• The Pendulum

Legal victories for Nigerians against the Shell Corporation

Ian Stewart


Patricia Ogbonnaya shows the height oil rose to during an oil spill. Photograph: Maggie Andresen/The Guardian


Shell, one of the largest oil companies in the world, has played a massive role in the oil and gas industry in Nigeria since it first discovered oil there in 1956. In the years since, Nigeria has become Africa’s leading oil exporter. However, its tenure has been marked with streaks of exploitation, incompetence, and neglect as Shell was responsible for some of the worst environmental disasters in the Niger Delta and currently reports an average of 12o oil spills per year. Shell began exporting oil and gas in 1958 and became the largest oil company in Nigeria, accounting for more than a fifth of production with eight gas plants and more than 1,000 wells in the region. Many of these are located in the Niger Delta while companies that entered later, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total, and ENI, tend to locate extraction offshore in the Gulf of Guinea.


While oil generated $350 billion for Nigeria from the 1960s through the 1990s, this has not translated to wealth for her people. The number living in poverty—on less than a dollar a day—rose from 36% to 70% and GDP per capita fell from $1,113 to $1,084. These spills also decimate the environment. Much of the country’s oil is located in the delta, which is home to some of the most productive agricultural land in the country. Oil can flood the fields with feet of oil which soaks into the soil, ruining crops and poisoning those who live there.


These repeated and numerous transgressions against the environment have led to many lawsuits. Finally, recent legal victories in Nigeria have marked a changing of the tide for those battling against the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, as more communities are winning compensation due to changes in precedent allowing suits against Shell directly rather than its subsidiaries in Nigeria. These cases range from incidents that happened in the early years of production to recent spills which have devastated the crops that many depend on for their livelihoods.

The first case was settled in February of this year, where the UK Supreme Court allowed a group of 42,500 Nigerian farmers and fishermen to sue Shell in English courts after years of oil spills in the Niger Delta contaminated land and groundwater. Senior judges said there was an arguable case that Shell is responsible, in the latest test of whether multinationals can be held to account for the acts of overseas subsidiaries. Usually, plaintiffs were required to go through the subsidiary which typically resulted in non-action with compensation owed not paid and oil spills left for decades before cleanup or never being remediated. This decision also doubles down on another made two years ago by the Supreme Court where nearly 2,000 Zambian villagers were allowed to sue the mining firm Vedanta in England for pollution.


Shell maintains that a majority of the spills are a result of sabotage and that it works diligently to clean up the environment. “Regardless of the cause of a spill, SPDC cleans up and remediates. It also works hard to prevent these sabotage spills, by using technology, increasing surveillance and by promoting alternative livelihoods for those who might damage pipes and equipment,” Shell said. However, in 2015, Shell accepted responsibility for the 2008 oil spills in Bodo, Ogoniland, which is one of the major oil-producing regions in Nigeria. Shell also agreed to pay the people of Bodo $83.4 million, far less than their original demand of $454.9 million. These spills have not yet been cleaned up and according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, three-quarters of pipelines in 2008 were more than a decade overdue for replacement, with some that had a 15-year life expectancy still operating after 30 years.


Being able to sue Shell directly could mean more responsibility from the company and with this in mind they have begun to try to gain immunity for its spills. Shell has about a $2 billion stake in Nigeria and has slowly been selling it off with one caveat: if the federal government buys the oilfields and infrastructure from Shell’s subsidiary, it may also acquire its oil spill liabilities.


While history does not bode well for those seeking restitution against Shell, it has recently paid out for a spill it had been denying culpability for since the 1970s. It would pay out $111 million for a spill that happened during the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, after losing a case in the Nigerian Supreme court. In another case, a Dutch court ruled the company owed damages for spills happening from 2004 - 2007. These recent victories mark a change in the dynamic with Shell losing its immunity from blame, but time will tell if they manage to sell off their responsibility or if Nigerians are able to force the cleanup of their long-polluted land.


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