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Centre for Oil Pollution Watch (COPW) Vs NNPC (2018)

Jurisdiction: Supreme Court of Nigeria

Side A: Centre for Oil Pollution Watch (COPW) (Ngo)

Side B: NPCC (Government)

Core objectives: Whether an oil spill affected the human rights of communities.

On May 13, 2005, the Centre for Oil Pollution Watch (COPW) commenced legal action against the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). The NNPC was established by an Act of Parliament and carries on business of prospecting, mining, producing, exploring and storing persistent hydrocarbon mineral oil such as crude oil. It has offices, oil installations, oil pipelines, oil rigs and so on in different parts of Nigeria The case was brought in the Federal High Court, Lagos Division, over an oil spillage in ACHA Community of Abia State of Nigeria. The oil spillage was allegedly caused by the defendant’s negligence resulting from its pipeline, which had corroded due to lack of maintenance, had ruptured, fractured and spewed its entire Contents of persistent hydrocarbon mineral oil into surrounding streams and river of lneh/Aku, resulting in contaminating two community streams that were the major sources of water supply to the community. The plaintiff alleged that although the defendant contained the spillage on the surface, it failed to clean up or reinstate the Ineh/Aku streams/river. Furthermore, the plaintiff averred that the respondent was negligent in both the causation and containment of the oil spillage; that the spillage had harmful effect on living resources, marine life, human health and other usage of the streams. 

The respondent challenged the plaintiff’s standing to sue and sought an order striking the suit. On February 9, 2006, the trial court struck out the suit for lack of locus having not suffered any injury at all, let alone any injury above every other member of the Acha community resulting from the alleged oil spillage. On January 28, 20013, the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal by reaffirming the trial court’s ruling. The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court on March 9, 2013. On July 20, 2018, the Supreme Court unanimously granted the appeal in favor of the appellant.

The Supreme Court of Nigeria (SCN) held:
1. That the appellant NGO had the standing to sue the respondent, thereby liberalizing or broadening the rule of standing. The Supreme Court specifically highlighted “that public spirited individuals and organizations can bring an action in courts against relevant public authorities and private entities to demand their compliance with relevant laws and to ensure the remediation, restoration and protection of the environment.”
2. The Supreme Court further clarified that “Accordingly, every person, including NGOs, who bonafide seek the due performance of statutory functions or enforcement of statutory provisions or public laws, especially laws designed to protect human lives, public health and the environment, should be regarded as proper persons clothed with standing in law to request adjudication on such issues of public nuisance.”
3. The Supreme Court also acknowledged that recognizing public interest litigation will help address some other barriers to access to justice, as poor communities without “the financial muscle to sue” which usually and disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental and climate change problems, will have the benefit of public spirited persons and organizations fighting their cause.
4. The Supreme Court noted particularly, for the first time, that: “there is no gain saying in the fact that there is increasing concern about climate change, depletion of the ozone layer, waste management, flooding and global warming etc… Both nationally and internationally, countries and organizations are adopting stronger measures to protect and safeguard the environment for the benefits of the present and future … it is on account of this, inter alia, that I am of the firm view that this court, being a court of policy should expand the locus standi of the Plaintiff/Appellant to sue” – Per Aka’ahs, JSC.
Further, the national resources of earth… “must be protected and conserved for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning and management as appropriate” – Per Eko, JSC.
5. The Supreme Court also made significant strides in ‘greening’ the Nigerian Constitution and confirming the existence and enforceability of environmental human rights in Nigeria, in a manner that increases the possibility of successful climate change litigation in the country, especially by allowing public interest litigation. First, the Supreme Court held that Section 20 of the Nigerian Constitution on duty to protect the environment by the State is justiciable when read together with, and in the context of, a provision like section 4(2) of the Constitution, on the power to make laws to give effect to section 20. Second, the Supreme Court explicitly recognized for the first time, that section 33 of the Constitution which guarantees the Right to Life, implicitly includes and constitutes a fundamental rights to a clean and healthy environment for all. Third, the Supreme Court explicitly affirmed the enforceability of the environmental right in Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights as domesticated in Nigeria by the African Charter Act, Cap. A9 LFN 2004.

6. Finally, the Supreme Court decision in the above case aligns with the Constitutional Human Rights approach to Environmental and Climate Protection taken earlier by the Lower Court/Federal High Court in Jonah Gbemre vs Shell and others. It demonstrates a significant positive paradigm shift in the attitude of the Supreme Court to environmental and climate change related claims. It provides additional human rights and constitutional tools for potential climate litigation in Nigeria.

Case documents

from the Grantham Research Institute
from the Grantham Research Institute
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