Malabu: Dutch prosecutors go after Shell over alleged corruption in Nigeria

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Royal Dutch Shell Plc is facing prosecution in the Netherlands over a license in Nigeria, intensifying its legal troubles from a transaction that has dogged the company for years.

“We have been informed by the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office that they are nearing the conclusion of their investigation and are preparing to prosecute,” The Hague-based Shell said Friday. The case is related to the 2011 settlement of disputes over Oil Prospecting License (OPL) 245 in the Gulf of Guinea, known as Malabu scandal in Nigeria.

The transaction is already the subject of a separate criminal trial in Milan, where prosecutors allege the 2011 deal was tainted by corruption. They have said at least part of a $1.1 billion payment Shell and partner Eni SpA made to settle charges around the license was converted into bribes. Nigeria is also suing the oil companies in London.

Shell and Eni have previously denied any wrongdoing in the OPL 245 case. They have said they paid into a legitimate government account to settle legal claims related to the block. A spokesperson for the Dutch prosecutor’s office said the investigation wasn’t yet concluded and declined to give details on whether others had been charged or when it would be finished.

While an additional trial raises the risk of financial penalties for Shell and brings the details of its work in Nigeria into focus for its shareholder base in the Netherlands, the news didn’t immediately disturb investors. Shell’s B shares in London rose slightly at the start of trading on Friday.

“There is a small segment of the investing community that is concerned with it, but for the most part when I meet with investors it doesn’t come up,” said Jason Gammel, an analyst at Jefferies LLC. This license already “doesn’t generate any profit.”

Gammel said he doesn’t include the OPL 245 license when considering Shell’s future cash flows, and investors are more concerned with things that can affect near-term profit. The company could face fines in multiple jurisdictions, but those are likely to be easily absorbed by Shell’s large size.

Shareholders with tight environmental, social and governance restrictions are likely to be well aware of the scrutiny over Shell’s Nigeria activities. The trial in Milan started in June last year, with the court already procuring two guilty verdicts against defendants opting for “fast-track” proceedings.

The main claim in the case is that the companies improperly settled long-standing disputes over the OPL 245 license. The permit had originally been awarded in 1998 by Nigeria’s military dictator, Sani Abacha, to Malabu Oil & Gas Ltd., a Lagos-based company connected to then-Petroleum Minister Dan Etete. Under successive governments, the license was canceled, awarded to Shell, and then awarded to Malabu again before the 2011 deal.

The Milan prosecutors allege that Shell and Eni paid almost $1.1 billion into an escrow account for the Nigerian government, from which about $800 million was later transferred to Malabu to be distributed as payoffs.

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