By Omoh Gabriel
LAGOS—Prominent Nigerians have been named in an alleged conspiracy to undermine Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and the leadership of the giant state-owned oil major ENI.
There are indications that the Nigerian involvement is linked to the controversy around the 2011 sale of the oil block OPL245 from the indigenous company Malabu to Shell and ENI, a transaction mired in allegations of corruption.
The plotters are accused of circulating damaging rumours about ENI CEO, Claudio Descalzi and that Prime Minister Renzi, a supporter of Descalzi, was an agent of Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence Service. The conspiracy theory is trending in Italian media. Investigation on the oil deal has been ongoing.
As part of their investigation, the Italian prosecutors in May 2014 asked the UK’s CPS to freeze $85m in assets related to a Nigerian company, Malabu Oil & Gas, that prosecutors say was involved in the sale, according to a copy of the official request sent by the Milan investigators and seen by Reuters.
In the letter, the Italian prosecutors alleged that Scaroni and Descalzi oversaw the payments to parties who helped secure the sale. In a second letter they alleged that some of the ultimate recipients of alleged bribes used the money to buy aircraft and armoured cars. “We are investigating many money transfers to many people in various countries who received sums that vary from millions of dollars to thousands of dollars,” the prosecutors said in the follow-up letter.
In response to the requests London’s Southwark Crown Court granted an order to seize the $85m in assets related to Malabu. London’s Metropolitan Police has also been investigating aspects of the Nigerian deal. A police spokesperson said the inquiry into allegations of money laundering is continuing. Descalzi and Scaroni, in statements and through their lawyers, denied that they were involved in any illegal behaviour. Descalzi also told Eni employees in an email seen by Reuters that he had not engaged in any wrongdoing.
The OPL 245 block licence has long been the subject of dispute. It was first awarded a decade ago by Sani Abacha to Malabu Oil & Gas for a publicly-stated $20m. After the death of Abacha, a new Nigerian government annulled the deal. Malabu’s licence was reinstated in 2006.
The Italian press named the Nigerians that were allegedly involved as including former military leader Sani Abacha; Pesal a company associated with the deceased former Bayelsa Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha; a former National Security Advisor and Minister of Defence and a former Attorney General of Nigeria.
Though no details of the role of the Nigerians have been rleased, Italian media is claiming that they may have been involved in the plot and wider criminal activities, ncluding the smuggling of precious stones. The Italian press also identified a key intermediary role allegedly played by a controversial Italian businessman with extensive business interests and political connections in Nigeria. His primary businesses are centred in Port Harcourt where his company dominates the oil services industry and has contracts with the oil majors.
He has been investigated in Italy for alleged smuggling/tax evasion and was named in a US Senate Committee report “Keeping Corruption Out of the United States” as a close friend and business partner of a former Nigeria Vice President. It was alleged the plotters paid money to the Nigerians to secure the assistance of Nigerian security operatives in destabilising ENI.
According to witnesses, “Nigerian services were in contact with two Directors of the ENI administration, Luigi Zingales and Karina Litvack, to whom they sent a range of information intended to reach Zingales and Litvack. The two Directors attempted to smear the management by leaking damaging information to journalist.
Primary witnesses to the plot include Massimo Gaboardi, an oil industry technician investigated by prosecutors in Trani for compiling a dossier against Descalzi, and Vincenzo Armanna, a former ENI manager. Armanna alleges he was asked to fabricate a dossier showing money changing hands between Mossad and Renzi. Armanna told Syracuse prosecutors how “an important Nigerian businessman in the oil industry” was behind the alleged plot.
Armanna is also currently under investigation by Milanese prosecutors for corrupt payments made to officials following ENI’s 2011 acquisition of oil block OPL 245. Other suspects in that investigation include Descalzi himself and former Eni CEO, Paolo Scaroni. Several of the Nigerians named in the alleged Descalzi-Renzi plot have also had an interest in the OPL 245 affair.