YENAGOA/LAGOS (Reuters) – Nigeria’s FirstBank and a unit of energy giant Shell said on Friday members of a community in southern Nigeria had no right to seize assets from a bank branch this week in a dispute over compensation for an oil spill more than five decades ago.
Members of the Ejama-Ebubu community and law enforcement officers entered a FirstBank branch in Port Harcourt on Tuesday to seize assets following a court award relating to the spill that took place in the 1967-70 civil war.
The community was awarded damages worth 17 billion naira ($44.7 million), with accruing interest, in a federal court ruling in 2010. Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) has long challenged the award. The community says the value with interest is now more than 180 billion naira.
Shell, the pioneer of Nigeria’s oil industry in the 1950s, has for years battled to deal with oil spills, theft and unrest in the Niger Delta, the industry’s heartland in the south.
FirstBank, which signed an agreement in 2012 to act as guarantor for SPDC, said the action by the community to enter its branch was “unjustified, illegal and a reckless misuse of the machinery of justice/the state for an unlawful purpose.”
In November, Nigeria’s Supreme Court denied SPDC’s application seeking to appeal the 2010 decision.
But SPDC said the Supreme Court’s ruling did not determine liability or decide the size of the award. It said it had an injunction preventing enforcement while the size was in dispute, adding “any attempt to enforce payment should not be permitted.”
SPDC is 55% owned by state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and 30% by Shell. Other firms own the rest.
Asido Emmanuel, a lawyer for the community, said Tuesday’s action was a “lawful execution of the Supreme Court judgement” and said it was conducted with a writ of attachment, an order that allows seizure of property.
He said law enforcement officers were present and said those involved took “a long inventory of items” from the bank branch, without giving details.
FirstBank said “valuable properties of the bank were either destroyed or carted away” by the group that included law enforcement officers. It did not say what was taken. The bank said it was involved in a legal bid to overturn the writ.
The court sheriff from the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt, where FirstBank is seeking to challenge the writ, declined to comment, citing civil service rules.
A police spokesman in Rivers State, where Port Harcourt is located, did not comment.
Reporting By Tife Owolabi in Yenagoa and Libby George in Lagos; Editing by Alexis Akwagyiram and Edmund Blair