THE NIGERIA LAWYER
The oil-rich Nembe-Bassambiri Kingdom, Bayelsa State, has filed an application at the Federal High Court sitting in Yenagoa to stop Aiteo Exploration and Production Limited from renewing Oil Mining Lease (OML) 29.
The kingdom represented by six chiefs and prominent indigenes has been on a legal battle with Aiteo since 2015 when the company acquired the oil well from the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC).
But while the substantive suit is yet to be determined by the court, Aiteo was reported to have commenced the process of renewing the soon-to-expire license including paying $82m to the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) as the final installment for the renewal.
Aggrieved by the development, the Opu Nembe kingdom through their legal firm, Ntephe, Smith & Wills asked the Federal High Court presided over by Justice Awogboro Abimbola to stop the transaction pending the determination of the substantive suit.
Specifically, the application is asking the court to make an “order setting aside all applications, payments, steps or processes made and taken between January 22, 2018 and January 22, 2019 or any other date during the pendency of this suit by the fifth defendant to the second defendant” through the DPR for the renewal of OML 29.
The defendants or respondents in the suit are listed as Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Minister of Petroleum Resources, Federal Ministry of Environment, SPDC, Aiteo, Attorney-General of Bayelsa State and the Deeds Registrar, Bayelsa State Ministry of Lands.
When the matter resumed for hearing on Friday, the plaintiff’s Lawyer, Iniruo Wills, drew the court’s attention to the application and the lack of willingness by Aiteo to hold settlement meetings with the kingdom.
He said contrary to the earlier decision by the court that the parties should meet, settle and return to the court with the terms, the respondents frustrated the process.
Wills said: “There is no progress on the settlement. We have received no feedback from the defendant. We only have disturbing and dangerous signal.
“While the settlement is not progressing, the second and fifth defendants proceeded to renew the lease, the subject matter of this suit.
“$82m has been paid already for the renewal of the lease. But we have filed a motion to set aside any step taken towards renewing the lease”.
But the lawyer to the defendants, Soky Soberekom, said she had not been served with the motion, which she described as unnecessary insisting that the process of settlement was ongoing.
Disturbing by the ongoing process to renew the license, Wills on behalf of his clients wrote to the Minister of State for Petroleum warning of the consequences of going ahead to renew the lease without dispensing with the matter in court between the company and host communities.
The letter, which was co-signed by Dickson Omukoro said in parts: “This move by Aiteo and your ministry is an affront on the jurisdiction of the court and in violation of the spirit of the proposed settlement particularly when at the last sitting of the court, the presiding judge had to adjourned the matter on the application of the lawyer to Aiteo to enable parties fully settle MTN option.
“Without prejudice to the ongoing settlement, it is our view that renewing the lease while the suit is pending amounts to total disregard for the peaceful means the kingdom has opted to use in resolving this dispute.
“We consider this approach counterproductive as it could cause communities to vent their grievances using the same strategy of disrespect for lawful means of resolution.
“As a host community, the kingdom should not be disdained by Aiteo and the government for refraining from shutting down operations and preferring to have its protracted grievances resolved peacefully.
“All parties will benefit far more from handling the OML 29 and its host kingdoms in a way that avoids the same conflict-prone path as, for example, OML 11 in Ogoniland that led to the suspension of operation for 25 years”.
He appealed to the minister to reverse steps already taken to renew the lease until all legacy and pending issues relating to the grant, divestment, operation and renewal of the lease had been resolved to avoid escalation of the crisis.
The letter was copied to President Muhammadu Buhari, the AGF, Governor Seriake Dickson, DPR and the Attorney-General of Bayelsa State.