Blog / Sept. 19, 2014

Time to stop the airbrushing: reaction to latest Eni corruption investigation needs investigating itself

This piece by Global Witness and Re:Common originally appeared (in Italian) in Il Manifesto on 18 September 2014, available here.

Last week was a bad week for the Italian oil giant Eni. Within hours of news breaking that its newly-appointed CEO, Claudio Descalzi along with the company, are under formal investigation for corruption relating to a Nigerian oil deal the share price plummeted. Although since recovered, and despite Eni’s denials of the allegations, on the day, it wiped some $1.4 billion off Eni’s share value.

The story as it unfolded in the Italian press was worthy of a Hollywood film script. A Nigerian oil minister who awarded an oil field to himself, cashing it in for $1.1 billion when it was sold to Eni and Shell. Nigerian and Russian middlemen fighting over their spoils in the UK and US courts. Empty shell companies that appear to exist only on paper. Cash to the value of $190 million (held by the minister’s company and a middleman) being frozen in the UK and Switzerland by an Italian prosecutor. Wire-tapped telephone conversations. Valiant Western NGOs exposing the alleged corruption.

Told as a Hollywood story of Westerners uncovering bribes allegedly being paid to corrupt Nigerians, some unpalatable elements of this story get lost.

For this is not just a story about corrupt Nigerians. The allegation has also been made by the Italian prosecutors and in the UK High Court that Eni officials attempted to arrange kickbacks from the deal. Not that you would know this from the bulk of the press reports and public reactions. It should be noted that this allegation has been denied by Eni, who were not part of the UK High Court proceedings. In those proceedings, the allegation was emphatically rejectedby the judge for lack of evidence and the unreliability of the source. See Eni’s statement and its responses to allegations in more detail which it gave in writing at its AGM, both are available on its website.

It does not fit with the lazily racist line (repeated by internet trolls and mainstream commentators alike) that Western companies are only tainted by corruption because they are forced to pay bribes by corrupt Africans, Asians and Latin Americans.

It is far more comfortable if the story is retold with the focus placed on corrupt Nigerians. Thus the reported reaction of one Eni shareholder: “It’s not great news but I’m afraid this is standard stuff in countries like Nigeria”.

Nor is this a story that is just about Europeans moving to prevent corruption, though prosecutors have finally acted by freezing funds. But this is a story about Western courts holding their noses whilst presiding over disputes between the would-be beneficiaries of what are clearly tainted deals. A story about Western financial institutions enabling the transfer of corruptly-obtained funds. This is a story about Westerners, notably companies such as Shell, moving heaven and earth to try to dismantle legislation that would make corruption harder by forcing companies to disclose their payments to governments. You wouldn’t know any of this from the press coverage.

And it is not a story that is just about Western campaign groups exposing corruption. It is also a story  (covered nowhere in the press) of Nigerian anti-corruption activists demanding, often at great personal risk, that politicians and corporations profiting corruptly from Nigeria be held to account – and that the West must address its own role in facilitating and, yes, promoting corruption in Nigeria and elsewhere.

It was a Nigerian activist, Dotun Oloko, who, along with us, pressed for the case to be investigated in Italy and the UK. And the existence of the UK investigation into the Eni-Shell oil deal only came to light when Nigerian groups protested outside the UK High Commission in Nigeria.

Nobody, least of all Nigerian activists, disputes that Nigeria is now a kleptocracy. But it is a kleptocracy fuelled directly by the activities of foreign companies and officials. Indeed, it thrives primarily in those sectors of the economy where multinationals are most prevalent. And it relies on the most important actors and actions in corruption stories being omitted.

It is time for the airbrushing to stop. Time for the Italian public to build an anti-corruption politics that insists on looking in the mirror.

Simon Taylor is co-founder and Director of Global Witness.