In March 2021, a Milan trial court acquitted Italian oil giant ENI, its partner Royal Dutch Shell, and numerous individuals of bribing Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and pals to secure the rights to the lucrative offshore oil field denominated OPL-245. The evidence of bribery was overwhelming, including internal Shell e-mails describing the scheme and the testimony of an ENI official confirming his bosses were fully aware of it. Suspicions that someone had “gotten” to the judges immediately arose stoked by revelations of close ties between the presiding judge and ENI’s senior counsel.
Any doubt that the verdict was tainted was put to rest when the court published its opinion justifying it. As the attached analysis by the British, Italian, and Nigerian NGOs that have pushed the case shows, the court’s “reasoning” was laughable. Two examples of many. The court wrote off the then oil minister’s sale of OPL-245 rights to a company he secretly owned as a trifle because neither he nor the government officials bribed to approve the sale objected. Equally ridiculous, the court found that a Shell briefing note reporting that part of the bribe would be in the form of political contributions simply recounted a rumor then circulating.
Between the strength of the evidence the prosecution presented and the court’s flimsy if not bizarre reasoning dismissing it, the expectation was that the acquittal would easily and quickly be overturned on appeal. That hope is not to be however. Last week the Italian prosecutors assigned to handle the appeal announced they were withdrawing it.
Thus ENI, Shell, and the 13 individuals named as accomplices in the payment of a $1.1 billion bribe stand exonerated. And it now clear that the rot in the Italian judiciary reaches into its once revered prosecution service.
Nor is the damage from the rot limited to Italy. Thanks to the doctrine of ne bis in idem (double jeopardy in American law), a Dutch investigation of Shell’s role had to be dropped (here).
The last hope for justice now lies with the Nigerian judiciary. Ne bid in idem only bars EU countries from pursuing a case. A Nigerian investigation of the companies and their accomplices is underway. It is critical it continue and that the international anticorruption community do all it can to support it given what has happened in Italy.
Moreover, as this blog has urged, it is critical too that the OECD hold Italy to account for its failure to live up to its obligations to sanction Italian companies that bribe foreign officials. The ENI-Shell case must be an outlier not a precedent.