…What victory for victims in UK, Netherlands cases means – Nnimo Bassey

BY GABRIEL ENOGHOLASE

Rev. Nnimo Bassey, an architect, is an environmentalist. In this interview, Bassey speaks on oil spillages in the Niger Delta among other issues.

Excerpts:

What is your reaction to the recent judgment against Shell Petroleum Development Company?

We have two judgments against SPDC in recent times. On the 20th of February, 2021, there was one in the Netherlands in the case that was filed over 30 years ago by farmers from four communities.

Two of the cases were from Oruma and one case from Goi in Ogoni in Rivers State, and one case from Ikoroada Udoh in Akwa-Ibom State. Then, on the 12th of February, 2021 there was another judgment in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in a case against SPDC for pollution in Bille and Oghali in Ogoniland.

So, having those two judgments coming one after the other against Shell in the year when the world was in distress was good news indeed for the suffering people of the Niger Delta. The case decided in the Appeal Court in the Netherlands came after the lower court had more or less rejected the same that they could not sue them; in fact, the lower court had said that spillage was caused by sabotage. But the court in its ruling decided that they cannot just washed their hands off the pollution incident without taking responsibility.

The judge asked Shell to install equipment that will monitor and detect any leakage from their pipelines especially those ones that passed through Oruma. They could detect the leakages in the pipelines and stop the flow on their pipelines whenever the problem occurred, so that they could take action. In the case in the United Kingdom, the lower court had said that Shell could not be sued in the country for issues arising from outside the UK such as what happened in Nigeria.

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But the Supreme Court in the land held that they could be sued for offences committed off-shore, so, that is significant and it just means that victims of trans-national oil companies such as Shell or any other one can actually seek for justice in Nigeria and in the home countries of these companies.

The plaintiffs who depend on farming and fishing for their livelihoods made three demands from Shell. First, to stop and prevent future oil spills from its pipelines. Second, to clean up the wide-spread environmental pollution resulting from the oil spills.

Third, to take responsibility for the actions of its subsidiary in Nigeria and pay damages as appropriate. Although Shell disclaimed liability for the actions of its subsidiary, arguing that the oil spills in Goi and Oruma between 2004 and 2005 were caused by third party sabotage, the Court of Appeal held Shell liable for the spills according to Nigerian laws, following Shell’s inability to prove the sabotage beyond any reasonable doubt. Let us situate this case within oil spills in the Niger Delta.

The Ogoni oil spillage clean up is supposed to be top on the agenda of the clean-up of the Niger Delta, but not much is being heard about the situation. What is your take in this?

This time around, we have to look at the pollution of the Niger Delta since 1958 when the first commercial quality of oil was discovered. Now, we have been having a series of oil spillages right from that time. There have been oil spillages before they exported the first crude oil in commercial quantity and there may have been a lot of oil spillages since then while they were searching for oil.

So, we may have accumulated oil spills that may not have been addressed. In 2018 and 2019 alone, NOSRA recorded 1,300 oil spillages on the Niger Delta. Now the Ogoni Kingdom oil spillage is a soft sell that teaches us how difficult it is to clean up, why we should not have allowed the problem in the first instance.

The clean-up is slow. It is now HYPRESS is telling us that there is alternative for emergency water supply for the Ogoni people and has entered into agreement with Rivers State Government to re-active the water supply system in Ogoniland. That is a first attempt at providing water for the Ogoni people.

However, that water system provided years ago cannot provide water for the people because Ogoniland is expanding. In the 1990s, the population of Ogoni was over 500,000, now they are over 1 million people. So, there is the need for them to provide the entire region with fresh drinking water. Now, we have many places on the Niger Delta where there are on-going oil spills.

There is an oil spill that occurs on the Kolokoma part of Bayelsa State and there have been contestation whether the spill is from Shell, Conoil or Chevron etc. And the government of Bayelsa and the local community went to look at the spill site, but none of the oil companies was there to find out about the oil spill. Really this is what has been ongoing and people are dying and suffering.

That is just an example. If you go to the Olorogun oil field in Ondo State, there was a blown-out around April/May 2020, a big fire erupted and that fire is still burning there months after it occurred. Another question is, who owns that oil well. The oil was drilled by Chevron, capped by Chevron, but it does appear that the ownership of the oil well has been taken over by the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR).

But the fire has been going on for over nine months now, but when will that stopped? Look at the entire Niger Delta: the situation has been very distressing. The whole region is being sacrificed, just to pump more money into the national purse without anybody accepting responsibility for the kind of pollution that is killing people, fossils in the region.

Who do we blame for the situation? The oil companies always claim that they pay royalty to the Federal Government while government accuses the local people of sabotage.

What we have seen is a deliberate attempt by the oil companies and government to avoid responsibility, to be held responsible for the serious damage done to the ecosystem that both parties have committed in the Niger Delta. One of the loopholes the oil companies have is that they have been working in partnership with government in all these.

They are the highest shareholders just as the court in the Netherlands has ruled that the oil companies are guilty of negligence if oil spill is caused by sabotage. The oil corporations cannot wash their hands when this situation occurred. Sabotage has been defined as a political situation to draw the attention of government or the authorities to situations that people don’t accept, sabotage is not stealing of crude oil, that is not theft. In the case of sabotage, we saw it in the case of the activities of the militants in the Niger Delta. They will announce that they were going to blow-up pipelines in such and such place such time and date if XYZ was not done and they will do it. That is sabotage. But in the case when people steal from pipelines, break and close valves and there are military, security agents and oil companies monitoring everywhere, that is not sabotage, but oil theft.

Remember when Dr. (Mrs.) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was the Minister of Finance in Nigeria, she announced that 400,000 barrels of crude oil were stolen daily in the Niger Delta and when Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan was Governor of Delta State, he mentioned then that as much as 1 million barrels of crude oil were stolen everyday in the Niger Delta.

Former Speaker of the House Representatives, Hon. Dimeji Bankole, said that there has been oil that was exported being stolen. If then a minimum of 400,000 barrels of crude oil are stolen daily as our then Minister of Finance told the Financial Times of London but 400,000 barrels of oil cannot be stolen by the local people… At that time, there were no illegal refineries. And there are no illegal refineries that can refine 400,000 barrels of crude oil in a day.

So, there is something going on and there is a large scale theft. So, government has to tell us, who is responsible when we have security agents around the place and why this is not checked? Some years ago, a ship was caught by the navy loaded with crude oil and taken into their custody, but that ship escaped from the custody and, when it was eventually found on the high seas, it only had sea water and not crude oil.

These have been going on and were not things done by the local people who are the victims. This is a just a way of passing the buck and not caring about how the people have been poisoned through the fish they eat, polluted swamps etc. So, no wonder that life expectancy in the Niger Delta is 41years. It is very shameful when no health emergency among others is being declared in the Niger Delta

Do you think that the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) will resolve most of the problems affecting the Niger Delta?

The PIB is not solving environmental problems, it is not abhorring gas flaring. For instance, when Mr. Ibe Kachukwu was the Minister of State for Petroleum, he kept saying that gas flaring will end in 2020 as if 2020 was millions of years away, but when we got to year 2020, nothing happened.

Even at that time there was a contradiction, the document on climate change said that that gas flaring will end in 2030 and they are just playing on the emotions of Nigerians, no plans and, just recently, the Minister of State for Petroleum, Mr. Timpere Sylva said that gas flare will end in 2025. Government has to realize that the Niger Delta has been sacrificed for long. It will like one or two life times for the environment to be restored. So clean-up is not the end, there has to be remediation.

Do you think that the Nigerian government has the political will to clean up the Niger Delta?

I believe it is the responsibility of government to clean up the Niger Delta because sentencing about 40 million people to death by living in dirty and poor environment, I believe no government should tolerate that. Not only that. It simply means that government did not like or believe in the people. Just think about it! Life expectancy in the Niger Delta is 41 years, the lowest in the world.

So, it is a responsibility on the part of government and now that oil companies are going to be held liable? They are stakeholders; they can either set-up, set-out. That is why they are now selling out their offshore facilities for further off-shows. Now, when they sell off their offshore facilities to Nigerian firms, they will shift the responsibilities to Nigerian firms. So, it will be disappointing if Nigerian firms can accept such liabilities which occurred for decades by transnational oil firms.

So, it will be adding salt to injuring if Nigerian firms accept this. Transnational oil firms are giving further off-shores because they don’t like Nigerians to know what is going in there. Remember what happened during Bonga Oil Spill? Shell admitted that it pumped about 40, 000 liters of crude oil into the ocean thinking that they were pumping into the ship and if fishermen did not see the oil spill flowing in the ocean, nobody would have known

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