Nigeria lobbies US to help identify looted assets

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Thursday, 10 March 2022 10:16

Local Ijaw youths look at an oil rig in Sangana, in Nigeria's oil-rich delta region.
Local Ijaw youths look at an oil rig in Sangana, in Nigeria's oil-rich delta region. (AP Photo/George Osodi)

A Lagos law firm is trying to recruit the US government in the latest twist in President Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign to recover Nigerian assets allegedly looted under his predecessors.

Johnson & Johnson Solicitors has hired attorney Patrick Raffaniello and his firm Raffaniello & Associates to engage with US officials regarding “allegations of misuse of the United States’ banking system to facilitate corrupt payments to foreign officials,” according to a new lobbying disclosure under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The firm is specifically tasked with representing Johnson & Johnson before the Senate banking committee “to facilitate an inquiry into misuse of the United States’ banking system to facilitate corrupt payments to foreign officials.”

The contract is for $25,000 per month and runs for four months starting 3 March. Raffaniello in turn has hired Haroon Khan, a former staffer on the Senate banking committee, and his Federal Resources Group for $12,500 per month.

The lobbying campaign is being bankrolled by a US investment fund called Drumcliffe Partners, according to the FARA filings. Neither Raffaniello, Khan nor Drumcliffe responded to requests for comment.

Secrecy surrounds the terms and beneficiaries of the asset recovery initiative – both in the US and Nigeria. In Abuja, the key decisions have been made by Attorney General Abubakar Malami, who is said to be close to Johnson & Johnson, a Lagos-based law firm with no obvious track record in the complexities of the recovery of billions of dollars of stolen state assets.

The contract comes as Nigeria is involved in a couple of major legal battles over alleged looting. The US lobbying does not appear aimed at trying to sway either case, but rather at informing US authorities of vulnerabilities in the US financial system that have come to light during the years-long legal saga around a massive disputed oil deal known as Oil Prospecting License 245 (OPL245).

“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about with OPL245 in terms of potential US law enforcement investigation,” says Matthew Page, the US intelligence community’s former top Nigeria expert and now a US-based associate fellow with the Africa programme at Chatham House. “I’m wondering if the Nigerian government is just trying to get some eyes and ears in Washington.”

Looted oil money 

Buhari’s government appointed Johnson & Johnson as its agent back in 2016 to help recoup losses and damages estimated to be as high as $6bn from OPL245, according to Nigerian media. Eni accuses Nigeria of having “elected to wage a multi-jurisdictional litigation campaign” against the oil giant.

The case centres around a $1.3bn deal in which oil giants Eni of Italy and Royal Dutch Shell in 2011 secured the rights to a massive offshore oil block from President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. The rights to OPL 245, one of Africa’s biggest oil blocks, had been controlled by a company called Malibu that was owned by Dan Etete, oil minister in the Abacha regime, and Mohammed Sani, son of the military leader. Etete fled Nigeria after Abacha’s fall.

READ MORE Africa’s top 10 lobbying operations in Washington, D.C. 

The fight for control of the OPL 245 led to one of the biggest fraud cases in Africa’s history. The block is believed to contain more than 9bn barrels of crude oil.

Nigerian media have reported that Drumcliffe agreed to fund Johnson & Johnson in exchange for as much as 35% of recovered assets, a payday potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars and far higher than industry standards. An anti-corruption consortium made up of the HEDA Resource Centre in Nigeria, ReCommon in Italy and the Corner House and Global Witness in the UK has been pressing the Buhari administration to be more transparent about its asset recovery dealings.

READ MORE Nigeria’s silent killer: The deadly price of oil

Drumcliffe has called the allegations of a massive potential payday “false and sensationalist.” Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson principal partner Olabode Johnson says the US firm is to be remunerated out of his firm’s recovery fee consisting of just 5% of “sums actually received” by Nigeria.

European court battles

The new lobbying engagement comes as a London high court on 23 February began to hear Nigeria’s $1.7bn  lawsuit against JP Morgan Chase for its role in the oilfield deal. According to Reuters, Nigeria alleges that the US bank was “grossly negligent” when it transferred funds paid by Eni and Shell to a company controlled by Etete.

Italian prosecutors have appealed their criminal case around OPL245 after a court in Milan acquitted the two oil companies and 13 individual defendants in March 2021. Italian prosecutors had argued that most of the $1.3bn was used to bribe Nigerian politicians and officials, including ex-oil minister Etete.

Nigeria is a civil party to the Italian case, opening the possibility of massive payout in damages.  The Nigerian asset recovery team scored an initial victory in late 2017 when a UK judge ordered $73m in frozen funds linked to OPL245 be repatriated to Nigeria.

The US Justice department closed its investigation into ENI’s Nigerian activity without taking action, the Italian company said in October 2019 (Eni voluntarily disclosed the allegations to the US Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, or SEC).  The company however did agree to pay a $24.5m fine to the SEC the following year over alleged violations of accounting practices under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act payments by a former unit in Algeria.

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