In a huge u-turn, the company has now admitted it knew Mr Etete was involved.
Top executives at Shell knew that money they paid as part of a $1.3bn deal for a huge Nigerian oil field would end up in the hands of a convicted money launderer who awarded the asset to his own company when he was oil minister of the country.
Emails seen by The Independent and reported by anti-corruption campaign groups Global Witness and Finance Uncovered, show senior bosses at the UK’s biggest company had been informed that hundreds of millions of dollars could flow through former oil minister Dan Etete to be paid in bribes to former President Goodluck Jonathan and other political figures.
In a huge u-turn, the company has now admitted it knew Mr Etete was involved. It maintains that it conducted a legitimate transaction with the Nigerian government and did not act unlawfully.
The deal for one of Africa’s most valuable oil blocks, which contains an estimated 9 billion barrels of oil worth around half a trillion dollars has been mired in a massive corruption scandal for almost twenty years.
In 1998, former oil minister Dan Etete allocated the OPL245 block to Malabu Oil and Gas – a company which he controlled – for a “signature bonus” of just $2m.
After years of legal wrangling, Shell and Italian oil major Eni agreed to buy OPL245 in 2011 for a total payment of $1.3bn. The money was paid to the Nigerian government but instead of going to the people of Nigeria, £1.1bn was transferred to Malabu accounts.
According to Italian prosecutors $466m of that sum was then laundered through bureau de change and passed on to the then president, Goodluck Jonathan, and members of his government.
The new cache of documents have exposed the extent to which Shell knew about the nature of the deal.
“Etete can smell the money”, a Shell senior business advisor, Guy Colegate wrote to Guy Outen, an executive vice president in one newly uncovered email.
“If, at nearly 70 years old he does turn his nose up at 1.2 bill he is completely certifiable and we should then probably hold out until nature takes its course with him. But think he knows its his for the taking,” Mr Colegate went on.
In a June 2010 email to Peter Robinson, vice president for sub Saharan Africa, Mr Colegate wrote: “Etete claims he has shown (though not copied) a letter from President reiterating Malabu’s 11pc equity/contract “award”. This letter [is] clearly an attempt to deliver significant revenues to GLJ [Goodluck Jonathan] as part of any transaction.”
Another Shell man, former MI6 agent John Copleston, sent an email to several senior colleagues that read: “Saw my Delta man. 245. He spoke to Mrs E[tete] this morning. She says E claims he will only get 40m of the 300m we offering – rest goes in paying people off.”
Mr Robinson later confirmed that he was aware the money was to be paid to Malabu OIl and Gas. He told colleagues: “ENI will pay on behalf of itself and SNEPCO [a Shell subsidiary], an amount of $1.09 bln ($1.3bln less signature bonus) into a second escrow. This will be used by the FGN [Federal Government of Nigeria] to settle all claims from Malabu.”
Members of Shell’s legal team expressed concern about the structure of the deal to the highest level of the company in 2010, a year before it went ahead. In an email to then-chief executive Peter Voser and executive board member Malcolm Brindred, Shell’s legal director Beat Hass described the proposal as “the least bad of all options”.
He added: “Many legal risks remain, and I share Simon [Henry, chief financial officer]’s concerns, particularly the risk of an unknown third party participant and difficulties with securing future cash contributions.
“Nevertheless, speaking for Shell Legal, we will do everything Within our control to bring this painful matter to a satisfactory conclusion.”
Simon Henry later acknowledged that the Nigerian government would receive “no money at all” for the valuable oil field.
In a February 2016 telephone exchange covertly recorded by Dutch authorities, Shell’s current chief executive, Ben van Beurden, appeared to brush off the significance of the discussions of bribery, describing them as “just pub talk”.
“There was apparently some loose chatter between people from the team, particularly the people that we hired from MI6 who must have said things like, “Well, yeah, you know, I wonder who gets a pay-off here and whatever”, so it’s unhelpful email exchanges.
“It’s, it’s … I haven’t seen them but apparently they were judged to be, you know, just pub talk in emails which was stupid. But nevertheless it’s there.”
Mr van Beurden was not chief executive at the time of the OPL245 deal.