‘Neo-Imperialist Investments’ Under Fire

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Chief Eric Dooh Barizaa and Barrister Chima Williams

The saying that “Justice may be slow but it will come eventually,” became a reality in the long-running legal battle brought against Shell Petroleum Development Company Nigeria (SPDC) and its parent company Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) by Four Nigerian Farmers and Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie).

The case dates back to 2008, when the powerful Dutch Company and its Nigerian subsidiary, SPDC were both accused of breaching their duty of care over oil spillage and failure to address the attending environmental pollution in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, leading to human suffering and deaths.

A Dutch appeals court, sitting in The Hague (the home of the parent company of Shell) ruled on Friday, January 29, thirteen years later, that a subsidiary of the British-Dutch multinational Royal Dutch Shell was responsible for oil spills in the Niger Delta between 2006 and 2007. The court mandated the company to compensate the plaintiffs (farmers) from two communities of Goi and Oruma whose crops and livelihood were destroyed, and act generally, in the matter of weeks to start decontaminating waters in the area affected by the spillage.

The ruling on Friday reversed the decision by the District Court of The Hague in 2013, which declared that Shell was not responsible for the spills in those two communities. The company argued that the reported oil spills in the region were the result of sabotage.

In determining the case, the Appeals Court assumed in its decision that “the leaks were the result of unauthorized opening of the valves” of oil wellheads. The court was however categorical in its judgment that the subsidiary of Shell in Nigeria was negligent and had failed to protect its activities from sabotage. It also ordered Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary to build better warning systems by installing on their pipelines Leak Detection Systems (LDS) so that future leaks could be quickly detected.

Chief Eric Dooh Barizaa, one of the plaintiffs, reacted to the ruling as victory for the entire Niger Delta because the environment has been devastated for decades. “Shell never had any regard to attend to the environment, thus leaving people trapped into hazardous situation. The food they are eating is polluted, the water and air polluted, fishes polluted and people are just dying and suffering,” said Chief Dooh. 

He lamented that the majority of those being buried on a daily basis in the area are young people ranging between the ages of 25 to 30. He recalled a UN survey report which he says, puts the life expectancy of the Ogoni people in the oil-rich region to below 50 years.  “If you are able to reach 50, then you cross the bar.” The Chief has definitely exceeded the bar at 53 years old and can count himself blessed.

Not only is he blessed to be alive, but he’s been celebrated as a hero by the locals for the victory over a repressive foreign company. “The entire Niger Delta is celebrating this victory… it is a stepping stone for others – it means that the oppressed have a say,” the chief spoke with excitement.

The court ruled that Shell should pay compensation to the affected farmers. While Chief Dooh would not be drawn into predicting the value of such compensation, he however specifically wants those personal investments he lost to be restored first. “My father had a school there, we had a poultry farm, bakery, fish ponds and canoes for fishing.” He expects that a qualified evaluator will come in to assess the value of the properties.   

Asked whether the Nigerian Government has commented on the verdict from the court abroad, he could not say because ironically, his village, one of the oil producing communities, does not have electricity for him to monitor news. He however suggested that he does not think the Nigerian Government will “oppose to the verdict of the international court.”

Also commenting on the ruling, the other surviving plaintiff of the four farmers who filed the suit against Shell, Chief Fidelis Oguru said he’s only waiting for Shell to react because the ruling is in his favor. Fidelis, who’s gone blind, is eager to know whether Shell will comply with the ruling.  “If they comply or say they are accepting the judgement of the court, then they would come and then make arrangements for my compensation, which they can even negotiate.”

Nigeria is the largest producer of oil in Africa, but the country is home to some of the poorest people on the continent. Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary, started drilling in the Niger Delta in the late 1950s. The company is said to manage about 50 oil fields, five gas plants and more than 3,000 miles of pipelines.

The Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform (MRU CSO Platform) has hailed the ruling as a significant point of departure from the unrestrained human and environmental abuses inflicted upon poor people by multinational companies across West Africa with impunity.

The Platform congratulates one of its Steering Committee members, Barrister Chima Williams, Acting Executive Director of Friends of the Earth Nigeria, an affiliate of the MRU CSO Platform for ably representing the rights of the affected communities and farmers.

While celebrating the great achievement, Barrister Williams said: “Now the oil companies will know that they cannot continue to act with impunity and that a day will come when they will be held accountable for their misdeeds.”

The day has probably arrived for them to account because the MRU CSO Platform is committed to seeking redress for affected communities through domestic, foreign and regional courts, or international grievance mechanisms, if that’s what it takes to restore the rights of poor people dispossessed of their livelihood by multinational corporations.

“Shell, like many other mining and agriculture investments across the sub-region have shown little or no mercy for the rights of indigenous people and their environment. And this is even happening with the knowledge of Western and powerful countries that profess to champion human rights, accountability and justice.  We congratulate the Dutch legal system, meantime for the giant step taken against a company of their own,” says the MRU CSO Platform’s Chairman, Michel Yoboue.

Due to the sheer disregard and sometimes complicity of home governments in the abuse of their own citizens for want of foreign investment, the MRU CSO Platform has had to run to the ECOWAS Court of Justice to press charges against state authorities in the region.

Reference is made to the November 10, 2020 guilty verdict against the Guinean Government at the ECOWAS Court over the massacre of villagers, in the Zogota community, Southeastern Guinea. Guinean authorities failed to investigate the massacre five years after its occurrence on August 4, 2012. Troops moved in overnight and suppressed a demonstration by residents, who had been protesting in demand for jobs and benefits from the exploitation of iron ore in their area by Vale-BSG Resources, a transnational company with roots in Brazil and Israel. The mining company has left the people with nothing but environmental pollution, destruction of their properties and sacred sites.

On January 29, 2021, the inhabitants of Similimi lodged a complaint before the ECOWAS Court of Justice against the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire for having facilitated the pollution of their environment, the grabbing of their traditional lands, and the destruction of their places of worship. The action relates to the impacts of the mining of Manganese by the company Bondoukou Manganèse

In Sierra Leone, 15 residents of Koidu on 14 August 2020 filed a class action suit at the ECOWAS Court of Justice against the government of Sierra Leone for failing to protect its citizens from human rights abuses committed by Koidu Limited (KL) – formerly known as Koidu Holdings Ltd. (KHL), a diamond mining enterprise located in Koidu, Sierra Leone. The Company is owned by BSG Resources Limited (BSGR) through its subsidiary Octéa Limited. The company has failed to properly relocate residents in Koidu, who have suffered various abuses as the result of its operations, and paid inadequate compensation for any losses.

On May 27, 2019, 22 indigenous communities dislodged from their habitat by the operations of the Salala Rubber Corporation (SRC) in Liberia, complained to the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), the independent watchdog and accountability mechanism for the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the World Bank Group. The complaint relates to a series of gross human rights abuses perpetrated against the people in SRC’s concession areas ranging from: land grab and forced eviction, reprisals against environmental, land and human rights defenders, sexual and gender-based violence, lack of free prior and informed consent (FPIC), among others. Lawyers representing the affected communities have also for the first time challenged the World Bank’s “weird and unfounded assumptions” related to the indigeneity of African tribes relying on the majority- minority constructs and perceptions without any evidentiary and empirical basis. The CAO is expected among others to rule on this issue.  SRC is a subsidiary of Socfin Group based in Luxembourg.

In Nigeria, communities from Aggah in Rivers State, filed a complaint on 15 December 2019 against the Italian energy company, ENI S.p.A with Italy’s grievance mechanism, OECD National Contact Point, complaining of the shocking impacts of flooding on their health, property, livelihoods and environment caused by ENI and its subsidiary NAOC. The complaint alleges that the company built elevated roadways, embankments and platforms that completely block natural streams that used to flow through Aggah, causing violent annual flooding of large swathes of farmland and residential areas. 

With these courageous efforts being mounted by affected communities through the MRU CSO Platform and its legal team to bring some needed relief, the imperialist styled aggression and expansion policy of foreign companies exploiting natural resources in the region, is gradually becoming a thing of the past, with the “day reckoning” at hand.   

Environmental, land and human rights activists in the region are further emboldened by the February 12 ruling of the UK Supreme Court that Nigerian farmers and fishermen can sue Royal Dutch Shell in English courts after years of oil spills in the Niger Delta contaminated land and groundwater there.

This is a massive upset for the oil giant and hopefully the opening of a big floodgate of suits against transnational companies in their home countries for excesses committed overseas. 

The Author

This article is written by the Secretariat of the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform (MRU CSO Platform), to give visibility to the untold stories of frontline grassroot human rights defenders across West Africa. The MRU CSO Platform is a network of environmental and human rights defenders; indigenous, urban slums and squatter communities; communities affected by the operations of multinational corporations; bloggers, labor unions and poor informal entrepreneurs on the frontline of corporate investments in West Africa. Its membership is drawn from nine of the fifteen countries in West Africa. Namely: Liberia, Sierra Leone, La Cote D’Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Niger and Senegal.

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