King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi was in London for a High Court hearing on the degradation of his Ogale community, near Ogoni, Rivers State in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region, a situation he blames on Royal Dutch Shell.
“My people are drinking this water,” he said on Tuesday, demanding action from Shell to clean up oil spills that have devastated communities in the area for decades.
In what may suggest a loss of fate in the Nigerian judiciary system amidst fears of official conspiracy, King Okpabi who went with samples of the contaminated water, told AFP in London: “There are strange diseases in my community — skin diseases, people are dying sudden deaths, some people are impotent, low sperm count. “
“I can afford to buy water. But can I afford to buy for everybody? No.”
He wants the English Court to compel Shell to implement a 2011 landmark report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which warned of dangerously high levels of hydrocarbons in the water, bitumen-coated mangroves and poor air quality.
Specifically, he wants the anglo-Dutch giant to “go and clean-up Ogale, go and provide water for them; go and do medical history for them, and where medical attention is needed provide for them.”
But, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant argued that the case should be heard in Nigeria, because it involves Shell Petroleum Development Company, its Nigerian subsidiary, which runs a joint venture with the government, and Nigerian plaintiffs.
Not willing to give up, Okpabi insisted that the English justice system remains his only hope to end the blight on his people’s lives, because Shell has over time ingrained in the Nigerian government
According to him: “Shell is Nigeria and Nigeria is Shell. You can never, never defeat Shell in a Nigerian court. The truth is that the Nigerian legal system is corrupt,” he said.
In a veiled reference to the cost of implementing his demands, The king said no money would be enough to address the damage, which UNEP warned could take 25 to 30 years to resolve.
Hinting of the urgency of the situation, he lamented: “We are dying.”
Shell will challenge the jurisdiction of the English courts in the case during three days of hearings this week, while it also disputes the claims made by lawyers Leigh Day, who represent Ogale and the smaller Bille community.
“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,” a company spokeswoman said.
She noted SPDC has not produced any oil or gas in Ogoniland, the region surrounding Ogale, since 1993.
But Okpabi and his lawyers say the company’s ageing, leaky pipelines still run through the region and it must take responsibility.
SPDC says it has delivered water and healthcare to the community and is supporting the implementation of the UNEP process by the government, which in June launched a $1 billion (£800 million, €940 million) oil pollution clean-up programme in the Niger Delta.
Okpabi expressed belief that President Muhammadu Buhari is “sincere” in wanting to address the issue, but warned: “If we wait for the system to roll on its own, I hate to say this, but it may be too late for the people of Ogale.”
Attacks on Nigerian pipelines have increased this year, cutting output and helping tip the country into recession, but Okpabi insists “there is no vandalising” in Ogale.
The king condemned the saboteurs, warning that “you cannot bomb your house to get attention”.
However, he added: “I’m also appealing to Shell and the Nigerian government to listen to those communities that are non-violent and do something.”
In January 2015, Shell agreed to pay more than $80 million to the Nigerian fishing community of Bodo for two oil spills in 2008, following a case brought by Leigh Day in London.
In December, a Dutch court permitted four Nigerian farmers and fishermen to sue the company for environmental pollution, potentially opening the door to other cases to be brought in the Netherlands.