- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
Shell CEO Ben van Beurden picked up the phone and called his chief financial officer hours after Dutch police raided his offices. “I trust you have been informed about what happened at the office,” van Beurden said to CFO Simon Henry on the phone on February 17 last year. “So it looks as if they have some form of coordination between the Italian prosecutor, possibly … with a link into the [U.S. Department of Justice], but we’re not sure yet,” van Beurden said, not knowing authorities were listening in on the other end of the line.
His suspicions were right, and their subsequent conversation sheds light on Shell’s complicity in one of the largest corruption scandals in Big Oil’s history — after the company vigorously denied any role in it for years.
That early morning February raid centered on an oil deal Shell and Italian oil giant Eni struck with Nigeria. They paid the Nigerian government $1.3 billion in 2011 for rights to a giant oil field off the Nigerian coast. After the deal was struck, most of that money mysteriously went missing from public coffers.
New legal filings, emails, and recorded phone conversations reviewed by Foreign Policy showed top Shell executives played a hand in the huge corruption scheme, which reached the highest echelons of the government. The phone recordings and documents from European authorities were obtained by anti-corruption watchdogs Global Witness and Finance Uncovered. Buzzfeed and Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Or first broke the story.
The new revelations could throw Shell into a world of legal trouble. They also shed light on the shadowy world of oil deals, and how far Shell was willing to go to nab their share of the oil field, known as OPL 245, through a network that spanned former British spies and corrupt Nigerian officials. The tendrils of the scandal reached the highest echelons of the Nigerian government, including former President Goodluck Jonathan.
The latest developments come hot on the heels of the United States repealing an anti-corruption rules for extractive industry companies like Shell, a move Big Oil widely lauded. It also illustrates how resource-rich countries like Nigeria often fall victim to the “resource curse” – where corrupt officials steal the revenue from selling off natural resources, keeping the masses mired in poverty.
One of Africa’s largest petro-states, Nigeria is ranked 136 out of 176 countries in corruption by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. Meanwhile, famine spurred by the Boko Haram militant insurgency in the country’s north, threatens millions of Nigerians, including some 500,000 children. The money paid by Shell and Eni for the OPL 245 field is about 1.5 times what the U.N. says is needed to resolve the famine crisis.
The deal centered around former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete. While serving as oil minister, Etete secretly acquired rights to OPL 245 through a shadowy front company called Malabu, which later funneled over $1 billion of the deal away from the Nigerian people and directly into the pockets of senior Nigerian officials. (Etete was later convicted in a Nigerian court on a separate money laundering probe.)
Van Beurden suspected the Dutch police must have found some dirt in the records their raids obtained. “There was apparently some loose chatter…particularly the people that we hired from MI6 who, er, must have said things like, ‘Well, yeah, you know, I wonder who gets a pay-off here and whatever,’” he said, referring to former British intelligence operatives Shell hired to help navigate the seedy world of West African oil politicking. But it wasn’t just “loose chatter.”
Senior Shell employees openly discussed in email how they knew over $1 billion of their money would go to Etete and others in political kickbacks, according to email records. The company decided to move forward with the deal anyway, denying for years up to this point its employees did anything wrong and claiming it only knew it was paying the Nigerian government.
One email from Shell official Guy Colegate to colleagues in March, 2010 sums it up: “Etete can smell the money,” Colegate wrote. “If, at nearly 70 years old he does turn his nose up at 1.2 bill he is completely certifiable…but I think he knows its [sic] his for the taking. I don’t think he will push it away,” he wrote. That email was forwarded to then-Shell CEO Peter Voser, one of the world’s most powerful oil execs at the time. No records available show he informed authorities or stood in the way of the deal.
Another Shell advisor, former British intelligence service official John Copleston, wrote about Etete’s graft plan to senior Shell executives in 2009 as they began laying out various deals for a share of the oil field. “E[tete] claims he will only get 40m of the 300m we offering-rest goes in paying people off,” Copleston wrote.
For Shell, the stakes couldn’t have been higher: OPL 245, one of Africa’s most valuable oil fields, contains an estimated nine billion barrels of untapped oil, worth nearly $500 billion even with today’s bargain bin oil prices. Its eventual purchase boosted the world’s fifth-largest company’s proven reserves by a third (proven reserves are a key statistic for shareholders).
The field has been at the center of legal battles since 1998, when Etete first acquired rights to it through his front company. Months before it finally sealed the deal in 2011, Shell had to pay $30 million in a separate settlement on bribery charges in Nigeria.
Now the Anglo-Dutch oil giant was in the lurch once again. “This dawn raid is, I won’t say premature, but it’s, we were not, we hadn’t concluded our own work,” van Beurden said, referring to an internal Shell investigation. They then mulled whether they should inform the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission of the predawn raid, but opted against it because it would be “share price sensitive.”
“At this point in time, everything seems to be share price sensitive,” Henry says on the phone, chuckling.
Shell denied any knowledge of improper payments to Malabu or others up to Sunday. “It is Shell’s position that none of those payments were made with its knowledge,” Shell said in a statement Sunday.
On Monday, after Global Witness issued a new report outlining the findings of the leaked documents, a Shell spokesman appeared to walk back that position in an email statement to FP.
“Over time, it became clear to us that Etete was involved in Malabu and that the only way to resolve the impasse through a negotiated settlement was to engage with Etete and Malabu, whether we liked it or not,” the spokesman said. He added, “we believe that the settlement was a fully legal transaction.” Shell did not dispute the veracity of the of the leaked documents.
Italian prosecutors beg to differ. According to documents from prosecutor’s office in Milan made public, here’s who got what in the pay-off:
- Nigerian businessman Aliyu Abubakar withdrew $54,418,000 in cash.
- $466,065,965.44 withdrawn in cash and subsequently funneled to government officials including President Goodluck Jonathan, Attorney General Mohammed Bello Adoke, Minister of Petroleum Diezani Alison-Madueke, Minister of Defence and former National Security Advisor Aliyu Gusau.
- $10,026,280 to former Attorney General Christopher Adebayo Ojo
- $11,465,000 paid to former Senator Ikechukwu Obiorah
Eni officials also received funds in retrocession (in essence, reimbursement for multiple layers of insurance after a deal goes through). One, Chief Development — Operations & Technology Officer Roberto Casula, received $50 million delivered in cash.
In Italy, prosecutors have recommended Casula and Eni CEO Claudio Descalzi stand trial in the corruption case. The Eni board issued a statement saying they retained “total confidence” in Descalzi. Eni also released a statement saying it was complying with authorities but denied any wrongdoing. Representatives of Voser, Etete, and Jonathan haven’t yet issued any statements about the revelations.
Photo credit: FLORIAN PLAUCHEUR/AFP/Getty Images