How NNPC moved to stop an NGO from fighting oil pollution but met a brick wall at the Supreme Court.

Background Facts

– A Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) known as Centre for Oil Pollution Watch, commenced an action (as Plaintiff) at the Federal High Court, Lagos, against the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) sued as Defendant over an alleged oil spillage in Acha Community of Isukwuato Local Government Area of Abia State. The NGO claimed that the oil spillage had terribly affected the Community and its environment, making life miserable for the inhabitants. The NGO therefore claimed reinstatement, restoration and remediation of the impaired and/or contaminated environment; potable water supply as a substitute for the contaminated streams; and provision of medical facilities for the evaluation and treatment of affected victims of the oil spillage.

– NNPC filed a defence in which it raised a preliminary point of law, challenging the locus standi (that is, right to sue) of the NGO to commence the action and prayed the Court to strike out the suit. The trial Court upheld the contention and struck out the suit. The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal filed by the NGO. Still aggrieved, the NGO approached the Supreme Court.

– The apex Court had to invite some ‘Friends of the Court’ (amici curiae) to assist in the determination of the issue of whether the NGO has a right to institute the action.

Centre for Oil Pollution Watch v. NNPC [2019] 5 NWLR (Pt. 1666) 518

– At the Supreme Court, learned Counsel for the NGO (the Appellant), Prof. Joseph Mbadugha, amici curiae – Aiwaju Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, Lucious Nwosu, SAN and A. B. Mahmoud, SAN were of the view that the Appellant has the requisite locus standi to sue, having shown and demonstrated the required interest to entitle it to sue. They argued that any person with genuine and public-spirited intention should be permitted to approach the court with respect to public interest matters such as the one in the instant case. They urged the Court to expand the frontier and relax the concept of locus standi as applicable to environmental litigation.

– Learned Counsel for NNPC (the Respondent), Victor Ogude Esq., and amicus curiae – Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN and Dayo Apata, (Solicitor-General of the Federation representing Abubakar Malami, SAN (the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice) sought to persuade the Court that the Appellant is a mere busybody or troublemaker (with an abstract corporate soul), usurping the rights of the affected citizens to complain. They also argued that extending the scope of locus standi to accommodate an NGO such as the Appellant in respect of environmental degradation matters would have the effect of usurping the powers conferred on agencies and offices like the Attorney-General’s office established by various State and Federal Laws to protect the environment on behalf of the people. They relied on several statutes which they submitted, have taken care of the Appellant’s grouse. It was also contended that allowing the Appellant standing to sue would open the floodgates to frivolous litigation which will overwhelm the courts’ dockets.

The submissions against the Appellant standing to sue is, with the greatest respect, most unfortunate. Where are the said statutory agencies in the face of the hardship being suffered by the affected citizens? Where has the Attorney-Gneral been all this while? What prior effort has been made to save the situation? Will the whole body of available laws enforce themselves from the shelves? Was it ever considered that the affected citizens may lack the financial means to enforce their rights and seek remedies? Of what use are the courts’ dockets if cases that can save the life of citizens are not allowed in? The courts are ever empowered by the Rules of Court to strike out frivolous suits with attendant award of costs.

– Thankfully, the Supreme Court came to the rescue. After a review of a host of local and international authorities, statutes and case law, and after due consideration of the compelling submissions of learned Counsel and Senior Counsel invited as ‘Friends of the Court’, the Supreme Court rightly observed and unanimously concluded as follows:

  • The Appellant has the right to institute the action (thereby expanding the scope of locus standi on environmental matters).
  • There is nothing in the Constitution that says the Attorney-General is the only proper person clothed with standing/power to enforce the performance of a public duty or institute public interest litigation such as the instant suit.

at p. 580-581, paras. G-B, of the report, Aka’ahs, JSC unequivocally stated:

“There is no gain saying in the fact that there is increasing concern about climate change, depletion of the ozone layer, waste management, flooding, global warming, decline of wildlife, air, land and water pollution. Both nationally and internationally, countries and organizations are adopting stronger measures to protect and safeguard the environment for the benefit of the present and future generations. The issue of environmental protection against degradation has become a contemporary issue. The Plaintiff/Appellant being in the vanguard of protecting the environment should be encouraged to ensure that actions or omissions by Government agencies or Multi-national oil companies that tend to pollute the environment are checked. Since other commonwealth countries such as England, Australia and India have relaxed their rigidity in the application of the concept of locus standi in public interest litigation, Nigeria should follow suit. The communities affected by the spillage leading to the environmental degradation may not muster the financial muscle to sue and if good spirited organizations such as the Plaintiff is denied access to sue, it is the affected communities that stand to lose.”

While commending all counsel including the amici curiae for their contributions, the Supreme Court is highly applauded for its findings, holding and the ultimate unanimous decision, allowing the appeal.



Stephen Azubuike
Author: Stephen Azubuike
Stephen is a Legal Practitioner, Consultant, Mediator and Social Entrepreneur. He has successfully argued cases from the High Courts of various jurisdictions to the Appellate Courts. Desirous of implementing new legal solutions, he founded Stephen Legal, a firm in the business of providing innovative legal insights and easy solution in this information age. Stephen also serves as a volunteer at Prof. Pat. Utomi’s Centre for Values in Leadership in Lagos, given his passion for capacity building and leadership development.

26 Comments

  • Uz

    Fantastic judgment!!! I’ve waited for years to see our Supreme Court take this position! Thanks for the notification!

  • Nathaniel Ojobo

    Really very commendable judgment. Can you help supply me with a citation? Thanks.

    • Stephen Azubuike

      Well done.

      Citation –

      Centre for Oil Pollution Watch v. NNPC [2019] 5 NWLR (Pt. 1666) 518.

    • MADUKWE, Oliver

      The position of the Supreme Court on this instant case is not only historic but a landmark for the protection of our environment.

      Acha Community, my hometown, is yet to recover and may never recover from the degradation occasioned by the referred spillages.

      A rural and agrarian settlement largely dependent on nature, the attendant pollution from the spillages is highly deleterious to both floral and faunal endowments.

      More telling is the pollution of her only source of water supply, the Aku River, hitherto famed for it’s crystal clarity and spring-like quality. But now so murky with mud and oil film. A cauldron of intractable diseases and epidemics.

      Be aware that no reparations from the so called multinationals will offset the irreparable losses incurred by my Community on account of the spillages.

      Thank you

      • Stephen Azubuike

        Good to hear from someone from Acha Community. We rejoice with you on the Judgment. Indeed, the damage is irreparable. We only hope on the amelioration of its effects and that more stricter measures be taken towards compensation.

  • Chimdy

    Very insightful. Thanks for the industry in keeping us informed with all these decisions. Well-done.

  • Adaeze Joy Nkokelonye

    This is quite educating…I found it very interesting having worked for an NGO and still in the same business…

  • Oyeniyi Sodimu

    This is impressive. I smiled as I read the last bit of it, happy that the Supreme Court in deed allowed justice and welfare of the people to prevail. The welfare of the people is the ultimate law, expressed in Latin as “Salus populi est suprema lex.” The law is made for the people and not the other way round. Once more, kudos to the Court.

    • Stephen Azubuike

      Thank you too. What made me smile was the fact that the Supreme Court sat as a panel of 7, invited top senior lawyers to act as amici curiae and finally arrived at a sound conclusion. That way, it will be difficult for any body to complain. The matter stands settled!

  • Kensco4real

    This is really interesting but I hope a similar case of suing the House of Assembly members and Senators that defected to other parties by an NGO adjourned for judgment in FHC Abuja this month will further expand the frontiers of Locus Standi. It appeared to be similar arguments basically. Stephen Esq. Thumbs up for this.

  • Idy Umoh

    This is real goodnews. Thank you for this.

  • Kate Okoh Kpina

    Well written, succinct and informative as always. Thank you so much Steve

  • AMOBI-OKOYE CHINATU

    That is the most interesting part.

    The judgment is so interesting. Thanks to the Judges for saving the masses

  • Dr Ekere Essien

    Thank you Stephenlegal.In my view ,this is the best gift of the year to Nigerians. Its like a breath of fresh air in a polluted environment.Gradually ,with this judgement , the law will ultimately serve as the much needed sheriff in town.

  • Amaechi Ukeje

    Acha Community in Isuikwuato LGA, Abia State is my native community. In fact, I was one of the youths that in 2003 organized the protests that was severally aired on NTA Network News back then about the damaging oil spill in Acha. Our people’s efforts then to further seek justice on the issue fizzled out due to sundry issues chief of which was the fear of the huge financial requirements that was clearly way beyond what we could muster at the time.

    Good to know that someone picked up the gauntlet on our behalf and took it to the point your article showed. We as a people and community will sure reach out to the NGO, and with them, pursue justice together going forward. Thanks for the information sir.

    • Stephen Azubuike

      Well done for your efforts. It would be great to reach out and present a common front. The battle is far from being one but a huge step has been taken in the right direction with this Judgment. We sympathise with your Community and wish you well.

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