There was confusion at an Italian court Monday as two lawyers purportedly representing the Nigerian government surfaced in the trial of Shell and Eni executives over alleged corruption in Nigeria.
Although the Italian court postponed to May 14 the start of the trial, one of the lawyers, a certain Sedu, declared his intention not to ask for damages from Eni.
The trial was originally expected to start on Monday but sources said the court might not be able to deal with the case because it had too many other cases.
The case involves the 2011 purchase by Eni and Shell of Nigeria of Nigeria’s OPL-245 offshore oilfield – one of Africa’s most valuable oil blocks – for about $1.3 billion.
Milan prosecutors alleged that bribes were paid to win the license to explore the field, which has never entered into production.
A former petroleum minister, Dan Etete, and a former Attorney-General, Bello Adoke, are amongst several Nigerians indicted in the deal, which was approved by former President Goodluck Jonathan.
Shell and Eni’s Nigerian subsidiary, Agip, are among those already being prosecuted in Nigeria, although they have denied wrongdoing.
A Milan judge ruled in December that the companies, along with present and past executives, would face trial.
Last October, during a meeting on assets recovery in Abuja, Mr. Malami had announced that the Nigerian government successfully repatriated $85 million from the Malabu funds from the UK.
But in a letter to Mr. Buhari, the same official in a dramatic turn advocated for the government to drop the charges against the chief suspects, including his predecessor, Bello Adoke, former petroleum ministers, Diezani Alison-Madueke and Dan Etete, in the alleged bribery scandal.
In the letter, Malami had argued that his examination of the case file showed that there was no significant evidence to prove sharp practices by the accused persons.
He further argued that going ahead with the prosecution of the suspects will portray Nigeria in bad light before the international community and foreign investors, who could see Nigeria as a country that could not be trusted to respect its obligations to international partners.
Curiously, another top government functionary and Nigeria’s oil minister, Ibe Kachikwu, also advised the president to cede the oil block to Eni and Shell; but a counter-memo by EFCC chair, Ibrahim Magu, made the president overrule Malami and ordered the anti-graft agency to continue the prosecution.
The confusion within the Nigerian government on how to proceed with the scandal reared its head in Italy.
On Monday, two lawyers showed up in Milan to represent Nigeria, raising suspicion that the nation may not be recognised in the trial once the case comes up for hearing.
The Human and Environmental Development Agenda, HEDA, in a statement condemned the development, saying it exposed the nation to ridicule.
“HEDA was today shocked and deeply disturbed by the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s confused appearance before the opening of the Italian trial of Shell and Eni for its role in the Malabu Scandal,” the statement said.
“While we applaud the action of the Federal Government to intervene in the case, the presence of two lawyers with contradictory instructions was an embarrassment and presents Nigeria in a poor light before the Milan Court.”
The statement said the development exposes the nation to the risk that “both instructed lawyers will not be recognised by the court, leaving the FRN out in the cold.”
“The powers of attorney to represent Nigeria should not be handed out like confetti, the organization said, adding that the Attorney General must explain why he has so “disastrously mismanaged Nigeria’s intervention, potentially losing the chances of recovering billions of dollars in compensation to Nigeria.”
The organisation called on President Muhammadu Buhari to call his Attorney General to order, “Considering what happened today in Milan and adversary actions of the AGF in the recent past.”