An Italian court yesterday fixed July 20 as the next trial date for alleged bribery charges against executives of oil giants (ENI and Shell) and Nigeria’s ex-oil minister Dan Etete in what seems to be the biggest corruption scandal facing Nigeria’s oil sector.
The judge is also to decide on July 20 if the Nigerian government becomes a part of the hearings as a party that suffered damages.
The case involves the 2011 purchase by Shell and Eni of Nigeria’s OPL 245 offshore oilfield, one of Africa’s most valuable oil blocks with reserves of to 9.3billion barrels of crude oil and gas reserves.
Eni’s current CEO Claudio Descalzi, former CEO Paolo Scaroni, and Chief Operations and Technology Officer Roberto Casula are standing trial alongside four former Royal Dutch Shell staff members including former executive director for Shell’s Upstream International operations Malcolm Brinded and two former MI6 agents Guy Colegate, a business adviser; and John Copleston, a strategic investment adviser employed by Shell for allegedly paying millions of dollars in bribes in order to acquire a lucrative oil exploration and drilling license in Nigeria.
The case is likely to shed some light on the murky dealings of international oil companies to access resources, including paying governments large sums of money in exchange of securing licensing rights.
Barnaby Pace an investigator at Global Witness, an independent investigative Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) said the trial could be “a turning point” for the oil industry.
“Some of the most senior executives of two of the biggest companies in the world could face prison sentences for a deal struck under their watch,” Pace added.
Last month, Barnaby Pace reported that a briefcase seized from a Geneva apartment two years ago could be the key to the case.
Swiss prosecutors found the brief case during a raid for an unrelated investigation in 2016 and Pace has been trying to get it Italian prosecutors, who are prosecuting Emeka Obi, a sole shareholder of the company that acted as an intermediary between Eni and Etete.
“The bag held SIM cards, Nigerian passports, a laptop and a hard drive containing more than 40,000 documents, and belonged to Emeka Obi,” according to a spokesman for the Geneva Prosecutor’s Office.
After the seizure, Obi’s lawyers persuaded a Geneva judge which is yet to decide on the matter to put the contents of his briefcase under seal, citing his rights to privacy.
The corruption case in Milan also highlights the role played by London in facilitating the transfer of money from oil companies to government officials.
Earlier this year, a special investigation by DeSmog UK revealed how small oil and gas companies are using London’s junior stock market, the Alternative Investment Market (AIM), to finance sometimes unsavoury business activities in frontier markets across Africa.
DeSmog UK’s Empire Oil investigation used the example of Sirius Petroleum, a small oil investment company listed on AIM and operating in the Niger Delta to shed some light on the exchange’s regulatory flaws and the City’s enabling role.
For years, Shell had claimed that it only paid the Nigerian Government for the OPL 245 oil block. But after the joint investigations of Global Witness and UK investigative journalism group Finance Uncovered, Shell confessed it had dealt with convicted money launderer and former oil minister Dan Etete. Etete had awarded the OPL 245 oil block to his secretly owned company, Malabu, while serving as Oil Minister.
On its website, Eni said: “Eni’s Board of Directors has reaffirmed its confidence that the company was not involved in alleged corrupt activities in relation to the transaction. The board of directors also confirmed its full confidence that chief executive Claudio Descalzi was not involved in the alleged illegal conduct and, more broadly, in his role as head of the company.”
The trial was originally scheduled for May this year but was postponed to June. It started in 2011 when Shell and Eni reportedly transferred $1.3 billion into a Nigerian government bank account. The two companies wanted to secure the rights to an oil field called OPL245, which according to estimates by the oil companies was worth $3 billion.
However, the majority of the payments did not end up in the Nigerian treasury but went to a company called Malabu Oil & Gas, which was controlled by then oil minister Etete.
Prosecutors in Milan have alleged that $520 million from the deal was converted into cash and intended to be paid to the then Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, members of the government and other Nigerian government officials. They also claimed $50 million in cash was also delivered to the home of Eni executive Roberto Casula.
The accusations are that $520 million of the purchase price was converted into cash and paid to politicians as bribes. Only $210 million are said to have reached Nigeria’s treasury.
The Nigerian government already declared in a lawsuit in England that the 2011 purchase of the production license for the huge oil field was unlawful.
The case is also been investigated by public prosecutors in United States and Netherlands.