Shell's Niger Delta cleanup: Ogoniland's uncertain future

Published : July 31, 2021 22:42 IST

-AFP/Y. Chiba

A Dutch court in January ruled that Shell had polluted the Niger Delta and ordered the energy giant to pay compensation. But many are now questioning whether it is enough to put right the misery suffered by the people.

The conflict between the indigenous people of Ogoni in Nigeria's Niger Delta is a perennial one. This year's court ruling by an appeals court in the Netherlands — in favour of Milieudefensie/Friends of the Earth Netherlands and four Nigerian farmers — was heralded by some of them as justice.

The court delivered its judgment at the end of a long-running civil case. The farmers were seeking financial compensation and a cleanup by Shell for pollution caused by pipelines leaking oil into the Niger Delta.

Justice served

"Shell Nigeria is sentenced to compensate farmers for damages," the court said. The bench added that parent company Royal Dutch Shell was also liable to install detection equipment that could prevent future damage on the Oruma pipeline, the site of a significant number of the spills.

"After years of litigation there is finally justice for many of my clients," said Channa Samkalden, the lawyer for Milieudefensie and the Nigerian farmers. This is a sentiment also shared by Eric Dooh, one of the farmers.

"Finally, there is some justice for the Nigerian people suffering the consequences of Shell's oil," Dooh told DW. For Donald Pols, Milieudefensie director, it was "fantastic news for the affected farmers. It is enormous that Shell has to compensate for the damage."

It may well be that justice has indeed been served, based on the argument by Mr Pols, who said: "this is also a warning for all Dutch transnational corporations involved in injustice worldwide. Victims of environmental pollution, land grabbing or exploitation now have a better chance to win a legal battle against the companies involved."

The question that remains unanswered, however, is whether implementation of the court's ruling will be carried out to the satisfaction of the afflicted population.

Discontent over implementation

Since a United Nations 2011 recommendation that operations be put in place to clean up the oil spills, the feeling among the Ogoni indigenes is that little has been done. A popular sentiment remains that the Dutch court ruling would not translate into concrete action.

"The Ogonis are not satisfied with the level of environmental remediations so far," said environmentalist FyneFace Dumnamene.

While the Nigerian government acknowledged that the cleanup exercise was not going according to plan, due to the COVID pandemic, it insisted that the process was going on smoothly. This is a position that is vehemently challenged by some of the Ogoni residents.

"I am not satisfied with the clean up exercise," said Bemene Tanem, an Ogoniland resident who insisted that reports of a smooth cleanup were "fake news." "President Muhammadu Buhari actually meant well for the Ogoni people, but for those that are executing the project, they are not doing what they ought to do."

This refers to an ongoing plan to clean up the heart of the country's oil industry, which came after Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari asked the UN Environment Programme to assess the level of oil contamination in 2016.

But some five years later, the UN reported shocking pollution levels.

Delay tactics?

Environmentalists and activists have been questioning whether Shell's actions are simply a stalling technique, while they continue to exploit the resources of the region to the detriment of the people and the environment.

These allegations are founded on the basis of an 2009 decision by Shell Corporation to settle out of court with a group of Ogoni people.

The 2009 settlement of $15.5 million (€13 million) — which some people described as insufficient to redress the devastating pollution, human rights abuses and misery suffered by millions of Ogoni people over several generations — may have stalled the agitation for a while but did not successfully stop it.

For some people, such as Bemene Tanem, even this year's court ruling, ordering Shell to clean up the environment, fell short of the demands of the Ogoni people.

"…what the Ogoni people are demanding for basically is political emancipation, we have been deprived of our economic rights, despite the huge economic and natural resources God had endowed in our land, we have not benefited from it economically," said Bemene.

The importance of the people benefiting economically from any projects being carried out is further articulated by Legborsi Yaamabana, a journalist and Ogoni resident.

"What we just want to see in Ogoni is an improvement in the socialeconomic and environmental life of the Ogoni People ... that even the present attempt to clean the area have to march with a socioeconomic recovery," Legborsi told DW.

These sentiments are not shared by Sunny Zorva, former spokesman for the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), who sees the current steps being taken as huge milestones in the right direction.

"Individuals will benefit, the community will benefit, the government will benefit, and, in fact, the companies that will later come to do some work in the area will also benefit … after the clean up, the water will be restored, the aquatic life will be restored, farmland will be restored for farmers to continue their fishing and farming," maintained Zorva.

Allegations of Corruption

The optimism shared by some of the people is dampened by growing allegations that, while Shell claims to have done significant work in cleaning up the Ogoni environment, the governing council and board of trustees — known as HYPREP — set up by the Nigerian government to oversee the clean up process, has been mired in allegations of corruption.

"The project started without the implementation of the emergency measures recommended by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

These measures include the provision of potable drinking water for the people and of course the provision of issues around livelihood, including the building of a contaminated soil management centre…" environmentalist FyneFace Dumnamene argued.

Such allegations are ones that some feel will not go down well with the people. For those who have been involved in the ongoing campaign for better living conditions, any actions by HYPREP that do not conform with people's expectations will be opposed.

"Any report of corruption in HYPREP will be seriously resisted," Sunny Zorva said. "The people are not happy about it, because it's about their life, it's about their environment."

Hope on the horizon

There is, however, a high degree of optimism among different experts and Ogoni residents. After President Buhari's administration apologized for the delay in the cleanup, the work resumed in earnest and 17 sites were certified as having being cleaned.

There was a sense that keeping their promise also works to the government's advantage, as they also benefit from a clean Ogoniland environment. "They said Ogoni people are volatile or violent, it's because they do not have jobs, they do not have what to eat what to do. But when these things are back, there will be security in the place, even the government will benefit," assured Zorva.

The UN estimated that the entire effort to reverse the shocking levels of pollution caused by oil spills could take as long as 30 years. Such a long time frame is to be expected given the extent of damage that has been wrought by decades of Shell's involvement in the destruction of the environment and persisting accusations of human rights abuses.

That illtreatmnet ultimately led to the 1995 execution of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa by a former military regime in Nigeria for fighting for the rights of the Ogoni.

Muhammed Bello contributed to this article

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor