By Rachel Millard For The Daily Mail: 7 December 2016
Residents of the communities in south-east Nigeria remember clearly the day oil giant Shell first arrived in the 1950s.
Children could hear the rumble of the trucks from a distance, so they’d wave at the drivers as they passed.
It still happened when King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, community leader of the Ogale community in Ogoniland, was growing up in the 1960s.
The region, largely marshland and swamps, was poor but the British firm, with its modern technology and skilled engineers, seemed to represent a new era of prosperity.
Over the years, Shell built a base as it teamed up with the Nigerian government to lay miles of pipes.
‘Their flare from their base was often the only light around, so we used to go near them to eat and tell stories,’ the King tells the Mail when we meet at his lawyer’s offices in London.
‘Sometimes they showed movies, so we would go up to the wire fence and watch: American cowboy films, John Wayne.
‘If a Shell Land Rover broke down we would be happy to push it… sometimes you would not even wash your hands because you touched the Shell car.’
Now, the goodwill has gone. Shell is defending a multi-million-pound lawsuit lodged in the UK by King Okpabi.
The 56-year-old father of six – dressed in a gold linen robe – remains upbeat despite the heavy responsibility he has taken on by coming to the UK.
His English is fluent thanks to the years he spent as a taxi driver in Dallas in the 1980s.
In Nigeria, the Ogale community he represents says Shell’s pipes have been leaking oil, polluting water and wells. The King says this has dented livelihoods and that Shell should pay compensation.
That there is pollution does not seem to be in doubt. But Shell insists it comes from ‘crude oil theft, pipeline sabotage and illegal refining’ – and says any case should be heard in Nigeria, not the UK.
King Okpabi is adamant it should be in the UK. But his choice of law firm – Leigh Day – may raise eyebrows. Solicitors from the human rights specialists have been accused of hounding British troops over their actions in the Iraq War.
They have submitted more than 700 claims to the controversial Iraq Historic Allegations Team whose £57million taxpayer-funded inquiry is probing allegations of abuse. Hundreds of claims have been thrown out, leading to calls for the witch-hunt to end.
Shell is an obvious target for what some see as an opportunistic claim. One of the world’s most powerful corporations, it is valued at £88billion.
The issues in Nigeria highlight the problems facing oil giants who made pioneering steps to help African governments extract oil.
The action lays bare an unwelcome issue that besets oil firms in politically volatile regions – that of oil theft, where local communities illegally tap in to pipelines to extract crude before selling it on.
Shell left Ogoniland in a hurry in 1993, facing huge social unrest and protests. But the facilities were not decommissioned and some pipelines still carry oil through the area. It is these, locals claim, which are leaking through decay and criminal damage, as well as larger spills.
The King recalls noticing possible oil pollution effects as far back as 1970, when he and his family returned to the area they fled during the civil war in the 1960s.
‘We noticed strange things happening,’ he says. ‘Skin diseases, the water smelling – but what do you do? People would drink it.’ After protests, the Nigerian government invited the UN to Ogoniland in 2005.
Researchers surveyed 122km of pipelines, reviewed 5,000 medical records and spoke to 23,000 people. Their damning findings included threats to human health from contaminated water, and pollution that had ‘perhaps gone further and penetrated deeper than many may have previously supposed’.
They described an 8cm layer of refined oil floating on groundwater for the community wells, and mangroves stripped of leaves and stems.
In one area they found people drinking water containing 900 times the safe level of known carcinogen benzene. Researchers found not all spills were caused by corroded equipment, with illegal oil extraction locally also at fault.
But they said the control, maintenance and decommissioning of oilfield infrastructure by Shell had been inadequate.
They said people who had been drinking the polluted water should be put on a medical list.
‘Can you imagine you live in a village with your children and this is what they have just told you?’ asks the King. ‘If this was the UK, Shell would be talking by now.’
The King says that attempts to get Shell to talk to him have fallen on deaf ears.
So he has joined forces with the nearby Bille kingdom to sue Shell through its joint venture with the Nigerian government, as well as the UK-listed holding company, Royal Dutch Shell, demanding a clean-up and compensation.
The first step will be to convince UK lawmakers he has a valid case, and the King sat in the High Court last month listening to lawyers fight the issue.
Shell says that since it concerns matters in Nigeria, the case should be heard there.
The company fears that allowing it to be sued in the UK could open the floodgates to litigation for its overseas business interests.
It has more than 1,000 subsidiaries in 70 countries.
The firm also says crude oil theft, sabotage and illegal refining are the key sources of pollution.
There are about 129 illegal refineries in the region, which drain oil from its pipelines. Shell says many dump waste in rivers and swamps and that its access to the area is limited after a rise in violence.
The King says there is little chance of justice in Nigeria’s corrupt courts. ‘What drives me is the fact that this is the only alternative for my people,’ he says.
A weariness overcomes his jovial demeanour. He says: ‘Sometimes I get tired listening. What do you do when somebody comes to you and shows you ridiculous-looking rashes all around a little child, maybe a child of five years old, and who would cough – terrible cough – sore all over his skin. What do you do?’
In June, Nigeria announced an £80million programme to clean up the area. But Okpabi and his community want Shell to get on with it.
A spokesman for The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria said: ‘Both areas are heavily impacted by crude oil theft, pipeline sabotage and illegal refining which remain the main sources of pollution across the Niger Delta.
Access to Ogale has been limited following a rise in violence, threats to staff and attacks on facilities.
‘We believe that allegations concerning Nigerian plaintiffs in dispute with a Nigerian company, over issues which took place in Nigeria, should be heard in Nigeria.’
In the new year the King discovers if he can put his one-time heroes on the stand in London.