Ogoni: Judge Orders Gas Flaring to Stop Immediately
The ruling by Justice C.V. Nwokorie came in a case brought by the minority Iwerekan community filed last summer and appears to apply to similar suits by seven other minority communities. They include the Ogoni ethnic group, which just last week marked the tenth anniversary of the notorious execution by the former military junta in Nigeria of writer Kenneth Saro-wiwa and eight other Ogoni environmental rights activists.
The judgment also follows the unprecedented 2001 ruling by the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) that called on the Nigerian government to compensate the Ogoni people for abuses against their lands, housing and health caused by oil-and-gas production practices, including flaring, by multinational corporations.
"For the first time, a court of competence has boldly declared that Shell, Chevron, and the other oil corporations have been engaged in illegal activities here for decades," declared Rev. Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth International (FoEI), which backed the lawsuit.
"We expect this judgment to be respected and that for once the oil corporations will accept the truth and bring their sinful flaring activities to a halt," he noted.
But the Shell Development Petroleum Corporation (SDPC), the co-defendant along with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), said it intended to appeal the judgment. SDPC is the Nigerian affiliate of Royal Dutch Shell and one of a number of such affiliates of major oil companies, including ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, TotalFinaElf, and Agip, active in the Niger Delta.
In a press statement, SDPC stressed that it has already spent some two billion dollars to reduce and eventually phase out the practice by 2009.
According to a recent FoEI report, more gas -- as much as 2.5 billion cubic feet a day, or 40 percent of all of Africa's natural gas consumption in 2001 -- is flared off in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. The loss in potential earnings to Nigeria, where roughly two-thirds of its population of almost 130 million live in absolute poverty, is estimated at some 2.5 billion dollars a year.
Moreover, according to FoEI report, "Climate Justice: Gas Flaring in Nigeria", the flares contribute more greenhouse gases to the Earth's atmosphere than any other African source.
Gas is burned off in the Niger Delta because neither the major oil companies nor the NNPC has invested in facilities to convert the gas into commercial use. As the gas is pumped through the grid of oil pipelines that crisscross the Delta's mangrove swamps, agricultural fields, and even villages, it is flared at various stations, sending huge plumes of flame and smoke into the sky with a constant roar 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The practice, as well as the frequent oil spills that have degraded the Delta's fisheries, water and soil, not to mention its inhabitants' quality of life and health, has been the subject of vigorous protests by the minority populations in the Delta, beginning in the middle of the last century when Nigeria was still a British colony.
Those protests, in turn, have drawn severe repression by the state, which historically also failed to invest in the Delta's economic development, in major part because the minorities who inhabit the region have lacked political clout.
Elected President Olusegun Obasanjo, who succeeded a series of military rulers regarded as particularly contemptuous of the Delta's minorities, has promised to address many of their complaints, including their failure to get a reasonable share of the oil and gas revenue. However, progress has been slow, and frequent confrontations between and among minority groups, oil companies, and government forces have continued during his rule.
Obasanjo worked out with the major oil companies a voluntary deadline of 2008 to stop gas flaring, but SDPC has said cannot meet that deadline. If Monday's decision is upheld on appeal, however, the pressure to take more urgent measures is likely to increase. In fact, routine flaring was first outlawed in Nigeria by a law approved in 1984, although it had no effect on the companies' practices.
Oil and gas account for more than 90 percent of Nigeria's export earnings, most of which is provided by the multinational oil majors.
In his decision, the judge ordered the attorney-general to meet with the Federal Executive Council, which includes the Obasanjo, his vice president and cabinet, to take immediate action.
"This is a landmark judgment," said Peter Roderick, co-director of FoEI's climate justice programme. "We applaud the courage of the judge in giving a clear message that flaring is an outdated practice that is not acceptable in Nigeria. We also applaud the court's decision to apply rights guaranteed by the Nigerian constitution to an environmental case for the first time in Nigeria, in line with other countries."
The landmark 2001 ACHPR ruling also ordered the government to take immediate action to redress Ogoni grievances, including undertaking a "comprehensive cleanup of lands and rivers damaged by oil operations".
Despite Nigeria's membership in the then-Organisation of African Unity, of which the ACHPR was a part, both the proceedings, which were brought by the Lagos-based Social and Economic Rights Action Centre, were mostly ignored by the Obasanjo government.
The Organisation of African Unity subsequently became the African Union, to which ACHPR now also belongs.
Its 14-page decision found that the government had violated seven articles of the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, to which Nigeria is also a signatory.
Among those were rights to "the best attainable state of physical and mental health àto a general satisfactory environment favourable to (the peoples') developmentàto freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources...and to adequate compensation when those resources are taken or spoiled."
Governments, the Commission argued, have an obligation to protect these rights, including against threats from private parties. "Contrary to its Charter obligations," it found, "the Nigerian Government has given the green light to private actors, and the oil Companies in particular, to devastatingly affect the well-being of the Ogonis."
"The intervention of multinational corporations may be a potentially positive force for development if the State and the people are ever mindful of the common good and the sacred rights of individuals and communities," it said in one of the most far-reaching decisions regarding the impact of corporate-led globalisation in developing countries.