Nigeria oil judgment – A small step in the journey from travesty to justice

A momentous ECOWAS court judgment will impact Nigerian communities like Bodo which are badly affected by oil spills. © Amnesty International

By Dr Kolawole Olaniyan, Legal Advisor, Amnesty International

Last week something momentous happened – and those of us who campaign for justice for the victims of oil spills in the Niger Delta had good cause to feel Christmas had come early.

The event was a judgment in which ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) court ordered the Nigerian government to punish oil companies over pollution, and it sent out a message of hope to the tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods have been destroyed.

But while there was a pause for celebration the fight goes on because pressure is needed to make sure that the government adheres to this judgment.

Oil companies, particularly Shell, have managed to evade responsibility for far too long. And the Nigerian government has allowed them to do so, putting profits before people.

As a result, communities in Bodo, an area badly affected by oil spills, are sinking further into poverty, unable to eat the contaminated fish or drink the water, stained black from the pollution.

Oil spills have occurred since production began over 50 years ago and that’s what makes the ECOWAS judgment so significant.

The Court ruled that the Nigerian Federal Government and six oil companies – Shell, Chevron, Elf Petroleum, Exxon Mobil, Agip Nigeria and Total Nigeria – have violated various human rights.

These include the right to a general satisfactory environment and the right to natural wealth and resources, as guaranteed under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights ratified by Nigeria in 1983.

The Court ruled that the government must now quickly implement the judgment and hold the oil companies to account.

As a concrete example, this means the government has to compel Shell to comply with national regulations, carry out a comprehensive clean up of the Bodo oil spills and properly compensate the people whose lives have been devastated.  Shell also has to prove that it has done everything possible to ensure that oil spills do not reoccur.

But this important decision comes against a backdrop in which the government has constantly given the green light to Shell to devastate people’s lives as the company wields enormous power.

According to information in the Wikileaks disclosure of US diplomatic cables in 2010, Shell has employees seconded to all relevant ministries and has access to everything that they do.

It’s also clear that oil companies wield tremendous influence over the regulatory regime that governs their operations.

In fact, the investigation process into oil spills in the Niger Delta is a travesty. There is very limited information publicly available regarding the state of Shell’s infrastructure in the Delta. But it is widely known that the company has failed to adequately maintain it over the years, with tragic consequences.

The government has to exert its authority over Shell as, with the ECOWAS judgment and court cases pending in the UK and the Netherlands next year, the clock is ticking against such negligence.

It is due to the total failure of the Nigerian system for regulating oil companies and ensuring that spills are properly addressed that the Bodo community decided to take Shell to court in the UK.

And with countries across Africa, such as Ghana, Sierra Leone and Cameroon, starting to exploit oil, these judgments have implications beyond Nigeria.

The Nigerian government and the oil companies operating in Nigeria have to set a good example and make sure that the industry brings development to the people, rather than allow a string of needless tragedies to continue.

Read more:

Ground-breaking ECOWAS Court judgment orders government to punish oil companies over pollution (Press release, 16 December 2012)

Nigeria: The true ‘tragedy’: Delays and failures in tackling oil spills in the Niger Delta (Report, 10 November 2011)


Posted in Business and Human Rights, Corporate Accountability, Nigeria | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

  1. i say stop the crime in Africa now all say stop the crime happening in Africa the Africa need to developmental and education and health and power

  2. these people deserve justice

  3. David Nnanna Ikpo says:

    The ECOWAS judgement is a good one, needless to say. Nonetheless, the real challenge is the our willingness as a nation to stand up to raise our stakes higher while granting our Oil Prospecting License and Oil Mining Lease by inculcating a reasonable demand for respect of our environment and other natural resources. Our being blessed with petroleum resources does not relegate other resources to the background. The use of one blessing ought to be a blessing to the other blessings and not dagger to mutilate them. Until Nigeria truly manages her petroleum resources with due sustainable regard to the people and their environment, any action done to ameliorate now may be merely a temporary shudder.

  4. kafui dzakpasu says:

    Black Gold as its called has caused lot s of problems in West Africa. Am happy with ECOWAS decision. OIL COMPANIES in Africa needs monitoring. I hope this works.

  5. Juanita says:

    “Oil companies, particularly Shell, have managed to evade responsibility for far too long” Compare what the oil companies have been doing for over 50 years to the one oil spill that BP experienced. When the BP oil spill happened here in the U.S., this country help them accountable. Oil companies here have been getting away with genocide. People in these regions had a way of life. It may not have caused them to live in the lap of luxury, but it sustained them with food, a trade, These oil co’s denied people one of the most precious resources placed in this world to sustain us…water. Yes they interfered with the process because they were being trampled on & ignored. I would love to see the U.S. tell the U.S. based companies, “You cannot do this because it will eventually effect us all.” But Nigeria needs to start telling Nigerian based companies they cannot continuing destroying the Delta & her people. And then maybe they will be proudly able to tell the U.S companies & others to either start doing right by Nigeria’s people or get out. I will keep watching to see just how much ECOWAS thinks human live and the Earth resources are worth. And yes, I will be checking stats to compare it with the BP oil spill.

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