A British judge ruled on Friday that up to $85 million from the notorious Malabu oil deal should be returned to the Nigerian government.
This is the first money to be successfully recovered from the $1.1 billion sale of the fantastically rich offshore oil block, OPL245, that has been mired in corruption allegations and legal trench warfare for years.
The sale, which was brokered by the then-government of Goodluck Jonathan in 2011, supposedly resolved a long running contest for the block between oil giant Shell and shelf company Malabu, beneficially owned by former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete.
Mr. Etete effectively awarded the oil block to himself when he was oil minister in 1998, but only walked away with the money for it 13 years later after Shell and Italian oil company ENI paid the Nigerian government for the block.
The government paid $801.5 million to Malabu, but not before $215 million was restrained by the UK Commercial Court after an Etete associate brought a case claiming their share.
The $85 million is what remains in the UK courts funds office after years of legal wrangling.
The counsel for the Federal Republic of Nigeria argued alone before the judge, Justice Cockerill, on Friday after Malabu failed to attend the hearing.
Faisal Osman, counsel for the Nigerian government, told the court that Malabu had not responded to legal correspondence for more than a year, after another British judge had dismissed Malabu’s earlier legal bid to unlock the $85 million.
After the UK Crown Prosecution Service gave its consent to release the funds to the Nigerian government last month, the judge agreed that she was “entirely satisfied” to grant the order.
“The money in question is the money of the Nigerian people,” Mrs. Cockerill concluded.
The Nigerian government’s legal arguments were prepared by UK law firm Verdant Solicitors and Lagos law firm Johnson and Johnson.
Nigeria’s solicitor general, Dayo Apata, attended the court hearing and said: “We are very happy about this ruling. It has been a long road but there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Nigeria’s attorney general, Abubakar Malami, had in October announced that his country had received the $85 million. But it appears that announcement was made in anticipation of Friday’s court ruling after the UK Crown Prosecution Service indicated to Mr. Malami’s office that they would not oppose a claim against the release of the money.
Mr. Malami was not available for comments on Saturday to clarify whether the money had actually been released before the Friday ruling. He did not return calls and short message to his mobile phone.
However, it is understood that Friday’s court ruling paves the way for the money to be released to the Attorney-General’s office within days.
A further amount of around $100 million proceeds from OPL245 remains frozen by the Swiss authorities, and is understood to be another target for Nigeria’s legal team.
* Lionel Faull is a reporter with Finance Uncovered. *