Oil company Eni accused (in Italy) of causing floods in a Nigerian village

The Nigerian community of Aggah has been flooded due to the operations of a company controlled by Eni. It is seeking justice in Italy where the crucial decisions affecting its village are being taken.

There is a different type of migration flow from Nigeria to Italy, different from the one that sees people fleeing poverty and violence. It is the migration of those who seek justice and demand that Italian multinational companies are judged according to European laws and treaties rather than African courts, too often bridled by local interests, corruption or absence of jurisdiction. Local communities are learning how to make their voices heard also thanks to humanitarian organisations that provide free legal assistance and facilitate access to justice.

This is the case of the Nigerian community of Aggah, in the River State – a very popular destination among oil and extractive companies – that in December filed an official complaint to Italy and The Netherlands against Italian oil company Eni and two Dutch holding companies for the behaviour of Nigerian Agip Oil Company (Naoc), which they control.

flooding Aggah, naoc, eni, nigeria
One of the flooded homes in Aggah, Nigeria © David Iheamnachor

The companies are accused of violating the human rights of citizens of this area according to the international standards of corporate conduct outlined in the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Based on the UN guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, the guidelines call for more transparency, accountability and respect of human rights and encourage remediation mechanisms in case rights are violated.

Despite the complexity of holding into account fragmented enterprises subject to different legislations, this tool aims to strengthen companies’ social responsibility: these are in fact held accountable for the impact of their own operations as well as the operations of controlled subsidiaries, that as such have limited decisional or economic power and operate in foreign countries – as is the case of Naoc.

The Aggah case

Eni has operated in the Aggah area since the 1970s and built elevated roadways and embankments, which many believe block natural streams causing violent floods of large swathes of farmland and residential areas. Every year property and livelihoods are devastated, people are forced to leave their homes and are exposed to health risks such as pneumonia and malaria.

“We haven’t been sleeping in our house,” Blessing Godwin, a resident displaced with her children, laments. “I sleep on top of a table in my shop. We’re suffering seriously now because water has taken over everywhere. We hope that Eni can put in place proper drainage systems so that water won’t flood the community”.

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A woman harvests cassava prematurely due to the floods © David Iheamnachor

Jonathan Kaufman is the CEO of Advocates for Community Alternatives, an organisation that helps West African communities that are threatened by the destructive impacts of extractives-led development to design a sustainable future for them. Kaufman follows the case of Aggah with the support of the Italian lawyers Giacomo Cremonesi and Irene Salvi who help with the practicalities in Italy and Chima Williams & Associates, the Nigerian law firm legally representing the people of Aggah.

A community association, Egbema Voice of Freedom, under the leadership of Pastor Evaristus Nicholas, filed the complaint with the OECD with the aim that Eni take responsibility for building and maintaining an adequate drainage system to end the annual flooding, and compensate and assist Aggah residents whose rights have been violated.

“It’s clear that there are human rights violations at play here because, as a result of the company’s negligence or action, people have lost access to adequate food, their homes have been destroyed, their health has been degraded and in some cases they’ve been killed – all of these things correspond to internationally recognised human rights,” Kaufman explains. “We analysed UN documents and treaties and it was really clear that what looks at a first glance to be an environmental issue rises to the level of human rights violation. Environmental abuse does amount to human rights abuse when it’s so severe that it destroys things people rely on for their basic level of living”.

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A family pools its harvest of premature cassava © David Iheamnachor

Human rights and transparency in Nigeria

But there’s more: “Honestly, I’m shocked that Eni isn’t solving a problem that is in front of everyone’s eyes. The relationship with the community is now strained. So what is important in this process is that not only Eni agrees to fix the problem but there is transparency and accountability and we don’t end up with another broken promise”. The solution is simple but the process to get there is delicate and needs to be open and transparent.

Very often, in fact, companies pay some money to one faction of the community in order to have the works done but there’s no transparency, no way for other people to monitor the quality or the capability of such works to fix the problem.

A participative approach should be pursued at multiple levels as it helps empower the community. Among the documents that have been filed to support the complaint, for example, there is the outcome of a survey in which 2000 people were interviewed to investigate the perceived impact of the flooding on the livelihoods, health and businesses, on individuals and households in Aggah.

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A flooded Nigerian village © David Iheamnachor

“The results show a really tragic situation,” says Kaufman. “We had never had a full picture until now. Having the community understand what they’re facing is another really positive aspect of the process. Once they have this information they can use it on their behalf: this is the reality, no matter what Eni tells them”. The results show the impacts are widespread and severe: 90 per cent of households have lost agricultural products while over 65 per cent reported severe physical injuries as a result of the flooding.

The first thing to understand is if Naoc is definitely to be blamed for the floods. The results of the survey show that the community definitely thinks so and in the past Naoc has also paid some compensation. In 2015 the Nigerian Ministry of Environment ordered Eni to undertake the necessary works to stop the floods but as these haven’t been implemented, in 2016 they filed a suit. At the moment the trial is stuck but the opportunity to file the complaint to the OECD National Contact Point presented itself.

Read the document Pastor Felix Akudini to Naoc general manager, 11 May 1999

It’s also worth understanding why it has taken so long to file this complaint. “It seems to me that they tried everything they could at the local level – there are paper trails dating back to the 1990s showing there have been protests, meetings, letters. I think that probably it never occured to them that they could go to Italy, as it’s so far away. In the Niger Delta there are so many communities that are suffering of the side effects or direct impacts of oil extraction. This is an unusual case but it is just an example in which oil companies do whatever they want with very little regard for or consideration of the effects on residents. In order to be able to take an actual legal case to a foreign court the community needs to be very strong and united, and have accurate documentation. They also have to be fortunate enough to have contact with international lawyers, and the people of Aggah didn’t have that opportunity until recently”.

naoc, nigeria, eni, floods
Families waiting to grind cassava © David Iheamnachor

What the OSCE guidelines are and how they work

The guidelines are described as recommendations addressed by governments to multinational enterprises. These should:

  • contribute to economic, environmental and social progress with a view to achieving sustainable development;
  • respect the internationally recognised human rights of those affected by their activities;
  • encourage local capacity building through close co-operation with the local community […]

With regards to this last point, for example, the community of Aggah put forward various requests to have job positions made available for local youth.

Read Egbema Youth Association’s letter to Naoc’s Managing Direction dated 2 March 2011

To a certain extent the complaint to the OECD doesn’t offer a particularly strong form of justice but as Kaufman advises: “We shouldn’t do this if the only thing you want is to win. This needs to be a process that strengthens the community, gives it a sense of power, of unity and satisfaction”.

The process, in simple terms, is as follows: as they receive the complaint, the National Contact points for OECD make an initial assessment to decide if the case falls under OECD guidelines and potentially offer a mediation. If this succeeds, the two parties will agree on a public statement about their commitments. “If the mediation doesn’t succeed or Eni doesn’t want to mediate, the NCPs will write an evaluation of the case and potentially a recommendation but there’s no obligation, just an official Italian government report,” explains Kaufman.

So Eni could decide not to act but this would disregard the recommendations produced by the Italian government, which is also Eni’s stakeholder. With regards to a potential conflict of interest, involving the Dutch NCP, which has good experience in such cases, is a further guarantee.

The complaint was filed on 15 December 2017 and a first reply from Eni arrived at the beginning of February but hasn’t yet been disclosed to the public.

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