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He started protesting about his middle school principal. Now he's taking on Big Oil

Chima Williams, an attorney in Nigeria, is one of the winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize. He sued Shell over oil spills in his country. Speaking of his activism, Williams notes: "There is power in what you believe and how you go about it uncompromisingly."
KC Nwakalor for NPR
Chima Williams, an attorney in Nigeria, is one of the winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize. He sued Shell over oil spills in his country. Speaking of his activism, Williams notes: "There is power in what you believe and how you go about it uncompromisingly."

The first time Nigerian environmental lawyer Chima Williams took on the establishment he was 12 years old.

The principal at his middle school had been showing up late, staggering and drunk, he says, and so he and his fellow students made a protest at their school in southern Nigeria. They were dancing and chanting slogans, calling for the principal to go. Then the police arrived and took the scrawny teen to jail – where he raised a ruckus.

A police officer asked, "Who is making the noise there," Williams recalls with a laugh. "I was so tiny." The police didn't end up booking him, and the principal was transferred to another school.

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

Now 53, Williams has gained fame by going up against a much bigger player than his principal. Working on behalf of a group of Nigerian farmers, he sued Shell, one of the world's biggest oil companies.

A chief's son reports an oil spill

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

Oil from a leaking pipeline burns in Goi, a village in the Niger Delta in Nigeria. The spill came from Shell Nigeria's pipeline, and the ensuing fires burned through Goi and its mangroves. A local farmer came to attorney Chima Williams and asked: "Can you do this case for me?"
/ Austin Ekeinde/Reuters
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Austin Ekeinde/Reuters
Oil from a leaking pipeline burns in Goi, a village in the Niger Delta in Nigeria. The spill came from Shell Nigeria's pipeline, and the ensuing fires burned through Goi and its mangroves. A local farmer came to attorney Chima Williams and asked: "Can you do this case for me?"

Goi is in the Niger Delta, where oil pipelines crisscross through mangroves and creeks, and communities live alongside fossil fuel infrastructure – some dating to the 1960s.

Dooh told Williams about an oil spill in his community from a pipeline belonging to a Nigerian subsidiary of Shell. In October 2004 the pipeline broke, sending 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 do this case for me?' And Chima said that he is going to study the matter," Dooh says.

The people of Goi said Shell's aging pipelines caused the spill. "Their pipes were over-aged," says Dooh. But Williams worried that even if he could prove that Shell Nigeria was responsible, he feared a legal judgment in Nigerian court wouldn't 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 oil spill in Goi was "the result of sabotage."

Two of the four Nigerian farmers who were part of a lawsuit against Shell over an oil spill from a Shell subsidiary that devastated their village. Left to right: Chief Fidelis A. Oguru-Oruma and Eric Dooh, sitting in the law courts in The Hague, where the trial was held.
/ 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 an oil spill from a Shell subsidiary that devastated their village. Left to right: Chief Fidelis A. Oguru-Oruma and Eric Dooh, sitting in the law courts in The Hague, where the trial was held.

A new strategy to take on Shell

Williams wanted to target Shell – the international energy company with the biggest presence in Nigeria – for a reason, "Our belief is that if we can get Shell to do things right then the smaller companies will equally behave well."

That's when William and his colleagues had an idea. At a meeting in South Africa they agreed to try "taking the battle to [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 Dutch court would have ripple effects across the Nigerian energy industry.

Williams and his legal team traveled through the Niger Delta, by car and by boat through the creeks, to build their case. They went to Goi and other communities affected by spills on Shell Nigeria's pipelines to learns how the oil pollution affected the health of locals and their livelihoods.

And the verdict ...

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

And earlier this year, Williams got more good news. He was named one of this year's seven Goldman Environmental Prize winners for his work on the oil spill litigation. "That this legal campaign took over 13 years and continued through major obstacles and setbacks is a testament to Chima's commitment to the Niger Delta and the people who live there," says Ilan Kayatsky, the prize's communication director.

Posing in 2012 at the law courts of the Hague are the four Nigerian farmers who brought their concerns about oil spills to lawyer Chima Williams. Left to right: Farmers Friday Alfred Akpan-Ikot Ada Udo and Eric Dooh; Nini Okey Uche of the Nigerian Embassy; lawyer Chima Williams and farmers Chief Fidelis A. Oguru-Oruma and Alali Efanga.
/ Robin Utrecht/AFP via Getty Images
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Robin Utrecht/AFP via Getty Images
Posing in 2012 at the law courts of the Hague are the four Nigerian farmers who brought their concerns about oil spills to lawyer Chima Williams. Left to right: Farmers Friday Alfred Akpan-Ikot Ada Udo and Eric Dooh; Nini Okey Uche of the Nigerian Embassy; lawyer Chima Williams and farmers Chief Fidelis A. Oguru-Oruma and Alali Efanga.

Williams says he's already seen a positive impact of the Hague ruling in Nigeria. He says the win is encouraging more communities to pursue litigation against oil companies – because the problem of oil spills hasn't gone away.

Oil spills continue

A joint investigation by the Nigerian government and Shell's Nigerian subsidiary found there was an oil spill in early August in the Niger Delta community of Bodo, about 5 miles from Goi.

On Sept. 1, fisherman Behbari Nyiedeh gave NPR a live tour via Whatsapp video.

Amid cassava plants half-covered in mud, Nyiedeh showed NPR what looked like an overflowing water fountain – but with oil. "You can see the crude oil everywhere on our land," Nyiedeh says, "It has a very shocking smell. It shocks you."

What happened? According to the investigative report, the spill 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 cited in the investigative report; as of November, he says it still hasn't been cleaned up. Shell tells NPR that the planned clean-up date is in late December. In an emailed statement Shell maintains that "the vast majority of oil spills in the Niger Delta are caused by crude oil theft or the sabotage of pipelines" and that "irrespective of who or what caused spills from our facilities or pipelines, we clean up and remediate affected areas."

Chima Williams (front and center) takes a tour of an oil-polluted area of the Niger Delta.
/ Goldman Environmental Prize
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Goldman Environmental Prize
Chima Williams (front and center) takes a tour of an oil-polluted area of the Niger Delta.

Williams says the continued oil spills worry him, especially because of what's currently happening in Nigeria's oil sector. Many major international energy companies operating in the country are selling or want to sell many of their onshore oil assets in Nigeria. A lot of these sales would transfer ownership of pipelines and wells to smaller Nigerian companies, which concerns Williams. "[These] entities do not have the capacity to maintain the facilities and structures that these divesting multinational companies 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 of Nigeria's main liquified gas export company, NLNG, and plans for an overland gas pipeline to Morocco. Nigeria is looking to up its gas exports to Europe, which has cut off Russian gas supplies because of the war in Ukraine, "It's only natural ... to cater to Europe's need for gas," says Yusuf Tuggar, the Nigerian ambassador to Germany, "But beyond that, we also want to utilize our own gas for our own industrial development."

Nigerian gas proponents say gas pipelines aren't as easy to vandalize as oil pipelines, but there still are break-ins. "We witnessed about 14 incidents [last year]," said Leye Falade, NLNG's general manager, in a webinar for a Nigerian gas industry group, "14 times that we have to shut down the pipeline and fix it because people went into that pipeline." That's compared to what he says is the norm of 1 or 2 break-ins a year.

And, Williams says, there's still gas flaring in Nigeria. That's the practice of burning off excess gas, which is dangerous to the health and safety of local communities, and releases methane, a potent planet-heating gas. "It is that gas flaring that makes Nigeria the biggest source of [methane] emissions in Africa," Williams says.

In recent months Nigeria has faced its worst flooding in a decade, with 600 people dead and more than a million displaced. In some parts of the country, homes are still submerged. 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 attending the so-called "African COP."

He says he hopes the conference will give Africans true agency to shape the discussion around the intersection of fossil fuels and climate change. And if not? "Then it should not be called an 'African COP,' it should be called 'a Western COP held in Africa'! It's as simple as ABC."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julia Simon