He began protesting against his middle school principal. Now he’s taking on Big Oil


When Nigerian environmental lawyer Chima Williams first took over the establishment, he was 12 years old.

The principal of his middle school was late, staggering and drunk, he says, so he and his classmates protested at their school in southern Nigeria. They danced and sang slogans and asked the director to leave. Then the police came and took the skinny teenager to jail – where he made a riot.

A police officer asked, “Who’s making the noise,” Williams recalls with a laugh. “I was so tiny.” The police did not book him and the principal was transferred to another school.

The lesson he learned, he says, is “there is power in what you believe and in how you go about it uncompromisingly.”

Williams, now 53, has found fame by facing off against a much bigger player than his principal. On behalf of a group of Nigerian farmers, he sued Shell, one of the largest oil companies in the world.

A chief’s son reports an oil spill

It all started in 2004. Williams was sitting in his Nigerian law office, a two-story building with a mango tree in front, when an old friend brought him a new potential client. Eric Dooh was the son of a chief in a small community called Goi. Williams had never heard of it.

In Goi, a village in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, oil from a leaking pipeline catches fire.  The spill came from the Shell Nigeria pipeline and the resulting fires burned through Goi and its mangroves.  A local farmer approached attorney Chima Williams and asked: "Can you take this case for me?"

/Austin Ekeinde/Reuters

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Austin Ekeinde/Reuters

In Goi, a village in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, oil from a leaking pipeline catches fire. The spill came from the Shell Nigeria pipeline and the resulting fires burned through Goi and its mangroves. A local farmer approached attorney Chima Williams and asked, “Can you take this case for me?”

Goi is in the Niger Delta, where oil pipelines criss-cross mangroves and streams, and communities live alongside fossil-fuel infrastructure — some dating back to the 1960s.

Dooh told Williams about an oil spill in his community through a pipeline owned by Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary. In October 2004, the pipeline ruptured, leaking oil into Goi’s waterways, where it eventually caught fire, burning through the village and its mangroves. Dooh’s family bakery, fishery and farm were destroyed. “I asked Chima, ‘Can you take this case for me?’ And Chima said he will investigate the matter,” says Dooh.

People in Goi said Shell’s aging pipelines caused the spill. “Their pipes were aged,” says Dooh. But Williams feared that even if he could prove Shell Nigeria to be responsible, he feared a court ruling in a Nigerian court would not be enough to get Shell Nigeria and other energy companies to implement new safety and environmental measures. “It became a question of enforceability,” he says.

Shell told NPR it could not comment on the Goi case, but in a statement earlier this year Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary said the Goi oil spill was “the result of sabotage”.

Two of the four Nigerian farmers who were part of a lawsuit against Shell over a Shell subsidiary's oil spill that devastated their village.  Left to right: Chief Fidelis A. Oguru-Oruma and Eric Dooh sit in court in The Hague, where the trial took place.

/Robin Utrecht/AFP via Getty Images

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Robin Utrecht/AFP via Getty Images

Two of the four Nigerian farmers who were part of a lawsuit against Shell over a Shell subsidiary’s oil spill that devastated their village. Left to right: Chief Fidelis A. Oguru-Oruma and Eric Dooh sit in court in The Hague, where the trial took place.

A new strategy against Shell

Williams wanted to target Shell – the international energy company with the largest footprint in Nigeria – for a specific reason: “We believe smaller companies will do just as well if we can get Shell to do things right.”

Then William and his colleagues had an idea. At a meeting in South Africa, they agreed to try to “take the fight [oil companies] in their own home countries,” he says. Instead of suing Shell in Nigerian courts, they would file a lawsuit in The Hague, Netherlands, where the energy company was then based. Williams hoped a win in a Dutch court would have far-reaching implications Nigerian Energy Industry.

Williams and his legal team traveled across the Niger Delta, by car and by boat through the creeks to build their case. They traveled to Goi and other communities affected by Shell Nigeria pipeline spills to learn how the oil spill was affecting local health and livelihoods.

And the verdict…

In 2008, Nigerian plaintiffs Williams and Friends of the Earth Netherlands officially began their lawsuit in the Netherlands. More than a decade later, after an initial defeat and an appeal, they finally received their verdict. On January 29, 2021, the Court of Appeal in The Hague ruled that Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary must pay compensation for the Goi and Oruma pipeline accidents. The court also ruled that both Shell and its subsidiary must install a leak detection system to prevent further spills.

And earlier this year, Williams received more good news. He was named one of seven winners of this year’s Goldman Environmental Awards for his work in the oil spill process. “That this legal campaign has lasted over 13 years and continued despite major obstacles and setbacks is a testament to Chima’s commitment to the Niger Delta and the people who live there,” said Ilan Kayatsky, communications director for the award.

In 2012, the four Nigerian farmers who brought their oil spill concerns to lawyer Chima Williams pose in front of the courts in The Hague.  Left to right: Farmers Friday Alfred Akpan-Ikot Ada Udo and Eric Dooh;  Nini Okey Uche from the Nigerian Embassy;  Attorney Chima Williams and Farmer Chief Fidelis A. Oguru-Oruma and Alali Efanga.

/Robin Utrecht/AFP via Getty Images

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Robin Utrecht/AFP via Getty Images

In 2012, the four Nigerian farmers who brought their oil spill concerns to lawyer Chima Williams pose in front of the courts in The Hague. Left to right: Farmers Friday Alfred Akpan-Ikot Ada Udo and Eric Dooh; Nini Okey Uche from the Nigerian Embassy; Attorney Chima Williams and Farmer Chief Fidelis A. Oguru-Oruma and Alali Efanga.

Williams says he has already seen positive effects from the Hague ruling in Nigeria. He says the win is encouraging more communities to take legal action against oil companies — because the oil spill problem hasn’t gone away.

Oil spills continue

A joint investigation by the Nigerian government and Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary revealed that an oil spill occurred in the Niger Delta municipality of Bodo, some 5 miles from Goi, in early August.

On September 1, fisherman Behbari Nyiedeh gave NPR a live tour via WhatsApp video.

Amidst cassava plants half covered in mud, Nyiedeh NPR showed what appeared to be a fountain of water overflowing – but with oil. “You can see crude oil all over our country,” says Nyiedeh. “It smells very shocking. It shocks you.”

What happened? According to the investigation report, the burial was “due to equipment failure”. There was a hole in Shell Nigeria’s pipeline and the cause was ‘operational’.

Nyiedeh says the oil NPR saw on Whatsapp was in the same area named in the investigation report; as of November he says it still hasn’t been cleaned up. Shell tells NPR the planned cleanup date is late December. In an emailed statement, Shell claims that “the vast majority of oil spills in the Niger Delta are caused by crude oil theft or pipeline sabotage” and that “regardless of who or what caused the spill at our facilities or pipelines, we are cleaning up.” and rehabilitate affected areas.”

Chima Williams (front and center) tours an oil-spilled area in the Niger Delta.

/ Goldman Environmental Award

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Goldman Environmental Award

Chima Williams (front and center) tours an oil-spilled area in the Niger Delta.

Williams says he is concerned about the ongoing oil spills, particularly given what is currently happening in Nigeria’s oil sector. Many large international energy companies operating in the country are selling or planning to sell many of their onshore oil assets in Nigeria. Many of those sales would transfer ownership of pipelines and wells to smaller Nigerian companies, as far as Williams is concerned. “[These] companies are unable to maintain the facilities and structures that these divesting multinationals are bequeathing to them.”

Worries about a pivot to gas

Williams is also concerned about Nigeria’s push for new gas infrastructure, including a multibillion-dollar expansion by Nigeria’s main LNG exporter, NLNG, and plans for an overland gas pipeline to Morocco. Nigeria wants to increase its gas exports to Europe, which has stopped Russian gas supplies because of the war in Ukraine. “It’s only natural…to meet Europe’s gas needs,” says Yusuf Tuggar, the Nigerian Ambassador to Germany, “but beyond that, we want to use our own gas for our own industrial development as well.”

Nigerian gas advocates say gas pipelines aren’t as easily destroyed as oil pipelines, but burglaries still occur. “We witnessed about 14 incidents [last year]’ said Leye Falade, general manager of NLNG, in a webinar for a Nigerian gas industry group, ’14 times we have to shut down and repair the pipeline because people have invaded this pipeline.’ That compares to what he says, is the norm of 1 or 2 burglaries a year.

And, says Williams, gas is still being flared in Nigeria. This is the practice of burning off excess gas that is dangerous to the health and safety of local communities and releases methane, a powerful planet-heating gas. “It is gas flaring that makes Nigeria the largest source of [methane] emissions in Africa,” says Williams.

In recent months, Nigeria has faced its worst flooding in a decade, killing 600 and displacing more than a million people. In some parts of the country, houses are still under water. The Nigerian government attributes the flooding in part to climate change.

World leaders and country representatives are now gathering at the United Nations international climate conference COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Williams is currently participating in the so-called “African COP”.

He hopes the conference will give Africans real agency to shape the discussion at the interface between fossil fuels and climate change. And if not? “Then it shouldn’t be called ‘African COP’, it should be called ‘a Western COP held in Africa’! It’s as simple as ABC.”

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