Shell Petroleum Development Co. was ordered by a Nigerian court to pay more than $25 million to five communities in Imo state for a 1997 oil spill. The communities sued Shell for compensation for immediate direct losses to their means of livelihood caused by the oil spill, The Guardian in Oshodi, Nigeria, reported Tuesday.

Such victories are rare in the Niger Delta. A new report by the International Commission of Jurists on corporations and human rights abuses in Nigeria says that victims “face major obstacles when seeking justice.” The date of the oil spill speaks for itself: 1997. For years Shell has delayed the litigation, the victims have continually been denied justice and the oil spill has still not been cleaned up.

The Imo case gives insight into typical tactics. Under Nigerian law, companies do not have to pay compensation for spills caused by sabotage, although they are obliged to clean up any spill regardless of the cause.  Shell’s initial investigation into the Imo spill, conducted alongside government officials and community members and documented in an exhibit, found that it was caused by “external corrosion” of the pipeline. In a calculated attempt to delay the proceedings and avoid paying compensation, Shell tried to blame the spill on community “sabotage”. Shell’s allegation was rejected by the court after the claimant’s lawyer Lucius Nwusu pointed out the physical impossibility of sabotaging a steel pipeline buried 7 metres underground.

All the while, the spill has not been cleaned up. The oil has soaked deeper into the surrounding soil and drinking water, worsening the impact of the spill on the land and livelihoods of five communities.

In 1997, a Shell pipeline ruptured along the Egbema-Assa delivery line and a large volume of crude oil became trapped underground until the soil became saturated with water, causing the oil to travel to the surface. The oil damaged swamps, streams and forests of the Umudike, Alimiri Umudike, Ekpe Agah, Ukpazizi Ekpe Mbede and Etekuru communities.

Shell has already paid $5.7 million in compensation to the communities, but Justice Gladys  Olotu took the view that the sum “was not enough” considering the widespread and cumulative impact of the spill over the years. It is unclear whether Shell will appeal against the decision.

A “human rights tragedy”

It is extremely difficult for victims of oil company pollution in Nigeria to get access to justice. Lack of finance and agonising delays keep remedies out of reach for years and decades. Even favourable judgments like this one can go unenforced. Shell, which made £2 million per hour in 2011, has previously avoided Nigerian court orders to stop gas flaring in the Iwherekhan case, and has refused to pay a $1.5 billion compensation order to the Ijaw of Bayelsa. According to lawyer-activist Femi Falana, the oil companies prefer to keep claims in Nigeria because they are able to manipulate the judicial system.

The extent of the pollution in the Niger Delta was recently underscored by a UN report which found that a clean up could take 30 years to complete. The UN highlighted systemic faults in oil company practices and condemned Shell for particularly poor standards. The company claims to be “studying” the UN report, but the findings have been available for over 446 days. Government and company progress on the urgent problem of oil spills has been minimal.