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Nigeria: shell kept out of ogoniland and forced into courtrooms

Gas is often found mixed with crude oil and must be separated. Burning the gas, known as gas flaring, is the cheapest way to do this, yet also the most environmentally destructive. It acidifies lakes and streams and damages crops and vegetation. It also increases the risk of respiratory illnesses, asthma and cancer, and can cause painful breathing, itching, blindness, impotency, miscarriages and premature deaths. It also has global impacts, since gas flaring is a major cause of climate change. And it is a waste of a valuable commodity: while nearly three quarters of Nigerians live in extreme poverty, Nigeria loses US$2.5 billion every year through flared gas.

nigerian gas flaring 3
A Shell gas flare at Rumuekpe © E Gilligan
It is unsurprising, then, that gas flaring is a major factor in the tension and conflicts raging in the Niger Delta region. Yet companies including Shell have persistently refused to put a stop to gas flaring in the Delta.


Friends of the Earth Nigeria/Environmental Rights Action have been campaigning for many years to stop Shell’s wasteful and polluting practices. Besides raising Nigerian citizens’ awareness they have also been using legal channels to force oil companies in Nigeria to clean up their operations.

In November 2005, the Federal High Court of Nigeria ordered that gas flaring must stop in the Niger Delta Iwherekan community, because it violated guaranteed constitutional rights to life and dignity. The judge also declared that Nigerian gas flaring was unconstitutional. This was the first time that a Nigerian court’s decision applied rights guaranteed by the country’s constitution to an environmental case. In 2009 the government announced it would ban gas flaring in early 2010. In spite of this success, however, the government has yet to actually force the oil companies to stop flaring.


The legal strategy, in combination with continuous campaigning and pressuring the oil companies and the government, is starting to pay off in other ways as well. Oil spills and gas flaring cases have succeeded in putting Shell under a global spotlight, even though the government has not yet put a full stop to such practices. The cases have also forced Shell to reveal at least some information about its operations in Nigeria.


Recently, Shell was also expelled from the Dow Jones Sustainability Index: according to several sources this was due to its continuous pollution in Nigeria. This is a strong blow to the company’s reputation.


Shell has earned itself international notoriety for its well-documented environmental destruction and complicity in human rights abuses in the Niger Delta. This triggered the formation of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in the Niger Delta, led by Ken Saro-Wiwa and other community leaders from the Ogoni region. In November 1995, however, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others were executed by the military dictatorship, and legal actions have ensued, charging Shell with complicity in these killings. Lawyers from Friends of the Earth Nigeria/ERA were part of the defence team for the late Ken Saro-Wiwa and are supporting ongoing cases against pollution.

In June 2009, a landmark case against Shell was resolved out of court, ahead of a pending trial in New York: Shell paid US$15.5 million in compensation to the victims of human rights abuses in Ogoniland. However, despite its decision to settle, the corporation issued a statement that claimed, “Shell had no part in the violence that took place.”

On 3 December 2009, a unique legal action issued by four Nigerian victims of Shell oil leaks in three communities, in conjunction with Friends of the Earth Netherlands/Milieudefensie, began at the court in The Hague. This is the first time in history that a major Dutch company has been brought to trial in a Dutch court for damages occurring abroad. Following preliminary claims from Shell relating to process issues, which have now been rejected by the Dutch court, the ‘real’ lawsuit will begin in 2011.

Shell continues to be pursued by further cases. In January 2011, Friends of the Earth International, FoE Netherlands/Milieudefensie and Amnesty International also filed a complaint against the oil company before the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), over the company’s claims that oil spills in the Niger Delta are almost entirely due to acts of sabotage. The plaintiffs are challenging the validity of the figures that Shell has given regarding the causes of oil leaks in Nigeria, which Shell claims are primarily due to sabotage. These highly misleading statements lead to immense difficulty for the communities, as the company is not obliged to pay compensation for damage if the cause of a spill is sabotage.

Shell remains shut out of Ogoniland and until it cleans up its pollution and ends gas flaring throughout the Niger Delta, it will be
forced into courtrooms until justice is served.


Furthermore, communities across the Niger Delta – including those that are not directly affected – have gained confidence in their ability to challenge oil companies. More communities have actively engaged in legal cases, including a community youth organisation that has made a political demand for the Agip oil company to cease gas flaring in their community.

Friends of the Earth Nigeria regularly distributes fact-sheets and newsletters, places ads in local newspapers and holds ‘town hall’ meetings in the affected communities, to keep local people up to date with the legal work and to strengthen their faith in the legal cases. Staff members also make field trips in the Niger Delta to identify communities affected by new spills, and to record damaging impacts to be presented as further evidence.


nigerian gas flaring 9In 2010, oil giant Shell announced that it would invest US$600 million in phasing out one third of gas flaring in Nigeria, and in March 2011, the president of Nigeria announced a gas revolution that many argue will end gas flaring. Whether this will really happen is doubtful though: a study of this so-called revolution shows that it focuses on bringing investment into Nigeria, without any indication as to whether the gas to be utilised would be previously flared gas or gas sourced from new gas fields. In addition, after endless deadline shifts, the Nigerian state resorted to a new trick at COP-15 in Copenhagen, when carbon speculators were told that flare gas would now be used for electricity generation, and would attract carbon credits through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Even though gas flaring has been illegal for decades, the UNFCCC declared that a couple of these proposals would qualify as CDM projects. This route threatens even more stalling on bringing an end to illegal gas flaring in the oil fields of the Niger Delta. Resistance will continue.


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