Fishermen in Akwa Ibom State have accused ExxonMobil, the American multinational oil and gas corporation, of refusing to take responsibility and pay compensation for a series of oil spills that occurred in the state between 1998 and 2012.
The fishermen said they were encouraged to take their case out of the court in expectation a settlement will be reached. Years after, despite several petitions and reminders to government officials and the company, nothing has been done to help them.
The fishermen, under the Akwa Ibom Cooperative Fisheries Association, said oil spills occurred between 1998 and 2012, leading to the destruction of their nets and other fishing tools and livelihoods.
The group held a protest in Abuja in July to press ExxonMobil to pay for damages for hardships its members suffered in the last 14 years as a result of oil spills, estimating the compensation at N11 billion.
On October 4, 2021, it sent a petition to the National Assembly through the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, requesting the Nigerian government’s intervention in the push for compensation from the oil firm.
On 24 September, 2021 the group sent a reminder to the lawmakers through the office of Ike Ekweremadu, the Enugu senator.
“We, the board of directors and members of Akwa Ibom Co-operative Fisheries Association Limited wish to remind you of our plight and request contained in our letter of 24 July, 2018 (copy attached) on the above subject and to express our utter disappointment at the way our matter of injustice and spiteful treatment is being handled by the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,” the notice read.
The union said it went to court in 2005 to seek redress, but ExxonMobil quickly approached Eme Ufot Ekaette, a former senator, to plead with them to withdraw the case from court, with a promise that they were willing to settle the matter and pay compensation to enable them to return to business.
Documents seen by PREMIUM TIMES showed that the group filed a suit against the oil firm in 2005 but on 7 January, 2008, the group withdrew the case with the applicant number CA/C/3/2006 from court.
In 2010, the Senate Committee on Environment and Ecology under the then chairmanship of Grace Bent told ExxonMobil to compensate the group for the ruin the spills wrought on the community. The company has failed to comply 11 years later, the group said.
In 2015, ExxonMobil replied to a letter from the group, acknowledging that oil was released on January 12, 1998 from its Usari Idaho pipeline after scientific investigation but no damage was discovered in the environment.
It also confirmed that an oil spill occurred through the same pipeline in November 2012 but at the time of responding to the letter, its investigation was in progress.
A tale of endless havoc
Several oil spills occurred in Akwa Ibom between 1998 and 2012. An ExxonMobil pipeline in 2010 spewed multiple gallons of oil into the Akwa Ibom water, aggravating the unrelieved woe of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta.
The spill occurred at an ExxonMobil platform between 32 and 40 kilometres offshore at a platform, which feeds the Qua Iboe oil export terminal. The oil firm declared force majeure on Qua Iboe oil shipments due to the pipeline damage.
The leakage discharged barrels of crude into the Atlantic Ocean, contaminating the waters and coastal settlements in the predominantly fishing communities along Akwa Ibom and Cross River states.
The group of Akwa Ibom fishermen, whose members travelled nearly 1000 kilometres to Abuja, submitted a petition on July 8, to the National Human Rights Commission, requesting that the Nigerian government help them get justice.
The director, corporate affairs & external linkages, at the NHRC, Halima Oyedele, promised the aggrieved protesters that their grievances will be addressed.
The group said it has made significant efforts to get the oil firm to pay the compensation since the first oil spill in 1998.
They said a panel set up by ExxonMobil to handle spills-related issues received their complaints but has failed to redeem its pledge to pay them.
The leaders of the group, Johnson Ntegwung and Effiok Essien, said their members were asked by ExxonMobil to hand over all damaged fishing equipment, and that the submitted tools were destroyed by the company on the explanation that they did not want those items to be recycled for further claims.
“That pursuant to the above, the panel of enquiry, therefore, made recommendations that the total sum of N100, 000.00 (One Hundred Thousand Naira) be paid to each of the fishermen whose fishing equipment had been damaged as a result of the spills, at least to cushion the effect of the fishermen’s predicament due to the spills,” the group said.
When PREMIUM TIMES contacted ExxonMobil, the spokesperson, Ogechukwu Udeagah, denied knowledge of the case.
He requested details of the court case be sent to him. After the documents were sent, Mr Udeagah promised to send the documents to the legal department.
But at the time of filing this report, he did not respond.
Also, a spokesperson for the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), Idris Musa, Okey Emeh, said he could not comment on the case as it was in court.
“The DG cannot say anything for now, the matter is still in court. It is against the law to speak about a case that has no judgement yet,” Mr Emeh said in August.
But the fishermen group insisted the matter was agreed to be settled out of court in 2008.
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