Nigeria is seeking damages as well as a declaration that it has the right to revoke the licence for a multibillion-dollar oil block granted to Royal Dutch Shell and Eni, in an escalation of a long-running dispute between Africa’s largest crude producer and two of its biggest foreign investors.
The government “seeks to trace and recover the money paid as bribes” and an entitlement “to rescind the grant of the OPL 245 licence”, a prized exploration and production block that Shell and Eni bought in a 2011 deal, the government said in a legal claim filed in April.
The Anglo-Dutch and Italian companies paid $1.3bn for the block, but Nigeria believes the undeveloped deepwater block could be worth at least $3.5bn and damages should now be calculated on that basis, documents filed in the commercial division of the High Court in London said.
The claim in the English courts alleges that Shell and Eni “both paid bribes” either directly or indirectly and senior executives at both companies “received bribes (or were intended to receive bribes)” as part of the 2011 deal.
Nigerian and Italian prosecutors have alleged that the companies knew that most of the money would be funnelled to corrupt government officials and executives. Both companies, current and former executives deny any wrongdoing.
In his first comments since the documents were released by the court, Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, Nigeria’s minister of state for petroleum, said the government was simply keeping all options open.
“If we come back and find that the parties were not transparent, and this wasn’t awarded transparently, then obviously the government has an option to decide to pull that [licence] back,” he said.
Mr Kachikwu said the government was focused on reaching a resolution to the dispute. “The participants in this are long-term investors in Nigeria, and they have other investments, and they’re running businesses here,” he said. “So it’s not like we’re chasing them out.”
The attorney-general’s office, which has been in charge of the government’s legal claim, has taken a more aggressive stance saying the 2011 deal was “part of a fraudulent and corrupt scheme” involving the transfer of funds through a local oil company.
OLP 245 was passed back and forth between Shell and Nigerian group Malabu, backed by former oil minister Dan Etete, who first awarded rights for it in 1998 when he was also petroleum minister.
It is at the centre of a Milan corruption trial where prosecutors have alleged bribes of $1.1bn out of the $1.3bn deal were paid to secure the block and settle a multiyear battle over its ownership.
In the Milan case, current and former managers of both companies — including Eni’s current chief executive Claudio Descalzi and Shell’s former head of exploration and production Malcolm Brinded — are facing charges of international corruption.
The international energy majors have said their transaction was legitimate and sanctioned by the government, and that they played no part in what happened to the money afterwards.
Shell said the deal was “fully legal”.
Eni emphasised the “correctness and compliance of every aspect of the transaction”, while adding that the case was a duplication of the one in Milan. It added: “We are unclear on the legal basis or ground for a UK court to deal with an executive decision by a sovereign government.”
Lawyers for Mr Etete have denied any wrongdoing.
In a separate case in London, Nigeria is suing JPMorgan Chase, alleging that the bank enabled the misappropriation of $845m in state funds related to OPL 245 via transfers from Malabu accounts. The bank denies any wrongdoing. Additional reporting by Jane Croft