A former Russian diplomat, Ednan Agaev, on Wednesday appeared to give evidence before an Italian court in Milan over the controversial Malabu scandal.
Mr Agaev, a middleman and defendant in the case, once claimed that former president Goodluck Jonathan allegedly received $200 million in the controversial deal. The Russian middleman helped negotiate the transfer of the OPL 245 oil block to Shell and Eni, two multinationals at the heart of the scandal.
In 2017, a report based on Italian court documents obtained by BuzzFeed and Italian business newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore, quoted Mr Agaev as saying that Dan Etete, the former Petroleum Minister at the heart of the oil scandal, said he intended to dole out as much as $400 million in bribes if the deal went through.
If Mr Etete actually paid out such an amount in bribes to Nigerian officials, “Agaev stated that he would think President Goodluck Jonathan got at least $200 million of this money,” BuzzFeed quoted an excerpt of FBI submissions to Italian authorities as saying.
PREMIUM TIMES reported Wednesday morning how Mr Agaev appeared in Milan court to give testimony.
The Malabu scandal involved the transfer of about $1.1 billion by Shell and ENI through the Nigerian government to accounts controlled by a former Nigerian petroleum minister, Dan Etete.
From accounts controlled by Mr Etete, about half the money ($520 million) went to accounts of companies controlled by Aliyu Abubakar, popularly known in Nigeria as the owner of AA oil.
Anti-corruption investigators and activists suspect Mr Aliyu fronted for top officials of the Jonathan administration as well of officials of Shell and ENI.
The transaction was authorised in 2011 by Mr Jonathan through some of his cabinet ministers and the money was payment for OPL 245, one of Nigeria’s richest oil blocks.
Although Shell and ENI initially claimed they did not know the money would end up with Mr Etete and his cronies, evidence has shown that claim to be false.
Shell, Eni, Mr Etete, Mr Aliyu and several officials of the oil firms are being prosecuted in Italy and Nigeria for their roles in the scandal.
Speaking at the Milan court on Wednesday, Mr Agaev disclosed that he knew former president Olusegun Obasanjo for the first time in the 1980s and campaigned for the former president’s release in the 1990s but didn’t learn about OPL 245 until 2008 when working for a Russian oil company.
He further disclosed that he knew the OPL 245 block was revoked because Mr Etete was associated with Malabu, the company owning the block. He alleged further that former President Olusegun Obasanjo said the block was intended for late Sani Abacha, a former Nigerian military ruler.
According to Barnaby Pace, a campaigner at anti-corruption group Global Witness, who was at the Milan Court, the defendant explained that after Mr Abacha’s death, the company fell to Mr Etete.
Details of the Italian court proceedings were provided by Mr Pace, whose Global Witness has partnered with PREMIUM TIMES in the investigations.
Mr Agaev, who started his career for the Soviet Union Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he was a senior official for arms control, disclosed that his job was only to find an investor because Mr Etete was in charge of negotiating with the Nigerian government and he didn’t need any help or contacts from him.
Mr Agaev alleged that the block was given back to Mr Etete by Mr Obasanjo to shore up political support in the south of Nigeria.
Mr Agaev also disclosed that he was introduced to Mr Etete by Aliyu Gusau in 2008. Mr Gusau served as National Security Advisor under Messrs Obasanjo and Jonathan. The former security chief wanted him to find a Russian oil company investor to deal with Etete and Shell, he added.
He said Mr Gusau later introduced him to John Coplestone of Shell, whom he (Gusau) knew because he had been head of the MI6 station in Abuja. The defendant explained that he only ever met Mr Etete because of Malabu and Mr Etete was the only person representing the firm on OPL 245.
When asked whether Shell knew he was being paid a commission, he replied in the affirmative, adding that he had to prove he had a mandate with Malabu because Shell employees were under very strict instructions not to discuss OPL 245.
Relationship with Etete, Adoke
Mr Agaev was asked about the dinner in February 2010 between Eni’s Claudio Descalzi, Mr Etete, himself and Emeka Obi, another middleman convicted for his role in the Malabu scandal. He explained that Messrs Obi and Descalzi had a good relationship based on the body language. He added, however, that Shell was worried about the role of the Attorney General, Mohammed Adoke.
He also claimed that Mr Etete told him he and Mr Adoke were “close” and the former attorney general was in turn close to Mr Jonathan.
Mr Agaev alleged that he was covering Mr Etete’s expenses, travels and hotels. But in 2010, Shell asked him to stop paying so Mr Etete would be financially squeezed. He alleged further that Mr Etete told him Mr Adoke also pressured him by telling him the government could revoke the block.
After the deal was done, he said he took Mr Etete to Moscow, in late spring. The former oil minister was very happy, he said, adding that he got over a billion dollars but didn’t want to pay him (Agaev) so he sued for $66 million in London and tried to freeze the money.
Mr Agaev alleged at this juncture that Mr Etete said he had friends he had to pay back including Nigerian lawmakers.
The court asked Mr Agaev if Mr Adoke was one of those to be paid and he reportedly denied but added further that he doesn’t know. Mr Agaev claimed Mr Etete owed Mr Adoke money from legal work before he became Attorney General.
Jonathan’s bribery allegation
In 2017, BuzzFeed quoted a 2017 excerpt of FBI submissions to Italian authorities wherein Mr Agaev alleged that if Mr Etete actually paid out bribes to Nigerian officials, “Agaev stated that he would think President Goodluck Jonathan got at least $200 million of this money.”
On Wednesday, Mr Agaev’s statement was read but he declined to confirm the statement. Mr Agaev claimed he was under pressure in the interview to mention a name and he mentioned Mr Adoke, adding that he didn’t mean for his interview to be used against him.
When asked whether he thought Mr Jonathan got money from the deal, he said his statement to the FBI should be understood that he thought it was a possibility money would go to Mr Jonathan.
When confronted with his exact statement alleging that Mr Jonathan may have received money, a defence lawyer interrupted and objected to the evidence on payments to the former president. The President of the court however silenced him even as the lawyer continued to interrupt.
Speaking further, Mr Agaev said that Mr Etete had so much influence and he did not need to bribe anyone. Commenting on his previous statement, Mr Agaev said it was just speculation and declined to confirm his statement.
He promptly denied any wrongdoing.
PREMIUM TIMES gathered that the next hearing over the controversial case is scheduled for July 17.