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Lessons from Niger Delta

The Niger Delta is an oil-rich part of Nigeria. Oil prospecting and extraction operations have been undertaken by multinational companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, which was part of the controversial case The Social and Economic Rights Action Centre and another v Nigeria (“SERAC case”) which was heard by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

In a nutshell, the SERAC case was a lawsuit where the plaintiffs argued that the government of Nigeria was directly involved in oil production through the state owned Nigerian National Petroleum Company in a joint venture with Shell Petroleum Development Corporation, and that the production had caused environmental degradation and health problems resulting from the contamination of the environment among the Ogoni people. The lawsuit was beneficial in that it exposed the many mistakes a government can make which may have adverse environmental consequences.

Despite the fact that a government company was part of the joint venture exploiting oil reserves in Ogoniland, the oil consortium disposed toxic waste into the natural environment and local waterways. Government also failed to implement checks and balances where the operations of this particular joint venture were concerned. For instance, there was a noticeable lack of oversight on the operations, and the safety measures in the oild production industry were not seen to be observed by the oil consortium. When the adverse environmental impact became apparent, government took a policy of silence in the face of turmoil. Government neither required the consortium to maintain its facilities which suffered avoidable spills, nor did it require the consortium to conduct environmental impact studies from the contamination of soil, water and air media.

These are all classic mistakes that a government can make, and in the long run they are a potent recipe for disaster as it was in the instant case. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Right relied on the article 24 of the African charter, and article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which the state of Nigeria is party. Ultimately the Commission found that the Government of Nigeria had facilitated the destruction of Ogoniland. Going forward, the Commission required that appropriate environmental and social impact assessments are prepared for any future oil development and that the safe operation of any further oil development is guaranteed through effective and independent oversight bodies for the petroleum industry. Furthermore, the government must provide information on health and environmental risks, and meaningful access to regulatory and decision-making bodies to communities likely to be affected by oil operations.

The instant case has shed light into the consequences of government indifference. Companies care little for anything but a healthy profit. Fortunately, the Commission was able to recognise that government has a responsibility to ensure that all companies toe the line.

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