‘Environmentally impacted communities deserve justice’

Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action, Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Barrister Chima Wil- liams, who just won the Goldman Prize award for environmental justice, in this interview with Business Editor, EDUABADE, advised communities oppressed by multinational oil companies to seek redress in the courts, rather than resort to self-help tendencies. He said no matter how long it takes, there is hope that the polluted Niger communities and others around the world deserve to get justice.

How do you feel about the Goldman Prize award and how do you plan to deploy the funds?

The award is a recognition of what we have been doing with communities across the Niger Delta and across the world in trying to bring hope to the people and steer them away from self-help tendencies and make them to understand the benefits of using the law, the law courts and application of the rule of law in their quest for seeking redress against any injustice that may have been done to them.

On the price of the award, it will help us to further expand the scope of our work and continue to sustain the work that we are doing in the sense that it will equally promote the hope aspect, because the work we are doing is basically centered on hope to the people that at the end of the day, there is hope at the end of the tunnel.

So, the fact that this award has recognised what we are doing is a parameter for the people to understand that the world is taking note of whatever little thing you doing in the cause of seeking justice for oppressed people and communities.

More importantly, we were not doing what we are doing with the expectation to win any awards, but this award shows that the world is watching the little things we are doing that are positive.

So, it is an encouragement for us. There are defining moments in every man’s life.

At what point did you decide to engage in the struggle against environmentally depraved communities?

Well, it is something that goes way back, but the decision to focus attention on environmentally oppressed communities and issues came with my contact with the likes of Nnimmo Bassey, the late Oronto Douglas, the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, the late Prof. Festus Iyayi and others. But we started first from civil rights activism, which dates back to my secondary school days. So, I didn’t just stumble on it.

My interaction with these persons now refocused my attention to create something that is a little bit off the track. Because in the 1990s, talking of environmental justice movement and campaign, not just in Nigeria, but globally was not the major thing.

It was the civil rights aspect that was the major focus and that was how in 1993 precisely through my interaction with these persons that I became a volunteer for the Environmental Rights Action/ Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) on its foundation from the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO).

So, we continued to hone ourselves until 1998 when through the guidance of the late Oronto Douglas (may God bless his soul), who was my senior as a lawyer and an activist, that I founded the first-ever students focused environmental justice movement in West Africa named Students Environmental Assembly Nigeria.

From there, the tendency to now support community people within the limits of our abilities was formed.

In other words, you fashioned your struggle after those role models you mentioned, is that correct?

Absolutely! That is very correct. Court of Appeal ruling in The Hague on the case between Shell and the Nigerian farmers may have come as a surprise after 13 years of back and forth.

Did you anticipate that verdict? For the outside world, it may have come as a surprise, but for me and my team of lawyers, it did not come as a surprise. In the first place, it was our disbelief of the case against Shell, which it won at the lower court that made us to appeal the ruling, because we thought that the judgment was not correct.

When we did our analysis of the verdict, we were highly optimistic that it will be upturned at the Court of Appeal. So, it didn’t come to us as a surprise by any standard.

Perhaps, what may have come to us as surprise was the depth of analyses and the judgment itself, which covered all fields. We expected a positive judgment at the Court of Appeal and that was why we filed the appeal in the first place.

Since the judgment, you must have contacted the communities in the light of the victory and may want to share your experience?

Of course we have been in regular touch with the communities. We have visited and talked with their leaders and everyone who cares.

We discovered that the judgment has given hope that our effort in steering the communities into positive actions, as well as renewing their thoughts and plans not to resort to any kind of self-help has yielded good result. Beyond that, our happiness is that the entire Niger Delta people have seen the judgment as theirs.

And so, their reactions have been positive and since the judgment of January 29, 2021, there have been about 10 other positive judgments that would ordinarily have been impossible, either in Nigerian courts or those outside the country or even in the home countries of the oil multinationals.

So, we see that the judgment has rekindled hope in our judicial system and the judicial systems of other climes.

Do you see a similar trend in the pending Ikot Ada Udo community litigation against Shell?

For us, the Ikot Ada Udo case was the first case we won at the lower court and by whatever parameters, we expect a positive judgment if it continues in court, but if doesn’t continue in court, the outcome will be positive on all sides. You have also been exposing how multinational oil companies are divesting from the Niger Delta after decades of polluting the region.

What, in your opinion, is the best way to hold the IOCs accountable, going forward?

We have always maintained that owners of assets have the right to sell when they wish, but in the circumstance of divestment by International Oil Companies (IOCs) and because there are legacy problems of pollution which affects people not involved in the business of buying and selling crude oil and fuel related products, our position is simple. First, they should clean up the mess they created and restore the environment to the way it was before they started their operations.

They should improve the livelihoods of the communities and not destroy the environment further.

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Following up on that, we sent a caveat-buyer beware, which is to say that whoever buys assets buys the liabilities. So, if they do their due diligence checks, they should know that the challenges of acquiring such assets will come after them.

It should be a total package for the Nigerian government and the investors to join forces with the communities, civil society and all stakeholders to ensure that the right things are done.

First is that if the IOCs must divest, they should restore the environment to the way it was. Two, if they won’t restore the environment, they should put in place an environmental remediation bond, which will be assessed by a collective interaction of all stakeholders to arrive at an amount that can take care of the problems already created.

Thirdly, most of the domestic oil companies (DOCs) buying those assets don’t have the technical knowhow and financial capacity to take care of the situation on ground, let alone what will happen in future.

So, the investors should also put in place their environmental remediation bond so that everybody will know that they have the capacity and if they fail to do the needful, the necessary authorities can then use the money to do the cleanup.

Those are some of the steps that can be taken and of course, the communities can litigate against the divesting and investing companies to stop the process until they are sure that their environment and sources of livelihood have been restored.

That can be done at national and home country levels so that in organising, states that are heavily impacted can work with communities, citizens and civil society organisations to mobilise for national action.

It is not a novel thing. After all, ERA/FoEN had done it before in Lagos by mobilising victims and civil society groups for mass action against the state.

Is there an estimated amount of the remediation bond you are recommending on the part of the divesting companies? We cannot put a price tag on it because ERA/FoEN has been advocating for years that there should be a $100 billion fund set aside for the cleanup of the Niger Delta.

So, if we take from there, the regulatory authorities and the relevant stakeholders can come up with a figure that can adequately take care of the cleanup of impacted sites in the Niger Delta.

Now that you have mentioned the issue of cleanup, what is your assessment of the Ogoni cleanup since nothing significant seem to be happening there?

We must put the narrative straight and very clear. It is not correct to say that nothing significant is happening in Ogoni, but it will be correct to say that things are not moving at the pace they should with the investments already made there.

The fact is that the more we wait to cleanup Ogoni land, the more problems and the more polluted the area gets. So, there are skeletal works going on, but more can actually be done.

It is the collective responsibility of community people, the media, civil society and all stakeholders to put more pressure on the government to do the needful, pursue the money and release funds to those saddled with the responsibility of the cleanup and monitor what is being done.

Because it is not just to ensure that money is released, but to what purpose the money is being deployed.

This should be our clarion call, because this government is winding up and as such, if the pressure is not sustained, it might be left for the incoming government to decide whether or not to continue the cleanup exercise.

But if the pressure is sustained, the goal will be achieved. It can also be made a campaign issue in the 2023 general elections, not targeted at any political party, but all political parties.

In the light of your award and recognition, what is your message for Nigerians?

My message if that of hope; for our Niger Delta communities being destroyed by oil exploration activities, there is hope. Let us get more organised, focused and mobilised.

No single individual can achieve anything in this kind of struggle. It is by collectively speaking with one voice that we can change the status of communities in the Niger Delta. And for Nigerians, let’s believe and support ourselves.

That is because some of the issues we have are caused by fellow Nigerians and until we see ourselves as one people with a common destiny that is connected, it will be difficult to solve our internal problems.

Let us take this as a pointer that when we do something positive, there will be recognition for it, however and whenever it comes.

The struggle will definitely not be easy, as we have seen that this lasted for close to 15 years beginning from when we started the work before the judgment came. So, persistence and consistence is key to driving positive change.

For the rest of us, this is not an individual struggle, but a collective one. If we must struggle against any multinational, we must be multinational in our approach, tactics and dimension of work. No single individual can solve the problems of the people.

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