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Crude justice: The Nigerians taking Shell to court

By Mathilda Mallinson

10 May 2023 · 11 min read

Editor's Note

Following years of environmental destruction in the Niger Delta, fossil fuel giant, Shell, faces the prospect of a trial. Is legal action enough to make amends? Prospect Magazine takes a closer look.

“The white men from Shell” were not always seen to be “living on blood money” by the community of Ogale. When they first arrived in the 1950s, the decade Shell struck oil in the region, they were stars. Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi and the other children would play by their caravans in the novel glow of electric light. As teenagers, they raced to push the men’s Land Rovers out of muddy pits and then refused to wash their hands for days. When the first gushes of black crude leaked into the Niger Delta—the artery of life for tens of thousands of settlements scattered across its swamp forest banks—they scooped it out of the river and doused their doorsteps, believing it could ward off evil spirits. But they were bringing the devil to their door.

“This is a sweet and sour story,” says Okpabi, dressed strikingly in a pink dashiki with a pocket handkerchief, paired with a bowler hat and shiny crocodile loafers. By the 1970s, he and his peers started to notice changes. Hunters returned from the bush with reports of animals going extinct. Strange diseases emerged, and the medicinal roots Okpabi’s community had relied on to heal them were dug up rotting in the earth.

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