CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — A court in Milan, Italy ruled Friday that Nigeria can seek damages against oil giants Shell and Eni as an injured civil party in a bribery scandal.
The ruling was reported by La Repubblica, an Italian newspsper, and by nongovernmental groups present at the hearing.
The trial centers on a $1.3 billion bribery deal Royal Dutch Shell Plc. and Italy-based Eni S.p.A. executives allegedly entered into in 2011 with Nigerian officials, including then-President Goodluck Jonathan, to purchase a coveted oil field off the coast of Nigeria.
Oil company attorneys argued unsuccessfully that Nigeria should not be admitted as a civil party.
Shell declined to comment on the ruling, beyond saying: “We have consistently maintained that there is a basis to convict Shell or any of its former employees.” Eni also denies wrongdoing.
Nigeria’s status as a victim opens up the possibility that the African nation could claim hefty damages from Shell and Eni.
Also Friday the court ruled against allowing nongovernmental watchdog groups from being admitted as civil parties in the trial.
“We knew it was going to be a long shot,” said Barnaby Pace, an anticorruption campaigner for Global Witness, one of the groups seeking to participate in the trial. He was in the courtroom Friday.
Nigeria’s lawyers, he said, “cleared this key hurdle” and will be able to “call witnesses, cross-examine witnesses” in their case for damages.
Pace said judges have scheduled many hearings in September and October. He expected witnesses to be called to testify by October.
In December 2017, Italian judges in Milan ordered the companies and a number of individuals, including top executives at Shell and Eni, to stand trial.
Milan prosecutors say the corrupt deal was negotiated and enacted between 2009 and 2014 in a complex web of interests.
In court documents, prosecutors say the deal involved top oil company executives, two former British secret service members, shady bank transfers and cash payments, many of which went to former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete, who allegedly obtained the lucrative oilfield through a company called Malabu Oil and Gas Ltd.
Among those accused of international corruption are Paolo Scaroni, who was CEO and executive director of Eni at the time of the alleged bribery, and Claudio Descalzi, who serves as Eni’s CEO now.
Also facing charges are Malcolm Brinded, former chief exploration director at Shell, and Peter Robinson, a former vice president for sub-Saharan Africa at Shell.
Italian attorneys for Global Witness said the defendants face sentences of eight to 16 years, according to Pace.
Matthew T. Page, associate fellow with the Africa Programme at the think tank Chatham House and former U.S. intelligence expert in Nigeria, said the outcome of the trial will be critical.
“This is a real litmust test of whether European prosecutors and courts are able to hold their countries’ largest companies accountable for fueling corruption in some of the poorest and most unstable parts of the world,” he said in an email Friday.
He said that while prosecutors appear to have a lot of damaging evidence, “that does not necessarily guarantee a conviction in this politically-sensitive case.”
Page said companies doing business in Nigeria are faced with endemic corruption. For instance, he said, a recent nationwide survey in Nigeria estimated that in 2016 Nigerian officials collected 82.3 million bribes totaling $4.6 billion.
He said, “The question is: do [multi-national companies] take steps to avoid and mitigate [corruption], or do they embrace it as a necessary evil?”