January 29, 2020 / 5:10 PM / 23 days ago

Witness backtracks on key statement in Nigeria oil graft case

MILAN (Reuters) - A witness in a graft case involving oil contracts in Nigeria refused to confirm a key statement during a court hearing on Wednesday, offering a possible boost to Italian oil major Eni, which is fighting allegations of bribery.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Italian energy company Eni is seen at a gas station in Rome, Italy August 16, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi/File Photo

In one of the oil industry’s biggest scandals, Italian prosecutors allege Eni and Shell bought a Nigeria oilfield in 2011, knowing that most of the $1.3 billion purchase price would be siphoned off to agents and middlemen.

Both firms and the managers accused in the Milan court case, including Eni’s current chief executive Claudio Descalzi, have denied any wrongdoing.

Prosecutors have presented allegations by former Eni manager Vincenzo Armanna that the cash-laden trolleys were handed over to Eni managers by way of backhanders in 2011.

Armanna, a defendant in the case, based those allegations on conversations he said he had had with former Nigerian police chief Isaac Chinonyerem Eke.

But on Wednesday, Eke denied having met Armanna before 2014, despite statements in a letter bearing his signature and filed with the court that the two had met in 2009.

Eke said he had met Armanna briefly on only two occasions, once in 2014 and once in 2015.

A prosecutor said this represented “a total denial of signed declarations”, adding that prosecutors would consider whether there were grounds for charges of false testimony.

Asked in court if he had been contacted by someone in Nigeria before testifying in Milan, Eke said he had met Nigerian national security adviser general Mohammed Babagana Monguno who Eke called “head of the secret services”.

Eke said he had simply told Monguno what he knew and what he would say in court.

Reporting by Emilio Parodi, writing by Stephen Jewkes, editing by James McKenzie and Alexander Smith

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