Battling Big Oil How Four Nigerian Villagers Took Shell to Court
Part 2: Blaming Theft
"At some point my father had had enough. He was tired of the handouts Shell used to keep us and the villages quiet, and he sued them," says Dooh. It wasn't an easy step for his father, one of the village elders of Goi. As a young man, he himself had worked on Shell's drilling rigs. But soon he ran out of the money he needed to pursue the case. A case filed in Port Harcourt in 1993 hasn't been decided to this day.
The village of Goi met its end in October 2004, after a major oil spill in the nearby Trans-Niger Pipeline. An oil slick spread through the channels for days and finally caught fire. The lagoon burned for almost a week, and 15 hectares (37 acres) of mangrove forest was in flames. Goi became a ghost town.
Dooh's father died in 2011, but before his death he decided to file another lawsuit against Shell, this time with the help of Friends of the Earth, which now supports his son in The Hague.
The suit came as a shock to Shell. Among the Dutch upper classes, it had long been seen as impudent to so much as criticize the oil giant. It seemed unbelievable that four Nigerian fishermen could take the company to court. But that was only the beginning.
For the first time in 103 years, the company was also called to testify before the Dutch parliament. Ian Craig, Shell's director for sub-Saharan Africa, sought to justify the environmentally harmful practice of flaring off natural gas, which is a byproduct of oil production, as well as the spills by claiming that such adverse effects were not a problem in another West African country, Gabon. Craig also claimed that Shell's operations in Africa were subject to the same standards as anyplace else.
Former Shell employee Bopp van Dessel tells a different story. "The facilities in Nigeria were in conformity with neither internal nor international standards." While the company used shiny drilling equipment in Western countries, van Dessel hardly recognized the same equipment in Nigeria. "Every Shell facility I saw was dirty. There was a terrible stench, and it was clear to me that the area was being devastated."
The Distance between Nigeria and the Netherlands
To be on the safe side, Shell attorneys took over from executives at hearing for the case brought by the four fishermen in The Hague. But this time, the millions upon millions of dollars the company has spent on social projects are not going to help Shell.
To be sure, the company has invested a significant amount of money in Nigeria, building roads and schools, and paying for programs to help people set up businesses. But of what use are such programs when human drinking water is contaminated? New hospitals are a good idea, but it's grotesque to realize that most of the patients are being treated for health issues associated with contaminated water or respiratory problems caused by the constant gas flares.
The attorneys were almost weepy when they presented one of their key arguments, asking the judges to consider that the managers of the subsidiary, SPDC, are not just confronted with a foreign language, but also with a completely different "legal culture," to which they are not accustomed. "The distance between Nigeria and the Netherlands is large, not only in geographical terms."
But sometimes the government and the company are surprisingly close. Shell CEO Voser, for instance, likes to appear personally to discuss a planned petroleum law with the Nigerian president. And according to one company report, Voser even sees his bonus affected when there are oil spills in Nigeria. According to Wikileaks, Shell's longstanding regional vice-president for sub-Saharan Africa, Ann Pickard, boasted of having her own people situated in all government ministries.
And then there is Shell's theory that all three spills that are the subject of the trial in The Hague were the work of saboteurs or oil thieves. "It's hard to believe everything that Shell ascribes to thievery," says Nnimmo Bassey, an architect who was forced to go underground by the former military regime. "Allegedly almost seven million liters are being tapped every day," says Bassey, a winner of the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize and one of Nigeria's best-known activists. "Such numbers are impossible to check."
There is an agency to investigate leaks and spills, says Bassey with a smile, but it's "dependent on Shell's expertise and helicopters." The oil multinational's only comment is that it has a professional working relationship with all government authorities, as it does in the case of the leak that contaminated Alali Efanga's fish ponds in Oruma in 2005. He too is suing Shell. And in his case, everything once again points to sabotage, at least that's what the company says. But according to internal company reports, there was already talk of "extensive and severe wall loss" in the pipes in the mid-1990s. In 1999, corrosion in the neighboring Kolo Creek Pipeline was deemed "unmanageable."
"The pipe was already leaking periodically before 2005," says Efanga, who now works as a financial accountant. Shell has no comment on the incident. The company also did not respond to questions as to how, if there had been sabotage, the grass around the site in question could remain intact, and why the saboteurs would have dug a hole more than 2 meters (6 feet) deep to drill a hole into the bottom of the pipeline.
"There are laws enabling people to seek damages, but no one enforces them," says David Amakiri, the king of Oruma, who works for Shell. He is not particularly complimentary of the company. Did the community benefit for the oil boom? He says that Shell built a road to his royal palace, an assembly hut where photos of him and his ancestors hang above worn sofas. "That was all. Since 1971."
It will be a long time before fish can be caught in Oruma and Goi again -- 30 years, UN employees told Eric Dooh, who wants to return to his lagoon. He hopes to one day build a small bed-and-breakfast in this spot with the nice view of one of the meandering delta waterways. One day, he says.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: How Four Nigerian Villagers Took Shell to Court
- Part 2: Blaming Theft