The Joe Biden administration is eager to start discussing how it can apply its ‘build back better’ mantra to commerce with Africa when it ... virtually hosts the continent’s trade ministers this week. For their part, America's African partners want to make sure that Washington doesn’t bulldoze their two-decade-old, duty-free access to the US market in the process.
The emotion is palpable. Seated at the bar of a major Parisian luxury hotel on Monday, 30 September, Dan Etete takes off his round glasses and brushes away a tear.
But when the face of the former Nigerian Minister of Petroleum (1995-1998) becomes serious and solemn, it is not because of the trial currently being held in Milan, of which he is one of the most prominent protagonists, facing several charges, including corruption and money laundering.
The trial, which started in 2018, concerns the conditions of the awarding, in 2011, to Eni and Shell, the OPL-245 oil blocks, one of the most prolific oil fields in Africa (nine billion barrels).
This is one of the largest corruption scandals in the continent’s history, and involves Claudio Descalzi, CEO of the Italian company, as well as senior executives of its Dutch-British competitor.
In the $1.3bn transaction for OPL-245, the Italian court contends that $1.1 billion was transferred to Malabu Oil and Gas, the first owner granted the field’s exploitation rights in 1998.
These rights were again granted in 2010 after the licence had been withdrawn a second time in 2006.
Dan Etete owned shares in Malabu Oil and Gas. For some NGOs, against whom Etete has some harsh words, the money was reportedly used to bribe Nigerian intermediaries and politicians.
Tribute to Chirac
Despite this, Etete, a traditional Ijaw chief, a tribe from the Niger Delta, a region where he retains some influence, remains impassive. It was the death of Jacques Chirac, which occurred four days earlier, that has moved him to tears, and of which he wanted to speak.
He said he wanted to be present in the Church of Saint-Sulpice, like several African officials (including former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo), to pay, discreetly, a last tribute to the former French President.
He prefers to remain silent about the people he greeted at the funeral or met in the afternoon in the capital. The day before, the one who “travels all the time” was in London.
“But even if I had been twelve thousand kilometres from Paris, I would have made the trip for Chirac,” he confided in a candid and rare interview. Dan Etete never talks to the press.
A glass of calvados in hand, he reminisces. “Thanks to him, we avoided the worst in the late 1990s, when Nigeria and Cameroon were fighting over the sovereignty of the Bakassi Peninsula (peacefully surrendered by the former to the latter in 2008), an area rich in oil and fish. President Chirac, to whom General Abacha, then President of Nigeria, had sent me, used his influence to intervene between the two countries,” he recalls.
“He made me contact the Tunisian Ben Ali, the Beninese Mathieu Kérékou, the Togolese Gnassingbé Eyadéma, and the Gabonese Omar Bongo. Informal contacts were also made at the France-Africa summit in Ouagadougou in 1996,” continues the man who was also well known to Saddam Hussein.
Relaxed and in talkative mode, Etete talks about the activities of his philanthropic foundation, created 18 years ago, which has provided scholarships to students in the oil and trading sectors and delivered a hundred buses to his home village.
He insists the inaction of African heads of state regarding the fate of migrants is driving him out of his mind with misery.
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Now a behind-the-scenes consultant for oil companies exploring in Africa and the Middle East, the 74-year-old sweeps away the accusations made against him. “This is nonsense, this is political propaganda,” he says dismissively.
He was not yet aware that the American courts had cleared Eni and its officials of any suspicion of illegality acquiring the licence of the OPL-245 block, and had closed the case across the Atlantic on 1 October.
Although he does not take credit for creating all Nigeria’s billionaires, he does remind us that when he was minister, he wanted to entrust marginal blocs to “indigenous” people, and develop a new class of young Nigerians “who have succeeded thanks to him”.
He cites Mike Adenuga, to whom he granted his first mobile operator’s licence before Glo. Or Modupe Alakija (a relative of his brother Kodjo), who with his wife, Folorunsho. (reputedly the 15th richest woman in the world, second richest woman in Africa), own the production and exploration company, Famfa Oil. His other achievement, of which he boasts, was the increase in exploration fees from $4 million to $20 million.
The man is quick to defend his honour. “When General Abubakar came to power, Malabu paid $2.4 million in duties to the government on the OPL-245. Then, when Obasanjo was elected, the committee set up to investigate all deals did not recognize any defects in the award,” he says.
He recalls the many dramatic developments since 2001, the long series of reallocations and withdrawals of exploitation rights to Malabu and Shell and the resulting international arbitration proceedings.
“Shell and Malabu have always fought each other. How could two enemies have united to corrupt the government?” he asks. Estimating the value of the oil field at $3.5 billion and stating that it had received only a $209 million bonus, the Buhari government took the case to the London Court. It also filed a complaint against JP Morgan for, according to him, organizing the transfer of $875 million to Malabu.
On 8 October, the American investment bank was denied its request to cancel Nigeria’s proceedings. In 2011, after several years of battle, Malabu reached an agreement with Abuja, Eni and Shell to transfer the block to the majors.
“To ensure that Malabu could return its licence to the government, Shell insisted that any payments made to Malabu should be paid into an escrow account. At that time, Goodluck Jonathan’s government acted as an intermediary to bring this dispute to an end,” he claims.
As a close associate to the former president, Etete gets angry when he is asked about any bribes he may have received.
“Where is the evidence? Where is the money Jonathan received from Malabu? Jonathan comes from the same state as me, I knew him too well to corrupt him,” he argues.
Proceedings are also ongoing in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, but the most sensational case is the investigation in Italy by a well-known and relentless magistrate, Fabio De Pasquale — the man who sentenced former Council Presidents Silvio Berlusconi and Bettino Craxi.
However, Dan Etete is not about to admit defeat.
In June in Milan, Ednan Agaev, the former Soviet diplomat behind the scandal that revealed that Malabu had paid several Nigerian officials (including Goodluck Jonathan), refused to confirm his statement.
“I wonder by what right the Italian court can stick its nose in Nigeria, a sovereign state. This block is the property of the Nigerian government, not that of the Italian government and its prosecutor!” storms the former minister, who, with a smile on his face, promises more surprises. Without, however, unveiling all its mysteries.
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