Royal Dutch Shell Plc  .com Rotating Header Image

How a poor Nigerian town got Shell to pay for major oil spills

Screen Shot 2015-11-06 at 19.44.59

Screen Shot 2015-11-06 at 19.49.14

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 15.38.08JESSE WINTERNovember 6, 2015

For decades, poor residents of the oil-rich Niger Delta have fought the pollution of their lands with little success. Now, writes Jesse Winter, a town ravaged by oil spills has changed the game with a historic court victory against Shell.

The Yamaha outboard coughs indignantly but refuses to catch.

John Agava mutters under his breath, removes the motor’s cover and flips it over. He siphons a splash of gasoline into it, strips the spark plug from the engine and swishes it around in the gas.

The former fisherman’s hand-carved boat rocks gently, alone on the expanse of slate-grey water of Bodo Creek in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

Agava replaces the plug and hauls on the engine’s pull cord. It coughs and finally catches. He tosses the gasoline rinse overboard, where it mixes with the rainbow sheen left from a massive oil spill that changed his life — and thousands of others’ — seven years earlier.

The waters of Bodo Creek and the surrounding delta were once strewn with fishing boats like Agava’s. But in 2008 a Royal Dutch Shell pipeline burst beneath the surface and gushed thousands of barrels of oil into the surrounding river and fertile mangrove forests. Another ruptured in 2009. Together, the spills pumped an estimated 300,000 barrels of oil into Bodo Creek.

It destroyed the area’s fishery and Bodo’s economy collapsed.

The Niger Delta, the scene of countless similar spills, is now one of the most oil-polluted places on the planet.

A UN Environment Program study in 2011 showed that if the spills stopped and cleanup began immediately, it would still take 30 years and $1 billion just to restore Ogoniland, the sub-region of the delta where Bodo is located.

But 20 years after the first large protests over oil pollution and human rights in the area resulted in the executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni activists, a court victory has given new hope that redress is possible for decades of environmental degradation and corruption.

In January, after a protracted legal battle, Shell admitted responsibility for the Bodo spills of 2008 and 2009 and settled a landmark lawsuit with the community. The company agreed to pay $110 million in compensation to more than 15,000 residents — John Agava among them — and pledged to clean up Bodo Creek.

The case, thought to be the largest settlement of its kind in Africa, has implications for the oil industry in Africa and beyond.


It set the precedent that individual citizens can claim damages and be compensated directly for oil pollution to their land. And it confirmed that the legal battle could be fought where the parent company is located — in this case in the UK, where Shell has its headquarters — rather than in Nigeria, “where there is no hope of any justice,” according to the British law firm that argued the case.

“The real significance of the Bodo legal settlement is not what happens in Bodo per se, but the precedent that the settlement establishes … for other oil-producing communities in the Niger Delta but also for other oil-producing communities in sub-Saharan Africa and throughout the developing world,” says Scott Pegg, a politics professor at Indiana University who has been following the Ogoni rights movement for 20 years and was selected as a trustee to oversee the Bodo community trust fund.

“The Bodo settlement establishes a new benchmark that other communities in the Niger Delta and elsewhere will now use as their starting point in all future negotiations with transnational oil companies,” Pegg says. “Not every community will have as good or as compelling a case as Bodo did, but the days of brown envelope payments to chiefs are now over.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-06 at 19.52.44

Nigerian Oil Spill Monitor

The damage and the deal

“I was fishing with my late father since I was 12 years old,” says Agava, sitting outside his home in Bodo, about an hour’s drive from the port city and oil hub of Port Harcourt. “We were fishermen until right before the spill.

“But when the oil spill came, everything was covered. You see my house, it’s right along the waterfront. You can see the path of the oil. My children, this is where they used to play,” Agava says, sweeping his arm across his yard. Seven years after the spill there are still rivulets of oil collecting along the shore near his home.

Now 41, Agava fishes rarely these days, only when he needs the meagre catch to supplement his family’s diet. When he and his brother head out on the waves, theirs is one of only a handful of boats left working the water, and their nets come back all but empty.

“I know that if I can go back to fishing, my children will eat better from fish. It gives us very good vitamins,” he says. “But now in the river there is no fish.”

The lack of fish around Bodo isn’t the only evidence of the spills’ damage. In fact, the settlement might never have happened if it hadn’t been for a curious collection of tiny river-dwelling creatures called macrozoobenthos and a marine biologist who happened to be studying them.

Dr. Nenibarini Zabbey — who everyone refers to as Doc — is now the director of the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD), which was instrumental in the case against Shell.

Zabbey had just finished an extensive study on aquatic life in Bodo Creek when the spills happened. His doctoral research used these tiny organisms that live in riverine sediment as a benchmark for tracking oil pollution.

“Ecologically speaking, they are good indicators of changes in an environment because they are relatively immobile. They are exposed to all the changes in an environment because they don’t move, they don’t migrate,” Zabbey explains.

For two years he tromped around in the shoreline mud in Bodo, sampling macrozoobenthos and creating what would become a set of vital baseline statistics about the teeming life in the creeks before the spills.

After the spills, CEHRD took Shell to court in Nigeria, but got nowhere. In 2010, a frustrated Zabbey asked the British law firm Leigh Day and Co. to take the case.

The strength of Zabbey’s pre-spill data helped convince the firm that the case was winnable.

But first, Leigh Day had to convince the British courts to hear a Nigerian case, and thanks to a growing body of precedence called parent company liability, they agreed.

“Parent companies have a due diligence requirement to make sure that their subsidiaries are not trampling people’s human rights overseas,” says Daniel Leader, a senior partner at Leigh Day who worked on the Bodo case.

The legal battle took four years to settle. Shell claimed that the Bodo spills were small, only 4,000 barrels, and that they affected only 36 hectares of mangrove forest — despite the fact that Shell allowed the two spills to gush for 72 and 75 days respectively before stemming the flow. When Amnesty International had oil experts review footage from one of the geysers, they pegged the flow rate at close to 3,000 barrels per day.

“One of their arguments was that the creek was already in dire straits, that there had been lots of spills before the ones in 2008 and 2009 and that essentially the creek was on its last legs,” says Leader.

Doc Zabbey’s data proved otherwise. It showed that the 2008 and 2009 spills had killed off 97 per cent of his macrozoobenthos in what had, until then, been a creek teeming with life.

In an emailed response to the Citizen about this case, Shell Petroleum Development Corporation of Nigeria said its ability to respond to spills is hampered because “access to spill sites is often restricted.” The company also blamed criminal interference and “the widespread theft and illegal refining of crude oil” for recontaminating old sites. The company said it “is nonetheless committed to cleaning up spills from (its) facilities, irrespective of cause.”

Compensation and complications

Shell settled the claim, but there was still the challenge of ensuring that the citizens of Bodo actually saw the money they had been awarded. That meant overcoming the semi-institutionalized corruption in Nigeria’s political system, including in Bodo. It also meant setting up bank accounts for 15,600 people, many of whom had never used an ATM before. And it meant preparing for the consequences of handing up to eight years’ worth of income to a community struggling with poverty and a crippled ecosystem.

The compensation money was split in two. Half went directly to the plaintiffs, including John Agava, most of whom received a payment equivalent to about $4,000 Canadian dollars — equal to six to eight years of income per person. The other half was put into a trust fund for community development.

“For the first time people are getting real, significant compensation out of the oil majors. It doesn’t just get divided up between the chiefs and the lawyers, which is usually the way of things,” claims Leader.

But despite the law firm’s attempts to be transparent, the direct payments and the community fund would both spark protest.

When news of the settlement broke in January, media reports claimed that each of the 15,600 plaintiffs got the same $4,000 payment, but that was not exactly true.

For example, as a lead witness in Leigh Day’s case, former periwinkle picker Evelyn Pilla was paid $8,000 in compensation — twice what average plaintiffs got. She says she was paid extra as compensation for the onerous work she had to do in preparing to be a lead witness.

Indeed, only 100 of the 15,600 plaintiffs were identified as lead witnesses, and were compensated more for producing 40-page witness statements and compiling detailed schedules of their financial losses from the spill. They would have given testimony in court about how the spill impacted their lives had the case gone to trial. And 16 men on Bodo’s council of chiefs were also given higher payouts, ranging between $8,000 and $11,000.

Leader would not verify the exact amount that individual chiefs or lead witnesses got, citing his clients’ privacy concerns.

“I think they got a little bit more, but in the context of what usually happens in the Niger Delta, which is that no individual claimants get anything and the chiefs and the lawyers get everything, it was a fraction of what usually happens,” Leader says.

But in Nigeria, rumour can turn into violence at the drop of a hat. Misinformation about who was paid what and why spread through the town. A mob of angry youth rioted. They attacked some of the chiefs’ houses and burned them. Many of the chiefs fled into exile in Port Harcourt.

The plaintiffs were also unhappy that half the money went into the community development fund, again fearing that corruption would keep it from ever benefiting them directly.

“We’ve heard the promises of community development too may times before,” Pilla says through a translator. The 26-year-old used her individual settlement money to set up a sewing business in town. She also started construction on a house for her and her son, but had to stop when the money ran out.

After the riot in Bodo, the community elected a group of men — not chiefs, but other leaders — to help decide what should be done with the remaining community money.

The community’s view was clear: “Share the money.” It was a sentiment that was repeated by more than 30 people interviewed for this story.

It was the outcome John Agava wanted to see. Like many in Bodo, he had used some of his original settlement money to begin building a new house for his family.

The money flooding into the town last spring caused a construction boom and, within months, houses were going up everywhere you looked. But for most people, $4,000 is only enough to build about half a house. By mid-July, most of the building had stopped again as the money ran out, leaving the community dotted with empty and uninhabitable concrete shells. Many of the people demanding that the community trust money be shared said they wanted it so they could finish building their houses.

At another public meeting on July 30, the committee decided to share most of it among the community members, leaving only a fraction in the community trust.

Each plaintiff stood to receive about $2,600 more.

While the compensation issue is now settled, Leader says his law firm isn’t finished with Shell just yet.  The oil company’s promised cleanup of Bodo Creek hasn’t been started almost a year after the settlement was reached. Leader says if Shell doesn’t make meaningful progress by the new year, his firm will be dragging the company back to court. Leigh Day has also agreed to take on four more cases in Ogoniland.

Building a new livelihood

John Agava rises early these days, even for a former fisherman.

He leaves his tin-roofed house by the water while his wife and children are still sleeping. Instead of a fishing boat, he now climbs into a used but stately grey sedan and drives the road to Port Harcourt, looking for fares for his fledgling taxi business.

Unlike many fishermen in Bodo, Agava had another marketable skill to fall back on: driving. When his personal settlement money arrived this spring, Agava bought the sedan and went into business for himself.

“When they paid the money, to God be the glory, I got a car,” he says. “Ever since then I’ve become a transport businessman. That is what I do for my living now, to feed my children,” he says.

It’s a fresh start, but it doesn’t come without sacrifices.

“I make sure I leave around 4:30 or 5 o’clock to get to Port Harcourt,” he says. “Most of the time my wife, she’s not happy. When you leave the children in the house and you come home around 7:30 in the evening, the children may be sleeping. I don’t get to see them very much.”

But Agava is upbeat about the extra compensation from the community fund

“When you come next time, you will see all these things completed,” he says, bouncing his two-year-old son Edward on his hip as he looks up at the sky from inside the concrete walls of his own unfinished house. “That is why I asked for the remaining money.

“If you come here in the next two years, you will be very happy for me. If they can be able to pay us the whole money, it is good. I would start so many things, you will see my life change if the whole money come out.”


This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.