Nigeria: After Eni and Shell’s acquittal, what’s next for ‘OPL 245’?

By Christophe Le Bec

Posted on Monday, 22 March 2021 16:32, updated on Tuesday, 23 March 2021 17:42
Shell / Eni assembly © CARL COURT and MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP)

On 17 March 2021, an Italian court in Milan announced - after more than three years of proceedings - the acquittal of 15 defendants in the emblematic corruption case concerning Eni's and Shell's acquisition of OPL 245 in Nigeria in 2011, for $1.3bn.

The 15 defendants – including Eni CEO Claudio Descalzi – linked to the two oil giants were acquitted. However, other legal proceedings are prolonging the suspense centred around this gigantic case of oil mismanagement in Nigeria.

The verdict surprised many in Italy. 

“Of course, we could not rule out the possibility of an acquittal, even though this case had insufficient evidence. By acquitting Eni, Shell and their managers and intermediaries under Article 530.1 of the Italian Code of Criminal Procedure, the court ruled that no crime had been committed,” says Antonio Tricarico of the Italian transparency NGO Re: Common, which has been following the trial since it began in 2018.

Observers “waiting for explanations”

This activist and lawyer specialising in anti-corruption procedures points out that, in accordance with Italian law, the reasons for the judges’ verdict will be transmitted in 90 days in a document of around 100 pages.

The acquitted are two legal entities – the companies Eni and Shell – as well as 13 individuals, including Claudio Descalzi, the current CEO of Eni, his predecessor Paolo Scaroni and Dan Etete, the controversial former Nigerian oil minister, whose company Malabu Oil & Gas acquired and then resold the OPL245 oil licence.

“We are waiting for the explanatory document of this acquittal, but we do not understand why the same court in Milan sentenced Emeka Obi and Gianluca Di Nardo, two intermediaries in the same OPL245 case, to four years in prison back in September 2018,” says Tricarico.

Abuja determined to “demonstrate its commitment to ending corruption”

Nigeria, a civil party in the Italian trial, regrets the outcome. “We are disappointed, even though we appreciate that the Milan prosecutors pursued the legal proceedings to the end. We are waiting to read the document justifying the court’s decision before taking a position,” says a representative of the Abuja authorities.

“The Federal Republic of Nigeria will nonetheless continue to prosecute those responsible for corruption linked to OPL245, not only to ensure that the Nigerian people benefit from its valuable natural resources, but also to demonstrate its commitment to ending corruption in all its forms,” says the same source.

According to Tricarico, the verdict in the OPL245 trial demonstrates the weakness of the Italian judicial system in the fight against international corruption, particularly in the failure of the court to take into account emails and audio recordings of conversations as acceptable evidence.

In Washington, ENI still hopes to recover its rights to OPL 245

“After the Leonardo case [arms sales in India] and the Eni/Saipem tandem in Algeria, the OPL245 case is the third major international corruption case to end in acquittal,” says the head of Re: Common, explaining that these verdicts are due to the imperfect implementation of OECD anti-corruption rules in the peninsula.

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

In addition to this high-profile trial in Italy, Eni has launched an arbitration procedure in Washington as it wants Abuja to exchange its exploration permit on OPL 245 for an exploitation licence, so that it can continue to develop the project. However, Nigeria seems determined to take this major oil asset and hand it over to another oil company.

According to Tricarico, the most likely outcome is that Milan prosecutor Fabio de Pasquale, who is known for his tenacity, and Nigeria will appeal the ruling. Beyond this possible Italian appeal, there are others underway elsewhere in the world.

“There is this arbitration case in Washington, an ongoing procedure in Nigeria, an investigation in the Netherlands and a civil case in London against JP Morgan [which allegedly facilitated the corrupt transaction], the OPL245 saga is far from over,” concludes Tricarico.

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