By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, of Nigeria Limited, yesterday, told the Federal High Court in Abuja that it would pay about N45 billion judgement debt awarded against it over oil spillages that occurred in 1970, which affected some Ogoni communities in Rivers State.
The oil giant, through its lawyer, Afam Ejelam, told the court that it had ealier reached out to the communities to perfect all the modalities for the payment, in line with judgement of the High Court that was affirmed by the Supreme Court.
However, counsel to Ogoni communities, Mr. Lucius Nwosu, SAN, drew attention of the court to the fact that contrary to the subsisting judgement, Shell insisted on lodging the money into the account of the Chief Registrar of the high court.
Nwosu, who noted that the affected Ogoni communities secured victory after a legal tussle with the oil firm that spanned over 31 years, argued that it would be wrong for the judgement debt to be paid through the Chief Registrar of the court.
He maintained that such payment would be at variance with judgement of both the high court and the Supreme Court, which he said ordered direct payment to Ogoni communities.
Besides, Nwosu argued that aside from the N45 billion he said was computed by Shell itself, interest that accrued from the judgement debt had exceeded over N3 billion.
In his ruling, Justice Ahmed Mohammed faulted Shell’s decision to pay the money through the court’s Chief Registrar, stressing that such action would amount to reversal of the extant verdict of the apex court.
Justice Mohammed held that in the absence of any legal impediment against the judgement, the money should be paid directly to the affected Ogoni communities.
On the issue of the accrued interest, Justice Mohammed held that it was not contained in any affidavit before the court.
He, therefore, dismissed request to compel Shell to pay the judgement debt with interest.
It will be recalled that the Supreme Court had on November 27, 2020, dismissed application Shell filed to set-aside the oil spillage judgement against it.
The apex court, in a unanimous decision by a five-man panel of Justices led by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vovour, held that an application the oil giant brought for a review of the judgement that was entered against it in 2019, lacked merit.
In the lead judgement of the apex court that was prepared by Justice Centus Nweze but read by Justice Chukwudumebi Oseji, it upheld a preliminary objection that 10 traditional chiefs from the affected communities in Rivers State, filed to challenge the application.
The Supreme Court affirmed the finality of the verdict it gave on January 11, 2019, which settled the protracted oil spillage case between Shell and the communities.
Nwosu had in his reaction to the decision of the apex court, contended that the judgement sum, with the accrued interests for the 31 years period, stood at about N182bn.
He noted that it was the same oil spillage case that led to the execution of environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, by the military regime.
He said the Supreme Court had earlier issued Ganishee Order Absolute for payment of the judgement debt to the affected communities.
The communities had in their preliminary objection, accused Shell of abusing judicial proceedings by attempting to re-litigate a matter that was earlier decided by the Supreme Court.
They stressed that the apex court had in 2019, upheld a Court of Appeal judgment that awarded damages against Shell for oil spillage in Ejama-Ebubu in Tai Eleme Local Government Area of Rivers State.
The communities, through their Chiefs, noted that the fresh application by the oil giant, which was filed seven months after the initial appeal marked SC/731 was dismissed, was a calculated attempt to move the Supreme Court to sit on appeal over its final judgement.
Relying on Order 2 Rule 29(1) of the Supreme Court Rules, the Chiefs who filed the preliminary objection for themselves and on behalf of the ancient “Onne eh Ejama” Stool in Council, Chiefs, Elders, Men, Women and Children Ejama-Ebubu in Tai Eleme Local Government Area of Rivers, contended that the apex court could not review or set aside its final judgement, except to correct clerical errors or accidental slips.