African king takes on oil giant

POISON EVIDENCE: Bottles of contaminated water stand on a table as Nigerian tribal king Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi speaks during an interview in central London. Picture: AFP
POISON EVIDENCE: Bottles of contaminated water stand on a table as Nigerian tribal king Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi speaks
during an interview in central London. Picture: AFP

‘Dying’ Nigerian tribe turns to London to force Shell to carry out oil cleanup

King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi holds up aplastic bottle containing contaminated water from his community in Nigeria, proof of oil pollution that he blames on Royal Dutch Shell – and on which he hopes a London court will deliver justice.

“My people are drinking this water,” the tribal king of the Ogale community in the oil-rich Niger Delta said.

Okpabi flew to London for a high court hearing in which lawyers for more than40 000 Nigerians are demanding action from Shell to clean up oil spills that have devastated their communities for decades.

“There are strange diseases in my community –skin diseases, people are dying sudden deaths, some people are impotent, low sperm count,” he said in a pre-trial interview.

“I can afford to buy water. But can I afford to buy for everybody? No.” The Anglo-Dutch oil giant argues that the case should be heard in Nigeria, pointing out that it involves its Nigerian subsidiary, SPDC, which runs a joint venture with the government and Nigerian plaintiffs. But Okpabi, wearing a traditional robe with a red necklace and black top hat, said the English justice system was his only hope.

“Shell is Nigeria and Nigeria is Shell. You can never, never defeat Shell in a Nigerian court,” he said.

He wants the London court to compel Shell to implement a 2011 report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which warned of dangerously high levels of hydro carbons in the water, bitumen-coated mangroves and poor air quality.

It should order the company 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”.

Okpabi said no amount of money would be enough to address the damage, which UNEP warned could take 25to 30 years to resolve, but wants compensation.

“We are dying,” he said.

Shell lawyer Peter Goldsmith told the court this week that the cases concerned fundamentally Nigerian issues and should not be heard in London.

A company spokeswoman said that SPDC had 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 an £800-million (R14-billion) oil pollution cleanup programme in the Niger Delta.But Okpabi said the cleanup may be too late for the people of Ogale.

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