A Nigerian King is taking one of the world's biggest oil companies to court in Britain over water pollution caused by decades of oil spills.
King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi arrived in London for a High Court hearing to represent 40,000 Nigerians who have lost access to clean water and now suffer from diseases they blame on Anglo-Dutch petrochemical giant Shell. The company has challenged the move, saying Nigeria is the proper venue for the suit.
"Shell is Nigeria and Nigeria is Shell. You can never, never defeat Shell in a Nigerian court. The truth is that the Nigerian legal system is corrupt," Okpabi told Leigh Day, a British law office.
The legal claims brought against Shell can open the gates for more multinational firms to potentially face trial in UK courts. If this case sets a precedent for the future, it will likely be costly for not only the company but also Nigeria itself, since oil revenue is a major part of its economy. The efforts to clean up damage will likely take decades.
Nigerian kings use to have more power as rulers of independent states before the formation of the Nigerian republic in 1963. Some are more powerful than others, but remain important actors in the country's social landscape, holding court over marriage issues and land disputes.
Today many of them are employed in senior positions of state and receive salaries or allowances from the public purse.
Okpabi is using his role to advocate for his community, Ogoniland in the oil-rich Niger river delta, to receive compensation from Shell to help end the ongoing environmental crisis.
A 2011 assessment of over 200 locations in his kingdom conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found severe and widespread contamination of soil and groundwater by cancer-causing chemicals. Shell began producing oil from the Niger Delta in 1958.
The king wants the High Court to force Shell to comply with the recommendations of the UNEP report, which calls for Shell to provide clean water to the affected areas and help fund the clean-up of damage it has already done.
"There are strange diseases in my community — skin diseases, people are dying sudden deaths, some people are impotent, low sperm count," Okpabi said.
He said Shell needs to be responsible for the harm it has done to the water. The cost could run into the billions, after five decades of oil drilling.
"I can afford to buy water. But can I afford to buy for everybody? No."
Amnesty International said that holding Shell accountable for water pollution in Nigeria would make other companies think twice before damaging the environment in other places.
"Not only does this provide opportunities for affected individuals and communities to gain compensation for damage done, but it also creates a deterrent to the poor practises that many companies believe they can get away with," Amnesty UK spokeswoman Kate Allen wrote in the Guardian, referring to a similar case regarding pollution that hit the fishing industry in the same region.
Shell's operations in the country are currently run by its subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC). Over the decades the company has become increasingly influential in Nigerian politics. According to a leaked US diplomatic cable, Shell placed staff into a number of ministries allowing it to get inside information, the Guardian reported.
The UNEP also found that institutional control measures in place both in the oil industry and the government had failed to stop pollution. That's why Okpabi says a British court needs to step in. Shell is an Anglo-Dutch corporation.
"If we wait for the system to roll on its own, I hate to say this, but it may be too late for the people of Ogale," Okpabi warned.
But Shell sees the matter differently. Because the pollution involves its Nigerian subsidiary, which runs a joint venture with the government, they feel a Nigerian court should hear the case.
Shell also blames the oil spills on third-party interference, like sabotage and theft. Under Nigerian law, Shell isn't required to pay compensation for spills of this kind.
"Ogale is heavily impacted by crude oil theft, pipeline sabotage and illegal refining which remain the main source of pollution across the Niger Delta," a company spokeswoman said.
She also noted that the SPDC has not produced any oil or gas in Ogoniland since 1993.
But Okpabi and his lawyers say the spills are still Shell's fault due to aging, leaky pipelines that still run through the region.
The Nigerian king said that no amount of money would be able to compensate for the deaths and injuries Shell has caused.
"We are dying," he said.