The average life expectancy, which in Italy is 84 years, is 53 years in Nigeria. But in the west of the country, in the regions bordering the Niger River delta, there is a further drastic drop: 41 years. A British study estimated that in this strip of land overlooking the Gulf of Guinea in 2012 alone, around 16,000 children died within the first month of life due to oil spills from extraction plants.
It is a tragic paradox: the abundance of black gold, which in the last fifty years could have enriched the Nigerian people immeasurably, has so far proved to be above all a source of misfortune, and has not prevented that today still 41 percent of the population ( 81 million people) live in conditions of extreme poverty.
This is because almost all of the country’s oil wells are managed by foreign multinationals such as the Dutch Shell or the Italian Eni, which transfer most of the proceeds from mining to Europe.
Not only that: these western giants are accused of exploiting the Nigerian subsoil without paying enough attention to the maintenance and safety of the pipelines, often the target of violent actions by local armed groups, with the result that toxic oil spills are too frequently recorded for the nature and human health.
On December 23, Shell announced that it will pay 15 million euros in compensation to the Oruma, Goi and Ikot Ada Udo communities for an ecological disaster that occurred between 2004 and 2007, when an oil spill from the multinational’s plants devastated a area of 400 thousand square meters which was mainly used for agriculture and fishing. Four farmers among the most affected by the spills denounced the Dutch giant fourteen years ago, supported in the case by the NGO Friends of Earth.
Shell has always denied any responsibility attributing the incident to acts of sabotage and theft against its pipelines, but in January 2021 the Court of Appeal of The Hague ruled that this cannot be demonstrated “beyond a reasonable doubt”: i Dutch judges actually ascertained that the disaster was partly caused by a series of tampering, however they considered that the company’s responsibility remains “open” both due to the enormous size of the spill and because the area has remained contaminated after many years and not enough remedial work has been done.
The Court ordered Shell to improve the surveillance system of its pipelines to avoid the recurrence of episodes like this, while the economic amount of damages was settled out of court by the oil company with Friends of Earth.
This affair – observed the spokesman of the NGO, Donald Pols – demonstrates that “the populations of developing countries can obtain compensation from the multinationals that harm them”.
However, “the agreement does not provide for any admission of liability,” Shell specified. As for the four farmers who denounced the European hydrocarbon giant, two of them have sadly died in the meantime.
Reparations like this restore a sense of justice, but they are not enough to repair the devastating environmental impacts of oil floods.
Moreover, it is not the first time that Shell has had to compensate the populations of the Niger Delta. In 2015, the Dutch multinational – which moved its headquarters to London about a year ago – was ordered to pay 70 million euros in compensation in favor of the Bodo community.
In November 2021, the company agreed to pay 95 million euros to the Ejama-Ebubu community in Ogoniland for oil spills that occurred between 1967 and 1970, during the Biafran war (according to Shell, the disaster was caused by sabotage by local military groups).
However, the enforceability of the 3.6 billion dollar fine imposed by the Nigerian Parliament on the European giant for the biggest accident in recent years is still pending in court: the spill of about 40,000 barrels of oil in the Bonga field, the December 20, 2011, which hit the Ogoni communities, historically the most targeted by black gold pollution.
Friends of Earth has calculated that between 1976 and 1991 in the region inhabited by this ethnic group, which extends for one thousand square kilometers, almost 3 thousand crude oil spills occurred, for about 2 million barrels. In 2009, Shell awarded a $15 million settlement to close a US trial in which it was accused of assisting in the execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders.
“Although we were ready to clear our name in court, we believe that the right path is to focus on the future of the Ogoni people,” explained Malcolm Brinded, director of the multinational’s Exploration & Production division.
According to the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (Nosdra), responsible for monitoring and responding to oil spills in Nigeria, between 2011 and 2021, more than 9,000 incidents were recorded in the country for a total of almost half a million barrels they polluted the area.
Eni is also involved. The Ikebiri community, which lives in Bayelsa State, also in the Niger Delta, denounced the Italian multinational for the explosion of an oil pipeline 250 meters from a stream in Clough Creek on April 5, 2010: the incident deprived made the local community of its main sources of livelihood, namely fishing and agriculture.
Appealed before the Court of Milan, Eni then began private negotiations with the Ikebiris which led to the termination of the trial pending the definition of a settlement agreement.
But in the state of Bayelsa, the company owned by the Italian state is also accused of dumping toxic substances into the waters. In November 2021, the Nigerian government urged Eni to guarantee compensation to the local community.
However, the company maintains that “environmental pollution is attributable to illegal oil refining and distribution activities that take place in rudimentary plants in remote forest areas and across rivers” by “criminal cartels” and that “Eni provides in every case for land reclamation”. The company also specifies that it has «constantly contributed to the development of the territory (…) through the supply of electricity, water, the development of infrastructures and study and work opportunities».
Eni and Shell were also at the center of an important trial before the Court of Milan for the alleged one billion dollar maxi-bribe paid to obtain the license on favorable terms to exploit the precious Nigerian offshore field Opl 245, off the coast of Niger Delta.
However, on 17 March 2021 the Milanese judges acquitted both multinationals and the 15 natural persons accused because “the fact does not exist”. The prosecutor withdrew the appeal and the sentence thus became final.
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