My phone vibrated. The number was unfamiliar. I picked, all the same, and the caller introduced himself as Mohammed Bello Adoke, “former attorney-general of the federation”. It was in March 2017, nearly two years after his exit from office, and his name was trending on the internet over the OPL 245/Malabu Oil and Gas Ltd affair. I had never interacted with him, not even by phone. I had seen him in flesh just once — at the canteen near the Nigerian mission in New York during the UN General Assembly in 2011 — but I did not even greet him. I hardly walk up to the high and mighty. I always try to maintain my lane, as we say in Nigeria. We probably would have become friends.
A senior colleague had told me beforehand that he had given my number to Adoke and I should expect his call. After some little talk, Adoke agreed to grant an interview to TheCable on the sole condition that we would not hesitate to publish “everything” he would say. I said “as long as you don’t libel anybody”. He laughed, assuring me that he had his facts. He lamented that his name had been maligned over the OPL 245 deal, insisting that he did no wrong but was only being witch-hunted for political reasons and had to go on self-exile. He accused the Ibrahim Magu-led EFCC of using the media to destroy him. He was ready to tell his side of the story without filter, he promised.
I’d be honest: until 2017, I was not really following the OPL 245 affair. All I knew was that Gen Sani Abacha, as head of state, awarded the oil prospecting licence (OPL) to a company in which we later discovered that Mohammed, his son, and Chief Dan Etete, his petroleum minister, had interest. Thanks to Premium Times, we got to know the real Malabu shareholders: “Mohammed Sani” was Mohammed Abacha (50 percent); “Kweku Amafegha” was Etete in flesh and blood (30 percent); and Wabi Hassan is the wife of Hassan Adamu, Nigeria’s ambassador to the US then (20 percent). Along the line, Etete had taken total control of Malabu, leaving Mohammed Abacha with zero shares.
Adoke spoke to us extensively on the OPL 245 saga: how licences were awarded to Nigerian companies in 1998 under Abacha’s “indigenous participation” policy at a discounted “signature bonus” of $20 million; how Malabu got OPL 245 and Gen TY Danjuma’s South Atlantic Petroleum Ltd (Sapetro) got OPL 246; how President Olusegun Obasanjo revoked OPL 245 in July 2001, possibly because of the Abacha links, and gave it to Shell; how Malabu went to court; how Obasanjo’s government entered into a court-ordered settlement to return the block to Malabu in 2006; and how Malabu tried to enforce the judgment, without luck, under President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
In 2010, when Jonathan assumed power, Malabu raised the issue of the court settlement again. Jonathan asked Adoke, his AGF, for legal opinion. Adoke said the agreement was binding. OPL 245 was thereafter returned to Malabu. Shell and ENI moved in and negotiated to buy 100 percent of Malabu’s interest in the block for $1.1 billion. They also agreed to pay $210 million – a record – as “signature bonus” to Nigeria. Andrew Obaje, director of the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), objected to the deal because the industry regulator was not part of the negotiations. Adoke said after this was sorted out, Obaje dropped his objections and the deal was signed in April 2011.
All done? Not quite. International watchdogs started scrutinising the deal, largely because of Etete’s involvement. There was a red flag: in 2007, he had been convicted in France for money laundering in a different matter (the conviction was quashed in 2014). The activists alleged that the payment of $1.1 billion to Malabu was a scheme to bribe Nigerian politicians for facilitating the OPL 245 deal. The campaigners argued that officials of Shell and ENI tried to “insulate” themselves from corruption charges by paying directly to Nigeria’s accounts at JP Morgan in London for “onward transmission” to Malabu. The money could have improved Nigeria’s healthcare and education, they lamented.
JP Morgan, on Nigeria’s instruction, transferred $875 million to Malabu and the rest to the company’s middlemen, two of whom have now been jailed for corruption in a different case. Etete later bought a jet and a Phantom, among other instruments of status symbol. Ordinarily, what he did with his money shouldn’t be anybody’s problem. After all, Danjuma bought mansions in Spain and a jet after CNOOC of China paid $1.7 billion to acquire 45 percent of OPL 246 from Sapetro. Mrs Folorunsho Alakija also bought a jet after her Famfa Oil hit gold. What’s the difference? Well, we can say Danjuma and Alakija did not award the licences to themselves; more so, they did not use pseudonyms.
When Italian prosecutors launched the globally celebrated corruption trial of Shell, ENI and others in 2017, Adoke was not a party to the case. But I guess the Nigerian government wanted to support the Italians by trying to prove that the attorney-general who gave the legal opinion on the deal in 2011 was corrupt. If that could be established in Nigerian courts, it would help the case in Italy. Nigeria wanted Malabu’s $1.1 billion returned. There were rumours that Mr Ibrahim Lamorde was removed as EFCC chairman in 2015 a day after he told the powers-that-be that there was no evidence to go after Adoke. Magu came on board and Adoke became the face of the “Malabu scandal”.
EFCC initially said he took $801 million bribe but toned it down to N300 million. Adoke flatly denied, retorting that “a corrupt attorney-general can bankrupt Nigeria”. The N300 million, he said, was a mortgage transaction. He had been offered a property for N500 million, he said, and he secured a N300 million mortgage from Unity Bank. His equity contribution was to be N200 million. The bank transferred the N300 million to Carlin International Ltd, the property company owned by Alhaji Aliyu Abubakar. Adoke said when he could not pay up his equity, Abubakar refunded the N300 million to the bank and sold the property, located at No 271, Cadastral Zone A06, Maitama, Abuja, to the CBN.
According to Adoke, the entire records are with the EFCC: when the mortgage account was opened, when it was credited with N300 million, when the N300 million was transferred to Carlin International, when the N300 million was returned to the bank, and when the account was closed. He said Magu’s boys had looked everywhere to find something to pin on him. They, reportedly, checked the records of the $2.1 billion arms fund, scrutinised the accounts of the ministry of justice and perused the election funds allegedly shared by Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke, former petroleum minister. When they found nothing, Adoke said, they decided to scandalise the failed mortgage deal.
I started following developments around OPL 245 closely after listening to Adoke’s story. In Italy, a prosecution witness, Ferri Alessandro, confirmed to the court that Carlin International offered the property in question to Adoke with a letter of “offer to sell” dated October 5, 2011 and that N300 million was transferred to Carlin from his Unity Bank account on February 15, 2012, after which the account went into deficit. He also said by the entries and exits from the same account between February 15, 2012 and October 17, 2013, roughly N300 million was returned to Adoke’s account to repay the mortgage. Astonishingly, it was the same EFCC that gave all these details to the Italians.
Two witnesses said Adoke did not take a bribe. Ednan Tofik ogly Agaev, a former Russian ambassador, told the court that he was pressured to mention Adoke under FBI interrogation. Vincenzo Armanna, a former ENI manager, also told the court that Adoke actually confronted ENI officials that if they gave or took bribe, he would order them arrested and prosecuted. On the legal and technical details, Mallam Abubakar Malami, the AGF, and Dr Ibe Kachikwu, then-petroleum minister, wrote separate letters giving the OPL 245 deal an all-clear. Justice Binta Nyako also ruled that Adoke could not be held liable for carrying out a lawful presidential directive.
I had thought the Nigerian government just wanted to throw Adoke under the bus to win the case in Italy, but I stopped doubting his political vendetta theory when he was arrested in Dubai, UAE, in November 2019. The judge that issued the warrant of arrest had vacated it, but the Nigerian authorities refused to inform Interpol. He was detained for 35 days. With Nigeria unable to extradite him because of a legal logjam, Adoke decided to finally return to Nigeria. On arrival, he was arrested and detained for another 55 days by EFCC – despite court orders that he be released on bail. Adoke later said there were efforts to link him to the P&ID scandal but EFCC could not find anything.
And now, the Italian court has cleared Shell and others of corruption in the OPL 245 deal. The details are not yet public but I suppose the court took the view that Malabu legally owned OPL 245; therefore, Shell and ENI cannot be held liable for how Malabu spent its $1.1 billion. After the news broke, Adoke called me and said, tearfully: “Do you now believe me that I did no wrong? Yet I have been branded a thief, persecuted and humiliated for six years. If I was corrupt in office, I can assure you EFCC would have gleefully charged me to court with concrete evidence, not trumped-up charges on OPL 245. I served Nigeria with all my soul and with all honesty. God is the ultimate judge.”
I told him it was not that I doubted him, just that when the powers-that-be in Nigeria decide to go after you, it will take a miracle for you survive with your reputation intact. It is now left for him to clear his name in the courts. He is on trial in two Nigerian courts. In one, EFCC appears to admit that the N300 million was a mortgage but is questioning the mode of repayment which it says broke money laundering laws; in the other, the agency is saying it is a bribe. Also, in the UK, Nigeria is in court with JP Morgan, asking for the restitution of the $1.1 billion. How much impact will the Italy judgment have on these cases? Let’s just say we have not heard the last of the OPL 245 saga yet.