water and destroyed the livelihood of several of the community members.
In response, however, Shell is asking the court to throw the case out for reason that actually do not add up. For one, Shell does not deny the areas are heavily polluted. What the company is denying is its responsibility to clean the mess, Joe Westby says on AllAfrica.
One of the company’s most striking claims is that the case should not go ahead because it will conflict with a newly-announced government-led program to clean up pollution in the region. This project was flagged off 5 years after the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) carried out an assessment which exposed massive and widespread pollution across the Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta.
The project, however, does not absolve the company from its responsibility to clean up pollution its pipelines have caused in the region. And since the case alleges that Shell has failed to do so in Ogale and Bille, it deserves to be heard. That the FG has taken steps to initiate what the company should have done initially is not an excuse for it to sit back and watch.
Shell’s second argument that the situation in the Niger Delta is “uniquely challenging”, due to problems of militancy, oil theft and the illegal refining of oil is also baffling. One would think that it is quite clear that these problems highlighted have been exacerbated by the inability of the inhabitants of polluted communities to make a living the way they know how. Many of them are fishermen and farmers. How can tey fish or farm in oil polluted waters and seas. But they must feed and take care of their families. What else does Shell expect them to do?
It is hoped that the courts will take a serious stance for the cleanup in this case. The outcome will be very important in determining how oil companies and communities will proceed. A soft approach will likely serve as a template for oil companies to shelf their responsibilities to communities while the reverse will be the case if the court takes a tough stance in this case. We are waiting to see which way the pendulum will swing.