An Italian court on Monday postponed the commencement of a trial of the executives of Royal Dutch Shell and Eni over alleged corruption in the 2011 acquisition of Nigeria's Oil Prospecting Lease (OPL) 245, reputed as one of Africa's most valuable oil blocks, to May 14.
A Milan judge ruled in December 2017 that the companies, along with present and past executives, would face trial, which was originally expected to start yesterday but has been postponed.
Milan prosecutors alleged that bribes were paid to win the $1.3 billion offshore field, which has not been developed.
Reuters, which reported the postponement of the trial, had stated the Milan tribunal had earlier informed lawyers that the court, which had been due to hear the trial had too many cases and could not guarantee that it would do so in a reasonable period of time.
THISDAY had reported that a judge had last year, ordered the two oil giants and their key figures including Eni's Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Claudio Descalzi, and his predecessor, Paolo Scaroni, to stand trial, together with former Royal Dutch Shell staff members.
Shell's officials facing trial include Malcolm Brinded, the second most powerful person in Shell when the deal was struck.
Others charged are former vice-president for Shell's sub-Saharan Africa operations, Peter Robinson, as well as Guy Colegate and John Copleston, former Shell employees and ex-MI6 agents.
Eni has, however, denied any wrongdoing in the OPL 245 transaction.
"Eni's Board of Directors has reaffirmed its confidence that the company was not involved in alleged corrupt activities in relation to the transaction," Reuters quoted Eni as saying in a recent statement.
"Eni expresses its full confidence in the judicial process and that the trial will ascertain and confirm the correctness and integrity of its conduct," the statement added.
The Italian oil giant insisted in particular that "chief executive, Claudio Descalzi was not involved in the alleged illegal conduct."
Also in its reaction to the order by the Milan judge, Shell said it was disappointed over the decision.
Shell said in a statement on its website that it believed that the trial judges will conclude that there is no case against it.
Shell and Eni have already been charged with corruption in Nigeria over the OPL 245 deal, which was brokered by former President Goodluck Jonathan's administration.
The deal saw the federal government acting as an intermediary between the oil majors and Malabu Oil and Gas, a Nigerian company allegedly controlled by former Petroleum Minister, Mr. Dan Etete.
Following the allegations of corruption and bribery over the years, Shell and Eni have repeatedly maintain that they acquired the rights to the lucrative block in line with Nigerian law.
However, e-mail exchanges between Shell management cited in a report by corruption watchdog Global Witness, and seen by AFP, suggested that Shell was aware the money was likely to be funnelled to individuals, including Etete.
Etete was also ordered to stand trial by the Milan court.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had filed corruption charges against Shell and Eni in March 2017, accusing 11 defendants, including Etete, of "official corruption" in connection with the oil block deal.
The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami recently wrote to Buhari urging him to back off on his administration's legal battles with some of the principal actors in the controversial OPL 245 deal.
Jonathan has denied receiving kickbacks, saying that he had not been "accused, indicted or charged for corruptly collecting monies" linked to the deal.
OPL 245 has been a source of contention for almost two decades.
In 1998, the block was awarded by then petroleum minister, Etete to Malabu Oil and Gas.
Etete was accused of awarding himself the block while in office under former military head of state, Gen. Sani Abacha.
OPL 245 holds significant hydrocarbon reserves and will increase Shell's reserves by a third. Two oil and gas discoveries have been made on the block.