Deltan Women’s Trust in Courts

The previous post about the recent settlement from Shell favoring the Bodo community, in which the company agreed to pay over $83 million dollars to avoid litigation, made me wonder about the potential for increased use of courts as a mean of collective action for Niger Deltan women. Although the Shell settlement arose from cases filed in British courts, I considered whether women would start viewing Nigerian courts as a place to seek justice as well.

However, my research several years ago indicated that, at least then, women did not view Nigerian courts as viable conduits through which they could help remedy environmental damage. Some rural women told me that courts are unfair because you can “pay the lawyer to speak well for you,” and another colorfully said, “What is bad about Nigerian court is that a child can be born today and you can put the case in court, and the child will graduate from university and the case will still be in court.” Across Nigeria, Afrobarometer’s public opinion survey asked rural women, “How much do you trust courts of law?”:

2002-2003 2005-2006 2008-2009 2011-2012 Average*
Not at all 33% 27% 19% 20% 25%
Just a little 41% 35% 36% 36% 37%
Somewhat 17% 26% 30% 31% 26%
A lot 3% 9% 11% 12% 9%
Don’t know 6% 3% 3% 1% 3%

(*The weighted average takes into account the number of respondents in each survey, which varied from 2002-2012. There were a total of 4671 respondents for all 4 surveys during this decade. My chart shows that trust in courts increased a bit during this period but was still very low (raw data taken from Afrobarometer 2012).)

A prominent women’s rights activist told me: Community groups do not have the resources to pay the fees of a legal practitioner.  Also, they don’t have faith in the legal system because of corruption. It is assumed that the oil company can buy up the lawyer and spend money to disturb the legal system, so communities will not actually have access to justice.  There is no faith in the system.  That is why community groups do not even make the effort to go to court.

Indeed, Nigerian courts and legal institutions have long been acknowledged as among the most corrupt. The Mo Ibrahim Index regularly ranks Nigeria “very low” on its measurements of rule of law, placing it 43rd out of 52 African countries in 2012.  Indeed, half of my respondents said that corruption impedes their chances of succeeding in courts. Considering corruption and the unequal playing field for grassroots activists, it is unsurprising that women have chosen to protest over engaging with formal law.

Nigerian Supreme Court.

Nigerian Supreme Court.

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