A leak of private property data in Dubai has shed new light on how the proceeds of a notorious US$ 1.3 billion oil deal involving Royal Dutch Shell may have been spent on luxury properties in the secretive Arab Emirate.
Finance Uncovered found the name of former Nigerian petroleum minister Dan Etete among property and residency data compiled by assorted real estate professionals, obtained by the non-profit C4ADS, and shared with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Etete faces various corruption charges in connection with a 2011 deal known as OPL 245, which the Observer called one of the most corrupt deals in the history of the oil industry.
Along with oil giants Royal Dutch Shell and Eni of Italy and a number of their current and former executives and employees, Etete is due to stand trial in Italy on June 20.
It is said to be one of the biggest trials in corporate history, according to Global Witness.
Reuters reports that all of the accused deny wrongdoing. Finance Uncovered sent detailed written questions about the properties to Etete’s personal email address and received a brief reply which could be traced back to an IP address in Dubai.
He did not respond to further efforts to elicit his response.
Shell said it believes “there is no case against Shell or its former employees,” while ENI has also expressed “confidence that the company was not involved in alleged corrupt activities in relation to the transaction.”
Investigators have spent years trying to trace where hundreds of millions of dollars from the deal have been stashed.
But in a new twist, Finance Uncovered has found evidence suggesting that Etete may have bought two luxury properties in Dubai after he allegedly received more than $800 million from the deal.
One is in the exclusive Emirates Hills, known as the “Beverly Hills of Dubai” – the postcode of choice for a host of notorious former heads of state and their families, including Robert Mugabe, the former head of Zimbabwe, and his wife.
The link to OPL 245 was established by an email address found in the property records, as well as a payment authorization document found in other files seen by Finance Uncovered in a separate investigation into Etete last year.
A business associate of Etete in Dubai also told Finance Uncovered that the former minister had brought millions into the Emirate via an informal money changer. Etete did not respond to questions about his property purchases.
His defence lawyer told Bloomberg last month there was no proof the deal had corrupted Nigerian officials. Etete has also defended himself at length in the Nigerian media.
Barnaby Pace, an anti-corruption campaigner at Global Witness, said, “We know that the criminal and corrupt set up bolt-holes around the world in which to stash their dirty cash, with Dubai being a favoured spot for many, as this investigation shows.”
Pace said that new agreements between Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to work together to track criminal suspects and their assets go into effect this month. “This should be a test case to show whether Nigerian and UAE authorities can act quickly to ensure that Dan Etete and his corruptly obtained assets are recovered for the benefit of the Nigerian people.”
The OPL 245 Backstory
As petroleum minister in the last weeks of the corrupt Abacha military regime in 1998, Etete awarded the prospecting rights to the huge OPL 245 offshore oil block to Malabu Oil and Gas Ltd., a shell company in which he secretly held a substantial stake.
After years of acrimonious legal wrangling over who owned OPL245, Shell and ENI jointly agreed to buy the block from Malabu for $1.3 billion in April 2011.
The deal was structured so that Shell and ENI would pay the money to the Nigerian government, which would then pay $1.1 billion to Etete’s company, Malabu.
A long-running investigation by an Italian prosecutor unearthed sufficient evidence for a Milanese judge late last year to order the criminal trial of several senior former ENI and Shell executives and employees, plus a host of intermediaries including former MI6 spies who had been working for Shell, a former Russian diplomat, and Etete himself.
The Italian prosecutor alleges tens of millions of dollars were intended as personal kickbacks for various oilmen, fixers, and Nigerian government officials.
Of the $1.1 billion, Malabu initially received $801.5 million, paid out by the London branch of JP Morgan Chase Bank to two Nigerian bank accounts in mid-August 2011. Documents seen by Finance Uncovered show that a month later, Malabu transferred $336.5 million of this sum to a Nigerian bank account of a company called Rocky Top Resources.
These documents also show that Chief D. L. Etete – an alias of the former minister – issued regular written payment instructions to the bank.
Etete Splashes the Cash
Etete immediately launched into an epic spending spree, according to a cache of OPL 245 documents obtained separately by Finance Uncovered last year.
The papers included research from the FBI, which found that Rocky Top made a $54 million payment towards a Bombardier private jet on the same day funds from Malabu were received.
A total of $34.2 million would also flow from Rocky Top’s account in Nigeria to various companies and individuals in Dubai.
The bulk of this money – $21.5 million – flowed at Etete’s prompting in regular, substantial dollops to a single UAE-registered company, Gunes General Trading LLC.
In May 2012, Etete wrote to the bank handling his Rocky Top account to inform them that he would be out of contact for the next fortnight, and that payment confirmation for the sum of $6 million to Gunes General Trading should be sent to an email address for a P. Ghaderi.
This email address exactly matches the contact email in the property database obtained by OCCRP for a Dauzia Etete, the owner of an apartment in the Palm Jumeirah’s Marina Residences (Dauzia is Etete’s formal Nigerian first name).
Finance Uncovered also called a UAE mobile listed for the apartment in the leaked property data. It was answered by a man who confirmed that he was Ghaderi, and that Etete owned the property.
Ghaderi said he fell out with Etete several years ago but was vague about their precise business relationship.
The Dubai data does not reveal when Etete bought the property, but Ghaderi said it was after the OPL 245 deal.
Nor does the data disclose how much Etete paid for it, but other apartments in the same development sell for at least $550,000.
Using an Arabic metaphor analogous to “the tip of the iceberg,” Ghaderi said that Etete’s purchase of the Marina Residences property was “the ear of the camel” – but would not elaborate further.
That Etete was using some of the proceeds of OPL 245 to pay for Dubai property is also supported by a series of other payments Rocky Top made to Dubai in late 2012.
Rocky Top’s bank statements show it paid more than $105,000 to a Dubai home furnishings company and made a $5,284 payment to a Dubai real estate broker on the same day in December 2012.
A final $1 million payment flowed from Rocky Top to Gunes General Trading a week later.
Ghaderi said that Gunes had been one of Dubai’s many thriving informal money exchange businesses but had left the Emirate because the government had started taxing the sector.
The US government has cited Gunes separately for handling a $1 million payment in 2013 that violated sanctions against Iran.
The Dubai property leak also shows that, as of 2015, a Dauzia Loya Etete owned a mansion in Emirates Hills (Loya is Etete’s formal middle name). The contact for this property is a personal email address for Etete that frequently appears in the OPL 245 investigation documents seen by Finance Uncovered. The email address is still active. When Finance Uncovered sent detailed questions to it for this story, the brief response it elicited could be traced to an IP address in Dubai.
The mansion shares the Emirates Hills estate with the prestigious Address Montgomerie golf complex, designed in part by Scotland’s former Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie.
Billed as the most expensive postal code in the city, other Emirates Hills residents have reportedly included other prominent people, including members of the Mugabe, Shinawatra, Bhutto, and Gupta families (leaked emails from the #GuptaLeaks last year revealed that the Gupta property was at one point intended for the use of former South African president Jacob Zuma).
The property data indicates that Etete’s mansion was worth a “net amount” of $3.4 million.
It is unclear from the data whether this is how much Etete paid for the property. Asking prices in the area tend to range between $5.4 million and $38 million.
This story is part of the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium, a collaboration started by OCCRP and Transparency International. For more information, click here.