When Premium Times began investigating the Malabu oil scandal—which involves Royal Dutch Shell and Eni, as well as former Nigeria petroleum minister Dan Etete and other politically exposed persons—there was little sense of where the Nigerian newspaper’s reporting would lead.
Idris Akinbajo, the managing editor of Premium Times who played a critical role in the Malabu series, credits international exposure and his media house’s support system for the series’ impact. He also highlights the role NRGI’s institutional grants played in facilitating follow-up reporting in 2016 through early 2017, when Premium Times reached a critical milestone in the series. Through the Media for Oil Reform program, NRGI also supports Premium Times and Nigerian journalists covering the extractive sector.
Malabu reflects the scale of corruption in the oil and gas sector in Nigeria. One of the richest oil blocks in Africa, Nigeria’s OPL 245, was awarded to Malabu Oil and Gas in 1998 on the instruction of the then-military dictator, General Sani Abacha. Malabu was co-owned by Etete, who was then the petroleum minister, which made the move highly controversial.
“Journalists working on such long-term stories as Malabu need support from their employers and from international organizations like NRGI to aid this sort of investigative reporting and provide a forum to connect to international colleagues to share data and resources,” Akinbajo said.
Akinbajo said his paper considered the excessively opaque nature of the Nigeria oil and gas industry and dived in anyway, determined to shine a light on complex fraud.
Premium Times led Malabu coverage, reporting that oil giants Shell and Eni paid about USD 1.1 billion into a Nigerian government account in London to take control of the oil block in 2011. Over 70 percent of the money was subsequently transferred into Malabu accounts controlled by Etete. He transferred over half of what he received into accounts of phony companies controlled by a Nigerian businessman named Abubakar Aliyu. The Italian prosecutors investigating the case have alleged publicly that beneficiaries of the scheme included President Goodluck Jonathan and several top officials of his government, including former attorney general Mohammed Bello Adoke. The former president and his officials have denied this.
The Nigeria anti-graft agency EFCC eventually filed a nine-count charge against Etete and other conspirators. Premium Times, other Nigerian outlets and Dutch, Italian and other international media followed the story closely. Nigeria’s House of Representatives also investigated the Malabu deal, and found proof of abuse of public office and corruption evidenced by a deliberately low estimate of the oil block’s worth, among other revelations.
But the Premium Times’ Malabu series came with challenges. Developing sources with knowledge of the Malabu case was one obstacle, Akinbajo says. Parties interested in the oil block and who wanted the story to remain untold, some of whom were his sources, attempted to bribe him. And there was the challenge of getting the Nigerian media to report in depth on the scandal, given the sensitivity of the allegations against top officials.
Investigations on this scale can be risky. Premium Times, known for its investigative reporting, has experienced its share of blowback on diverse stories, most recently seeing its journalists detained and later released after a report on a Nigeria military boss.
The first story Premium Times did on Malabu was prompted by a Global Witness press release. But instead of simply regurgitating the statement, Akinbajo decided to look deeper, learn more about the deal and follow up continuously.
A Nigerian court again returned the oil block to Shell and Eni and court hearings and judgments will surely follow.
There is still room for improvement in oil and gas sector journalism in Nigeria, Akinbajo says. But the Malabu story remains a strong case of the power of good journalism to ferret out information, expose wrongdoing and tell an important story that otherwise would not be told.
Toyin Akinniyi is a media capacity development associate with the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).