OPL 245: Nigeria reacts as Italian court acquits Eni, Shell of corruption charges

*The Federal Republic of Nigeria says it will continue to hold those responsible for the OPL 245 fraud accountable to ensure that Nigerians benefit from this valuable resource, following an Italian court judgement acquitting Eni and Shell Executives of corruption in oil deal in the country

*After three years of court trial and thousands of documents analysed, finally we have a sentence that gives back to Descalzi his professional role ─Paola Severino, Eni CEO’s lawyer

Alexander Davis | ConsumerConnect

Isola Moses | ConsumerConnect

Following a three-year legal saga that loomed large over the tenure of the concerned officials of the companies, Nigeria has expressed disappointment over how a court in Milan, Italy, has acquitted Eni SpA, Royal Dutch Shell Plc, and several of their current and former Executives of corruption charges related to a Nigerian oil deal.

The Milan court in a judgement, acquitted the energy companies, Eni and Royal Dutch Shell, along with a series of past and present executives, including Eni Chief Executive Claudio Descalzi in the oil industry’s biggest corruption scandal in the country, agency report said.

It was learnt, however, that a Spokesman for the Nigerian Government based in London, said the government would consider its position once it has read the written judgment.

He said: “The Federal Republic of Nigeria will continue to hold those responsible for the OPL 245 fraud accountable, not only to ensure the people of Nigeria benefit from this valuable resource, but also to make clear its commitment to rooting out corruption in all of its forms,”

The sentence, read out in court by Judge Marco Tremolada, comes more than three years after the trial first began and after a total of 74 hearings.

He said the two companies and defendants had been acquitted as there was no case to answer.

Rulings in Italy can be appealed and only become enforceable once they are final, report stated.

The long-running case revolved around the $1.3 billion purchase by Eni and Shell of the OPL 245 offshore oilfield in Nigeria in 2011 from Malabu Oil and Gas, a company owned by former Nigerian Petroleum Minister Dan Etete.

Prosecutors alleged that just under $1.1 billion of the purchase price was siphoned off to politicians and middlemen, including Etete.

Prosecutors had called for Eni and Shell to be fined and for a number of past and present managers from both companies, including Descalzi, to be jailed.

However, the defendants all denied any wrongdoing, but in 2018, two middlemen were found guilty of corruption in a separate trial.

Matthew Page, Associate Fellow at the Chatham House Africa programme in the United Kingdom (UK) said: “This is a huge blow for natural resource governance and transparency in Nigeria.

“The OPL 245 deal has been a multi-layered tale of corruption and malfeasance and international complicity that’s been going on for two decades.

“This judgment will continue to sting, as it is a real and visible defeat for global and Nigerian anti-corruption efforts.”

The defendants said the purchase price for OPL 245 was paid into a Nigerian Government account and subsequent transfers were beyond their control.

The exploration licence for the field, some 150 km (95 miles) off the Niger Delta, has not been revoked but it has not been converted into a mining licence and no oil has been produced.

Report says Descalzi, who was among those found not guilty Wednesday, March 17, as the Italian prosecutors hitherto had sought an eight-year jail term for him, Bloomberg report stated.

Likewise, several other former executives of the two companies were cleared of wrongdoing, including Malcolm Brinded, who ran Shell’s exploration and production division at the time, and Paolo Scaroni, who was Eni CEO before Descalzi.

The latest court ruling is said to be a blow for the Nigerian Government, which joined the case as a civil party in 2018 and was seeking compensation in the process.

Paola Severino, Eni CEO’s lawyer, said: “After three years of trial, thousands of documents analysed, finally we have a sentence that gives back to Descalzi his professional role.”

At a parliamentary hearing last year, Descalzi said Eni hasn’t suffered reputational damage from the case or any setbacks to its operational plans.

He was reappointed to his position by the Italian Government in April, his third mandate, which runs to mid-2023. The Treasury and Italy’s state-back lender are Eni’s biggest shareholders.

Barnaby Pace, a campaigner for Global Witness who followed the trial closely, said on Twitter that “this ruling is obviously very disappointing. We urge the Milan prosecutor to consider all options to appeal.”

IT was learnt despite the recent court verdict acquitting Royal Dutch Shell Plc, the verdict does not end the legal woes for Shell as regards its Nigerian operations.

In January 2021, a court in the Netherlands ruled that the Anglo-Dutch major was liable for damages from pipeline leaks in the West African country.

A few weeks later, the UK’s Supreme Court also ruled that thousands of Nigerians can sue Shell in London over pollution.

Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden told analysts last month that the company would take a “hard look” at its position in Nigerian onshore oil fields amid the multiple legal and environmental disputes.

In spite of efforts at tackling pipeline sabotage, which is one of the major causes of oil spills, the business “is under challenge” and it remains “a headache,” Van Beurden said.

He, in response to Wednesday’s verdict, said that Shell has “always maintained that the 2011 settlement was legal, designed to resolve a decade-long legal dispute and unlock development of the OPL 245 block.

“At the same time, this has been a difficult learning experience for us.”

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