MALABU: Shell, Eni trial faces delay as case switches to new Italian court

Strong indications emerged Friday that there might be delay in the trial in Italy of Royal Dutch Shell and Eni executives over alleged corruption in Nigeria involving the $1.3 billion controversial sale of OPL 245 oil block.

The trial which had been due to start on March 5, will be transferred to another court in Milan, delaying the proceedings, legal sources told Reuters on Friday.

The Milan tribunal had earlier in the week informed lawyers that the court which had been due to hear the trial had too many cases and could not guarantee that it would do so in a reasonable period of time, three sources told Reuters Friday.

The Malabu case involves the 2011 purchase by Eni and Shell of Nigeria’s OPL-245 offshore oilfield, reputed as one of Africa’s most valuable oil blocks, for about $1.3 billion.

Italian prosecutors had earlier indicted Shell and Agip for their role in the 2011 deal in which Nigeria sold the lucrative oil block to the two oil majors.

A former petroleum minister, Dan Etete, and a former Attorney-General, Bello Adoke, are amongst several Nigerians indicted in the deal, which was approved by former President Goodluck Jonathan.

Shell and Eni’s Nigerian subsidiary, Agip, are among those already being prosecuted in Nigeria, although they have denied wrongdoing.

Milan prosecutors alleged bribes were paid to win the licence to explore the field, which has never entered into production.

Last December, an Italian federal judge approved the prosecution of Royal Dutch Shell and Eni, scheduled for March 5. But indications emerged Friday that the court is expected to set a new trial date on Monday.

Last week, a group of anti-corruption organisations asked the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, to explain the inconsistencies between his letter to President Muhammadu Buahri asking him to call off the prosecution of the main suspects in the Malabu oil deal, and the federal government’s application to a United Kingdom court that led to the repatriation of $85 million from the proceeds of OPL 245 frozen by the court.

Last October, during a meeting on assets recovery in Abuja, Mr. Malami had announced that the Nigerian government had successfully repatriated $85 million from the Malabu funds from the UK.

But in a letter to Mr Buhari, the same official in a dramatic turn dvocated for the government to drop the charges against the chief suspects, including his predecessor, Bello Adoke, former petroleum ministers, Diezani Alison-Madueke and Dan Etete, in the alleged bribery scandal.

In the letter, Mr. Malami had argued that his examination of the case file showed that there was no significant evidence to prove sharp practices by the accused persons.

He further argued that going ahead with the prosecution of the suspects will portray Nigeria in bad light before the international community and foreign investors, who could see Nigeria as a country that could not be trusted to respect its obligations to international partners.

Curiously, another top government functionary and Nigeria’s oil minister, Ibe Kachikwu, also advised the president to cede the oil block to Eni and Shell but a counter-memo by EFCC chair, Ibrahim Magu, made the president overrule Mr. Malami and ordered the anti-graft agency to continue the prosecution.

“We are similarly dumfounded that you should have argued to the President that the Resolution Agreement with Shell and Eni is “sacrosanct” when the FRN’s lawyers (acting on your behalf) have described the said agreement as “unconstitutional”, “corrupt” and “a conspiracy” to defraud Nigeria,” the anti-corruption group said of Mr. Malami’s conduct.

In the letter dated February 22 but which was made available to PREMIUM TIMES Friday, the group gave Mr. Malami until March 1 to clear the inconsistencies in his position and that of the federal government.