Degradation: Court Fixes Mar. 7 For Hearing Of Ondo Community’s N3.4bn Suit Against Chevron

Degradation: Court Fixes Mar. 7 For Hearing Of Ondo Community’s N3.4bn Suit Against Chevron

Justice Lewis Allagoa of a Lagos Federal High Court, has fixed March 7, for the hearing of N3. 451, 970, 000 billion suit filed against Chevron Nigeria Limited by an Ondo Community, for alleged damages of their ecosystem

Justice Allagoa fixed the new date after the applicants’ counsel, Mr. Ige Asemudara, informed the court that the second respondent in the suit, Minister of Petroleum Resources, was yet to be served with the hearing notice as the court ordered on December 5, 2021, when the matter came up for hearing.

Asemudara urged the court for a date to enable serve the second defendant, the  Minister of Petroleum Resources, in the suit.

Counsel to Chevron, Mr. Ama Etuwewe (SAN), did not opposed the application for a new hearing date.

The Plaintiffs in the suit marked FHC/L/CS/1815/2020, are; Elisha Omomowo; Abiye Ehinmore; John  Omomowo; Benson Omomowo; Omotola Omomowo; Eyisogo Omomowo and Shiloh Ebun Omomowo, sueing for themselves and as descendants Of Adeli Oriyomi Awoye of Awoye, llaje LGA, Ondo State.

The plaintiffs, who are descendants of Adeli Oriyomi Awoye, in Ilaje Local Government Area, Ondo State, have asked the court, to order Chevron Nigeria Limited, to pay them a total sum of N3. 451, 970, 000 billion, as general and exemplary damages, for alleged breach of their rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and for loss of earnings occasioned by loss of their fishing grounds, fishing lines, fishing fences, gears and surface rights to the Chevron’s oil operations.

They specifically asked the court for an order awarding the sum of N1, 451, 970; 000 billion, as special damages, for loss of earnings occasioned by loss of their fishing grounds, fishing lines, fishing fences, gears etc and surface rights to Chevron’s oil operations. And an order awarding the sum of N500 million, against Chevron, as compensation to them, for the Chevron’s breach of their rights under Section 38 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) as well as under other statutes and the terms of the applicable Oil Mining Lease as it relates to the killing or displacement of their object of veneration namely; Aghon Erin Adeli.

The Plaintiffs in their endorsement of claims, are also seeking a declaration  that Chevron’s entry of their land, Omi Adeli (now known as Oke-Oluwa) in Awoye town of llaje Local Government Area of Ondo State for the purpose of carrying out easy operations in their oil facilities or having easy access to same without prompt payment of adequate compensation is in breach of the Plaintiffs’ Fundamental Human Rights guaranteed by Sections 43, 44(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), the Petroleum Act, other statutes as well as the terms of the applicable Oil Mining lease.

A declaration that Chevron’s killing or permanent displacement of their huge and highly venerated Sea Turtle (Aghon Erin Adeli) kept and nurtured for decades by their matriarch for prayer and conservatory purposes, is in breach of their rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as guaranteed by Section 38 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As amended), the Petroleum Act, other statutes as well as the applicable Oil Mining Lease.

They also asked the court for an order compelling Chevron to immediately abate and prevent the sea-incursion into their community which was occasioned by Chevron’s alleged ‘reckless dredging of a canal that opens into the sea and leading to their Location “K”.

An order directing the second defendant to closely monitor Chevron’s activities, to ensure full compliance with the terms of the Oil Minining Lease and all environmental protection legislation for the benefit of the Plaintiffs. 

But Chevron Nigeria Limited, in its preliminary objection has asked the court for an order striking out the suit for want of jurisdiction. 

The Plaintiffs in their Statement of claims before the court stated that they are all descendants of Late Madam Adeli Oriyomi Awoye (also simply referred to as Adeli or Adeli Oriyomi) of Awoye town in llaje Local Government Area of Ondo State Nigeria. The said late Madam Adeli Oriyomi Awoye was the owner of a piece of swampy land called “Omi Adeli” or “Ufo Adeli” located at the outskirts of Awoye town and she was in possession of same till her death. 

They stated that Chevron, which was formerly known as Gulf Oil Company (Nigeria) Limited, is an incorporated oil company, a multi-national having its head office at Chevron Drive, Kilometre 19, Lekki-Epe expressway, Lekki, Lagos State within the Court’s jurisdiction and operating oil facilities and mining activities in different parts of Nigeria including the Plaintiff’s Awoye community in llaje Local Government Area of Ondo State. 

The plaintiffs stated that Chevron had in 1993 invaded and dredged through their land, Omi Adeli in Awoye, in order to have multiple and more expansive operation and access to some of it’s oil facilities in that part of Awoye. Particularly, the Defendant dredged to a location it called, ‘Location “K”,  on their land and continued to hold and remain on that land up till date in gross disregards to their fundamental rights to property and rights to compensation incidental to same. 

They stated that the Minister for Petroleum Resources granted Chevron an oil mining lease namely OML 49, in an area contiguous to their land vide a lease dated July, 14 1970, which lease has been further renewed by the second defendant in Chevron’e favour. 

The Plaintiffs averred that their title to and possession of the land was derived from Madam Adeli Oriyomi, who was a direct daughter of Awoye, the man who founded Awoye town which was named after him. And that Awoye in his lifetime gave the said land to Adeli Oriyomi hence the land was called, Omi Adeli. Recently (few years ago) Adeli descendants decided to rename the place as Oke-Oluwa. 

The Plaintiffs state that Madam Adeli Oriyomi had been married to a man known as Omomowo at Obe-Rewoye, another town in llajeland and had children for him. And that Omomowo took ill and died leaving Adeli and her children who could not make both ends meet. Awoye, Adeli’s father could not stand the suffering of his daughter and grand children. He brought Adeli back home from Obe-Rewoye and gave her, in fee simple, a portion of his land in Awoye, which portion of land is the place where the 1st Defendant unlawfully entered, dredged and is now carrying out activities relating to oil exploration and mining. 

They further averred that since the land was given to Madam Adeli Oriyomi by her father, she has been fishing there at as her fishing ground, having her fishing lines, channels, traps, shrines and fishing fences or enclosures known among the llajes as Ufo on the land known as Omi Adeli and exercising several possessory and proprietary rights on the land including building thereon houses on stilts and exercising surface rights thereon. And that upon the death of Madam Adeli Oriyomi, she was inherited by all her children and grandchildren including the Plaintiffs who continued to fish, rear fishes and ofher aquatic species, farm, live and worship their gods and God on the land called Omi Adeli. 

The Plaintiffs stated that through their progenitors and themselves had been in an unbroken, undisturbed possession and enjoyment of the land for more than a century before the events of 1993 and subsequent continuous events orchestrated by Chevron. Thus in 1988, a certain Taylor Amabamije Ikumapayi unsuccessfully challenged their rights over the said land. His failure and the findings of the High Court of Ondo State in their favour, are contained in the judgment delivered on December 10, 1990 by Justice S. A. Ajayi J. in Suit No.HOK/12/88.

They claimed that Chevron dredged their land thereby destroyed fishing lines, fishing fences enclosures, ponds, surfaces etc and the said dredging to Location ‘K’ continue to cause disruptions to their fishing activities and day-to-day life and living unabated up fill the time of filing this suit. 

They stated that Chevron has failed and refused to pay them the constitutional and statutory compensation for the huge damage, loss and injury occasioned by its reckless acts. Instead, Chevron, had engaged them in unconscionable and oppressive litigations at various level of courts, the last being Suit No. HOK/37/1994, in which the High Court of Ondo State by Justice Yemi Fasanmi, delivered a judgment on August 8, 2014, and declined jurisdiction to determine the dispute, holding that only the Federal High Court has the jurisdiction. 

They averred that Chevron further employed all sorts of unorthodox divide-and-rule tactics to combat them, one of which was to “trump-up” other members of the Awoye community who have nothing to do with their land at Omi or Ufo Adeli to lay claim to same with it’s connivance. Adding that following the acts of Chevron, the Plaintiffs suffered and are still suffering several specific and general losses and injuries to their properties and livelihoods unabated for which they are entitled to special and general damages. 

They averred that Chevron unlawful and reckless acts breached their rights and they shall rely on all constitutional and statutory provisions in asserting their rights and seeking redress before the Honourable Court. Stating that they shall also rely the terms of OML 49. 

They further stated that the acts of Chevron in dredging their land turning same into canal leading to Location ‘K’ and Chevron’s other oil facilities have exposed them and their environment to serious pollution, environmental hazard including flooding and incessant sea-incursion thus they have to the knowledge of Chevron been forced to move from their original residential locations fo new ones on two occasions. 

They also stated that the invasion of their land and the dredging of same to Location ‘K’ destroyed their object of veneration namely, aghon erin Adeli i.e. Adeli’s Sea Turtle. This was a huge Sea Turtle weighing up to 150 kilogram that had been preserved for several decades before Chevron recklessly attacked and dredged the sacred heap where the sea tutle was welcomed and venerated periodically by Madam Adeli Oriyomi and her descendants. 

The plaintiffs averred further that their matriarch Adeli Oriyomi had this Sea turtle that came visiting either once a year or once in two years and would stay a few days before returning to the sea. Libation would be poured for the sea turtle, prayers would be offered during her period of visit and the heap of soil where she perched whenever she came was destroyed by Chevron’s dredging activities in 1993 when she was last seen. Stating that they honestly believe that the mechanized dredger used by the Chevron killed the Sea Turtle as she has never been seen since that time. 

They averred that as at the time of the Chevron first dredging of their land turning it into a canal, the canal was about 50 feet in width, The canal which opens into the sea is now over 120 feet in width thereby constiluling a floodgate of sea incursion into their lands and homes, leading to grievous injuries and huge losses, without Chevron abating same or cushioning its effect. Adding that the canal dredged by Chevron now constitutes grave environmental threats to the life and properties, as the canal now serves as inroad through which the sea now surges and violently attacks their houses, remaining ponds and other valuables belonging to the Plaintiffs and their community. 

The Plaintiffs aver that since Chevron’s operation on their land and in areas contiguous to their land, Chevron has NEVER deemed it fit to confer any benefit in the form of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Community development programme on their Community. And that they have consistently suffered oppression, dehumanization and derogation of their shared humanity in the hands of the 1st Defendant and only an order of this Honourable Court can redress same. 

They stated that the killing or the permanent displacement of the sea turtle, Aghon Erin Adeli, an object of veneration by their matriarch and some members of their family is a breach of their right to freedom of religion, expression, thought and conscience which still suffers serious selback till date as their religious rites about the sea turtle is incomplete without if year in year out and this can only be remedied through payment of prompt and adequate compensation. 

They stated that they have suffered environmental hazards, pollution, loss of surface rights, loss of object of veneration, desecration of venerated heap of soil, loss of fishing grounds, loss of earnings and various injuries to their fundamental rights. 

But Chevron Nigeria Limited in its notice of preliminary objection brought pursuant Order 29 of the Federal High Court (Civil Procedure rules) and under the court’s inherent jurisdisction, asked for an order striking out this suit for want of jurisdiction. 

Chevron claimed that by the continued effect of Section 251 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) and Section 7 of the Federal High Court Act, Federal High Court is not statutorily empowered to determine the Plaintiffs/Respondents’ claims which borders on compensation for land and matters incidental thereto. 

It also claimed that by virtue of section 19 of the Oil Pipelines Act, Federal High Court has no jurisdiction to entertain the Plaintiffs’ claims. Adding that Plaintiffs’ action is statute barred as their claim is caught up by the provisions of Section 4 of the Limitation Law of Ondo State CAP 83 Laws of Ondo State 2006. 

Responding to Chevroihe Plaintiffs Chevron in their affidavit of fact deposed to by Daniel Shedrack, a Litigation Clerk with the plaintiffs’ counsel law firm, stated that the plaintiffs had previously brought this action on this subject matter against Chevron before the Ondo State High Court in Suit No. HOK/37/1994; and that it’s counsel, Mr. Ama Etuwewe (SAN) was the counsel to the same defendant, Chevron Nigeria Limited in the said Suit No. HOK/37/1994 before the Ondo State High Court.

He stated that the Suit No. HOK/37/1994 was struck out on the August 8, 2014 upon the objection and submission of the said counsel that the Ondo State High Court lacks jurisdiction to entertain the suit and that only the Federal High Court has the jurisdiction to hear and determine the suit. Stating that he is surprised that the same Ama Etuwewe (SAN) now turns around to say the Federal High Court does not have jurisdiction over the matter that only the Ondo State High Court does. 

The deponet stated that the objection is a deliberate ploy to frustrate the plaintiffs from getting justice against the oppressive and unlawful conducts of Chevron. And that even the Oil Mining Lease (OML 49) which empowers Chevron to mine petroleum resources around the Plaintiffs land recognizes the needs to compensate the Plaintiffs accordingly. 

The deponent stated that he was further informed by lge Asemudara, the plaintiffs’of counsel on November 3, 2021 and verily believe him as follows: (i) That he is aware that the Chevron through its counsel also made reference to Suit No. HOK/37/94 and that he knows that Counsel could not approbate and reprobate or double-speak on issues of law before different courts being a minister in the temple of justice and a very senior member of the bar and a member of the inner bar.

He stated that such conduct of counsel impedes the administration of justice and further abuses the processes of the Court. 

He also stated that the Plaintiffs being very poor natives and indigenes of the oil producing Awoye community in llaje Ondo State, whose rights have been breached by Chevron, adding that it is in the best interest of justice to refuse the objection and proceed to hear and determine the suit on its merit.