Blog | Feb. 13, 2017

Nowhere to hide: prosecutors turn up the heat on oil execs at heart of corruption scandal

The latest developments in a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal show how the net is closing in on oil bosses who allow shady deals to happen on their watch – and how vital global transparency rules that make such deals much harder must be upheld.

Last month, we celebrated a huge victory for the people of Nigeria when news broke that the Nigerian government seized a valuable block OPL 245 from oil giants Shell and Eni. The move followed years of investigations by Global Witness and our partners into the companies’ backroom deals and undisclosed payments that led to them getting hold of the lucrative block. 

This was truly historic news in itself – but it’s just the start of the story. Developments are occurring thick and fast as the heat is turned up on the individuals at the centre of the scandal. On Thursday, Italian authorities requested that Shell, Eni and a string of high-profile oil executives – including Eni’s current CEO - be sent to trial for their alleged involvement in the deal. They’re accused of paying bribes to Nigerian officials including fronts for the former President to the tune of at least half a billion dollars.

The story began in 2011, when Shell and Eni paid $1.1 billion for access to the block to Malabu Oil and Gas, a front company secretly owned by former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete. Starting in 2012, we published our investigations into the deal, showing that Shell and Eni knew that the money would flow to Etete’s company – despite their claims of ignorance.

Fast forward to January 2017, when the Nigerian authorities took back the block as a result of legal action, labelling it  “proceeds of crime” and stating that they are seeking charges of “Conspiracy, Bribery, Official Corruption and Money Laundering” against Shell and Eni subsidiaries in Nigeria. This week’s development tightens the net further, with Shell, Eni and several senior executives amongst those called to trial by the Milan public prosecutor.

That senior executives, the current and former CEO of one of the biggest oil companies, are likely to be held to account in a court of law for such a deal is a highly significant move, and sends a strong message that there’s nowhere to hide for the businessmen who get into bed with corrupt officials. In addition, Nigerian authorities have charged the former Minister of Justice and Dan Etete with money laundering. Shell, Eni and the Nigerian officials have all denied wrongdoing.

Corrupt deals are never victimless crimes. Where a handful of corrupt individuals line their pockets, others must lose out. This deal deprived Nigeria’s people of a sum worth 80% of its 2015 healthcare budget – money that could have provided lifesaving services in a country where 80% of citizens live on less than $2 a day.

Let’s be clear: this spectacular theft from the Nigerian people was allowed to happen because Shell and Eni knew that their payments to Etete’s company would remain hidden. But it could have been avoided – and today it would have, thanks to a shift towards transparency that sees 30 major economies from the EU to Canada signed up to a global standard that requires companies to disclose their payments to governments for natural resources such as oil and gas. Governments, companies and investors recognise that this standard protects investors, is good for development and keeps big oil honest.

The decision by Italian prosecutors to go after apparent corruption at the highest levels represents a huge stride forward in the global fight against corruption in the oil, gas and mining sectors, and one Global Witness has been pushing for for years. We’ll be keeping close watch on what happens next.


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