Oil giant Shell has begun a legal battle to block claims brought against it by more than 40,000 Nigerians from being heard by the English courts. At a hearing at the High Court in London on Tuesday, November 22, a judge was urged to find that the court does not have jurisdiction to try actions by two Nigerian communities over oil spills in the Niger Delta. Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) and the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) argue that the courts in Nigeria should hear the cases instead, but the communities believe that they will only get “justice” in the English courts.

UK law firm Leigh Day, which is representing the two communities, says the claims are over “extensive environmental damage caused by oil pollution” The first action was brought on behalf of 2,335 individuals from the Bille Kingdom of Nigeria, who are mostly fishermen. They claim their environment has been “devastated” by oil spills over the past five years. The second is on behalf of the Ogale Community in Ogoniland, which consists of around 40,000 people. Leigh Day says the community “has been subjected to repeated oil spills from Shell’s pipelines over a number of years which have still not been cleaned up”.

Lord Goldsmith QC, for Anglo-Dutch giant Royal Dutch Shell (RDS), and its subsidiary SPDC, told Mr. Justice Fraser that the cases concerned “fundamentally Nigerian issues” He said: “They are brought by many thousands of Nigerian claimants – with thousands more in the wings – in respect of pollution in the Niger Delta said to emanate from Nigerian infrastructure in which the Nigerian state has a majority interest.

“The claims raise issues of Nigerian common law, customary law and legislation. The events are said to have occurred in Nigeria and the alleged physical damage is all said to be found in Nigeria.” He submitted that : “The claims concern a uniquely Nigerian problem. It is not in dispute that oil pipeline sabotage, bunkering, and illegal crude oil refining activities are widespread in Nigeria and that the overall security situation is highly volatile. “These illegal activities are routinely reported in the media and highly visible to local communities some of whose inhabitants must be complicit in it. In recent months, the Nigerian armed forces have taken to air strikes in an attempt to curtail the worst of them.”

Lord Goldsmith said that the attempt to sue RDS “in relation to the alleged acts or omissions of SPDC is obviously a device aimed at procuring an ’anchor defendant’ in England for the purpose of attempting to persuade the English court to exercise jurisdiction over SPDC, a Nigerian domiciled company which has always operated exclusively in Nigeria”.

Daniel Leader, partner in the international group claims team at Leigh Day, said in a statement before the hearing that: “Oil spills from Shell’s oil pipelines have blighted the lives of the thousands of Nigerians who live in Ogale and Bille.” He said: “It is clear to the claimants that Royal Dutch Shell is ultimately responsible for failing to ensure that its Nigerian subsidiary operates without causing environmental devastation.

“It is time for Shell to clean up their act in Nigeria. At the moment these communities have no choice – they have to take them to court to get them to act.” His Royal Highness Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, tribal king of the Ogale community, attended the hearing and said outside court that this country was the “only place we can get justice”.

Clutching a bottle of polluted water from his community, he said: “The last resort for the people of Ogale is the British court.” A spokeswoman for SPDC said: “Both Bille and Ogale are areas heavily impacted by crude oil theft, pipeline sabotage and illegal refining which remain the main sources of pollution across the Niger Delta. “Ogale is in Ogoniland and it is important to note that SPDC has produced no oil or gas in Ogoniland since 1993. “Access to the area has been limited following a rise in violence, threats to staff and attacks on facilities.”

“The community’s lawyers argue that not only does SPDC owe a duty of care to Nigerian communities impacted by such criminal activity, but furthermore, Royal Dutch Shell – an Anglo-Dutch domiciled holding company without any employees – owes a similar direct duty of care to prevent oil spilled as a result of intentional third-party interference from damaging Niger Delta communities.”

“The Bille and Ogale communities have chosen to bring these claims in the UK instead of in Nigeria, whose laws govern SPDC joint venture operations. “ We are contesting the jurisdiction of the English court over these claims. We believe that allegations concerning Nigerian plaintiffs in dispute with a Nigerian company, over issues which took place in Nigeria, should be heard in Nigeria.’

Maureen Nzeogu
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