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Mark Robinson

Last week, Royal Dutch Shell (RDSB) revealed that it is facing charges in the Netherlands relating to corruption allegations surrounding a Nigerian oil bloc called OPL 245. Shell and Italian major ENI SpA (ENI.IM) acquired the licence in 2011 for around $1.3bn (£992m), but it’s alleged that a significant proportion of the monies was destined for use as kickbacks for politicians and officials, with former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete – a convicted money launderer – acting as the principal intermediary. Although the funds were paid to the Nigerian government, it’s claimed that they found their way into the coffers of Malabu Oil and Gas — a company linked to Mr Etete.

There seems little doubt that monies were siphoned off at some point, so the crux of the matter is whether Shell was fully aware that the purchase would lead to corrupt payments, which it has denied, stating that it never gave its approval and that no such undertakings were ever made on its behalf.

However, these reassurances were at odds with the summation of an Italian judge who had presided over a separate case against two intermediaries of the deal, who were each sentenced to four years in prison. The earlier ruling suggested that both Shell and Eni were fully aware that the deal would lead to corrupt payments to agents and middlemen, who were likened to “hungry sharks” by judge Giusy Barbara.

But there’s a little more than just ‘chum’ on offer. A report issued in 2018 by campaign pressure group Global Witness states that a clause granting Nigeria oil production royalties was effectively negotiated out of the 2011 deal by corrupt officials, which means the country is set to suffer $6 billion in lost revenues under the terms brokered by Shell and Eni.

According to the latest SEC Filings, institutions owning shares of Royal Dutch Shell have decreased their aggregate positions by 3.7 per cent. That represents a significant pullback, but it’s hard to believe that the institutional shareholder base has suddenly become squeamish over events unfolding in Nigeria. After all, it would be an understatement to suggest that Shell has a somewhat chequered past in the country.

Indeed, younger lawyers at the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office may have had to familiarise themselves with some of the more contentious activities of the Anglo-Dutch giant back in the 1990s. A court in The Hague is in the process of determining whether Shell was complicit in the events that led to the execution of nine activists, including high-profile author Ken Saro-Wiwa, by Nigeria’s then military dictatorship led by General Sani Abacha.

Matters had come to a head in 1995, after protests by Nigeria’s Ogoni ethnic minority against the environmental degradation in their homeland in the Niger Delta were violently put down by government forces, allegedly at the behest of Shell. The group said it was “inconceivable” that it could have been involved in the death of the men. Maybe so, but it would be hard pressed to defend its environmental record in the region. Between 1976 and 1991, around 2.3m barrels of oil were spilt in Ogoniland, concentrated over an area of just 1,000 square kilometres on the northern edge of the Niger Delta – about 1.5 times the area covered by London.

Shell’s long-standing involvement in Nigeria has attracted no end of criticism, but some legal issues have a little more meat on the bone than others. Last year, the group was also the subject of a lawsuit brought by New York City against Shell and four other oil majors – BP (BP.), Chevron(US:CVX), ConocoPhillips (US:COP) and ExxonMobil (US:XOM) – demanding that they compensate the city for the cost of mitigating the effects of global warming. A federal judge threw out the lawsuit, which was always akin to a publicity stunt, although you never know with US courts.

IC View

For some people in underdeveloped regions, the whole concept of climate change might seem nothing more than a western conceit, but graft is another matter. The regrettable truth is that sharp practice is commonplace in natural resource markets and is considered a strong constraint on growth and development. We don’t know the extent of Shell’s potential liabilities in the OPL 245 dispute, but perhaps resource majors would be a little more circumspect if their board members ended up on the hook rather than shareholders.


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