Eni has said it did nothing wrong in pursuing its Nigerian interests with both the Tinubu administration and a private firm run by the president’s nephew.
The company tried to manage its perception in Nigeria after fallout greeted a Peoples Gazette story that exposed how the Italian oil giant, alongside its European counterpart Shell, repossessed control of the lucrative but highly controversial OPL 245 crude field barely weeks after transferring its Nigerian assets to Oando, a struggling Nigerian oil business run by Wale Tinubu.
“We strongly reject any allegations of illegal conduct,” Eni’s spokesman Roberto Albini said in a post-publication letter to The Gazette weeks after initially rejecting comments for the story. “We reserve the right to take the appropriate legal actions to defend our reputation with respect to any transaction mentioned in the article.”
The Gazette reported on January 31 that Mr Tinubu greenlit the handover of OPL 245 to Shell and Eni after first cornering large onshore oil assets for Oando Plc.
Because the president had already cut a deal for his family business, he backed down from Nigeria’s civil lawsuits against Shell and Eni over a spurious 2011 payment that was plagued by corruption charges across multiple international jurisdictions. The $1.1 billion was cleared in 2011 by the Goodluck Jonathan administration on behalf of Shell and Eni, who were looking to settle a former Nigeria oil minister and convict Dan Etete.
Mr Etete had claimed ownership of the oil block from his days as the minister under former military dictator Sani Abacha, and Shell and Eni were desperate to pay off Mr Etete, resolve the dispute and take over the lucrative block, believed to be holding billions in oil reserve. The transaction was later found to be fraudulent, although an Italian court said Shell and Eni were not guilty of criminal conduct.
Still, Nigeria under Muhammadu Buhari tried to hold Shell and Eni liable for the questionable deal they believed significantly shortchanged Nigeria, seeking roughly $1.1 billion in damages from both firms. But Mr Tinubu, upon assumption of office in late May, promptly initiated efforts to resolve the matter, and by the end of 2023 all pending legal actions by all parties had been withdrawn.
While petroleum minister Heineken Lokpobiri said the administration was desperate to return the oil block to Shell and Eni in Nigeria’s economic interest, multiple sources familiar with the deal disclosed to The Gazette that the president acquiesced to the deal after Eni transferred its onshore assets to Oando. The transfer was announced in September, but the parties were silent on the amount involved until an American firm, Jefferies Group revealed that the deal was worth over $500 million.
With Eni having transferred its onshore assets to Oando, Mr Tinubu proceeded with the return of OPL 245 ownership to Shell and Eni without any dues to Nigeria, officials said.
But in its February 8, 2024, comment to The Gazette, Eni repeated its Italian court acquitted that was already mentioned in the story and said its deal with Oando began before Bola Tinubu assumed office as president on May 31, 2023.
“With regard to the OPL 245 trial, the Milan Court definitively acquitted Eni, Shell and all the other defendants since there was no case,” Mr Albini said. “Please note that negotiations with Oando were held well before the presidential elections”.
Still, the oil firm was silent on whether or not it learnt any lessons from its decade-long international ordeal over its ties to Mr Etete since President Tinubu has a similar reputation for public corruption and narcotics dealing, among others.