After repeated denials in various countries, Anglo-Dutch oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell, on Monday finally admitted it had foreknowledge that the $1.3 billion itself and ENI paid to Nigerian government for the OPL 245 oil block licence would ultimately be used to settle convicted former Minister of Petroleum, Dan Etete.
"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 New York Times quoted Andy Norman, a spokesperson for Shell, as saying in an email Monday.
The Dutch oil giant knew the Nigerian government "would compensate Malabu to settle its claim on the block," Mr. Norman added.
The confession came a day after intercepted telephone conversation between Shell's chief executive, Ben van Beurden, and his then chief financial officer, Simon Henry, revealed the oil firm knew Mr. Etete was the main beneficiary of the multi-billion dollar deal.
Shell and ENI had hitherto maintained ignorance that Mr. Etete would benefit from the deal prior to the settlement agreement that was reached with Goodluck Jonathan's government in 2011. The agreement saw Shell and ENI assume ownership of the lucrative oil field after paying $1.1 billion to Malabu via a Nigerian government account. Another $200 million had earlier been paid by Shell.
Shell had in the past told PREMIUM TIMES and others that it did not know its payment would end up with Mr. Etete or Malabu.
"Shell was not aware that that money was to be paid to Malabu," Precious Okolobo, a communications officer with Shell, told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone in May 2012.
"As we have previously stated, no payments were made by any Shell company to Malabu Oil and Gas in relation to the issuance by the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) of the OPL 245 licence to Shell Nigerian Exploration & Production Ltd and Nigerian Agip Energy (NAE)." Andrew Vickers, Shell's Vice President NGO and Stakeholder Relations, said in a 2015 letter to Global Witness, an anti-corruption campainger.
Shell and Italy's ENI had issued other similar denials since then. But the latest revelations, which were part of an ongoing probe of the deal by Italian authorities, have now put the oil majors on the defensive.
But Shell officials, nonetheless, maintained that they "believe that the settlement was a fully legal transaction," the New York Times reported.
Global Witness said in a statement that the leaked phone conversations of Shell executives forced the company to finally give in.
"This is a huge U-turn that reveals Shell's duplicity," Simon Taylor, founder of Global Witness, said in an email to PREMIUM TIMES Monday night.
"For six years it has asserted it only paid the Nigerian government, insisting it has "never been anything but transparent" about the deal for the oil block, and that its actions were "morally OK".
"Now its private emails have come to light, Shell has admitted it dealt with Etete - a convicted money launderer - to ensure it got its hands on this valuable oil block, at the expense of the Nigerian people.
"This shows that Shell has not only knowingly deprived a country of life-saving funds, but has repeatedly misled its investors and the broader public over this corrupt deal."
Mr. Etete, who was petroleum minister under Sani Abacha. had awarded the oil block to Malabu, a company he partly owned alongside Mohammed, Mr. Abacha's son, in contravention of Nigerian laws.
The OPL 245 oil block, believed to contain more than nine billion barrels of crude oil, is considered one of the richest oil blocks in Africa.
In 2007, Mr. Etete was convicted in Paris in a different case that bordered on money laundering.
Monday's revelations came a day after PREMIUM TIMES reported that Mr. Jonathan might have received up to $200 million in bribes to approve the controversial deal.
The report was based on Italian court documents obtained by BuzzFeed and Italian business newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore.
In the documents, Italian prosecutors quoted Ednan Agaev, a middleman who helped negotiate the transfer of the oil block to Shell and Eni, as saying that Dan Etete, the former Petroleum Minister at the heart of the oil scandal, said he intended to dole out as much as $400 million in bribes if the deal went through.
If Mr. Etete actually paid out such an amount in bribes to Nigerian officials, "Agaev stated that he would think President Goodluck Jonathan got at least $200 million of this money," BuzzFeed quoted an excerpt of FBI submissions to Italian authorities as saying.
The revelations were made when the FBI interviewed Mr. Agaev, whom prosecutors also said met with Mr. Jonathan on more than one occasion in Nigeria during the OPL 245 negotiations.
Mr. Agaev, who was Mr. Etete's representative in the negotiation, said the convicted former petroleum minister told him of the $400 million bribe to Nigerian politicians when he approached him for his payment.
He also repeated the claim in a follow-up interview with Italian prosecutors, led by Fabio De Pasquale in Milan.
"I said that if it's true, that he paid, he had to pay 400 million, I assume that at least 200 went to Goodluck (Jonathan)."
"I heard from Chief (Etete), he claims that he had to pay 400 million, so, if this is true, if he paid 400 million, then most probably the President, as the biggest boss, took at least the half of it," BuzzFeed wrote, quoting documents prepared by Italian prosecutors.
Mr. Jonathan's spokesperson, Ikechukwu Eze, could not be reached for comments about the latest revelations. But he denied the former president's involvement in a January 10 statement about the Malabu oil deal.
"We wish to make it clear that former President Jonathan was not accused, indicted or charged for corruptly collecting any monies as kickbacks or bribes from ENI by the Italian authorities or any other law enforcement body the world over," the statement said.