Nigerian authorities have moved to sequester the assets of the country’s premier lender FirstBank of Nigeria Limited in an effort to recover the damages oil major Royal Dutch Shell owed the Ejama Ebubu community of Rivers State in a legal contest spanning many decades, Bloomberg reported Thursday.
Police operatives and court officials arrived the bank’s main branch in Port Harcourt on Tuesday to execute an order to seize the lender’s asset, FirstBank said in a statement.
The bank said the incident leading to the confiscation of its properties was “unjustified, illegal and a reckless misuse of the machinery of justice.”
Lagos-headquartered FirstBank resolved to guarantee the damages awarded against Shell by a Rivers State high court judge a decade ago.
According to the estimation of a court last year, the damages and the accrued interest came to $479 million (N183 billion).
Shell has been embroiled in an enduring lawsuit with Rivers State community, which in 2010 sought several millions of dollars in damages against the firm for environmental pollution.
Ejama Ebubu has won many appeals instituted by Shell including a November 30 verdict rendered by the Supreme Court, upholding the 2010 ruling.
The knotty legal wrangle is a product of an oil spill incident, half a century old, reaching back to 1970, when a mishap at a Shell oil extraction facility caused thousands of barrels of crude to spill into the sea.
That accident brought a major disaster to ocean life with fishes dying in their numbers and severely disrupting fishing, a popular for locals.
The November ruling implies the “coast is clear for enforcement of the judgment of 2010,” said Lucius Nwosu, one of the community’s lawyers.
“First Bank will not honour their guarantee because they, at their own peril, failed to get a cash backing from Shell before they issued the guarantee,” he added.
The confiscation disregarded an interim court ruling Shell secured last month, forbidding the lender from paying out any money in settling the judgement debt and restraining the Ejama Ebubu community from moving to force FirstBank to do so, the bank’s statement said.
FirstBank has filed a pending motion to nullify the verdict authorising the seizure of its property, the bank said.
Mr Nwosu said none of the lawsuits could override the decision of the apex court.
Shell has not taken responsibility for the incident, which it blamed on “third parties” during the Nigerian civil war that ran from 1967 to 1970, adding that a clean-up had been implemented in the polluted area.
“It is unfortunate that the judicial proceedings in this case have for so long focused on procedural issues and not on the merits of the case.
“Any attempt to claim payment should not be allowed because of other similar ongoing proceedings (…) We have always maintained that we are ready to defend this case on the basis of the facts available,” the oil major said in November.
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