Nigeria’s Federal High Court, sitting in Lagos, on Tuesday dismissed an application to bar journalists from covering and reporting the proceedings in the case of alleged illegal oil export filed by the Federal Government of Nigeria against a multinational oil company, Total E&P Nigeria Plc.
The government sued Total E&P Nigeria Plc alleging that the oil company under-declared the volume of crude oil it shipped out of the country between January 2011 and December 2014.
It also accused the oil company of short-changing it to the tune of $245,258,640 by allegedly shipping several barrels of crude oil out of the country without making due remittance to the government.
Through its lawyer, Mr. Babatunde Fagbohunlu, Total filed and argued an application urging the court to bar journalists from covering and reporting the proceedings of the case
He argued that media reports made it appear as if Total had already been found guilty of the allegations levelled against the company by the government, as media reports were pre-judging the case.
The presiding judge, Mojisola Olatoregun, dismissed the application, stating that she cannot bar journalists from performing their duty in court.
She reminded the counsel that the court was a public place, which is open to journalists, but admonished journalists to always report accurately.
The judge also granted an application by the Federal Government to amend its pleadings in the case, noting that she had examined the affidavit and the counter-affidavit of the government to front-load new facts for an amendment of the originating process.
"The prayer of the plaintiff was to amend pleadings and same was disclosed as being urgent. The defendants failed to disclose any injury they will suffer if this application is granted,” she said.
"I find merit in granting this application to amend the process and the list of witnesses. This must be filed within 14 days from today. The defendants are at liberty to file consequential amendment if they so choose to do so."
Justice Olatoregun then adjourned till January 16, 2017.
The government, through its lawyer, Prof. Fabian Ajogwu (SAN), filed the suit following a forensic analysis linking the decline in oil revenues to alleged non-declaration or under-declaration of volume of crude oil shipped out of the country by Total and 14 other oil companies.
The government's statements of claims were backed up with supporting affidavits deposed to by three United States of America-based experts: Prof. David Olowokere, a US citizen and Lead Analyst at Loumos Group LLC, a technology and oil and gas auditing firm based in the US; Jerome Stanley, a counsel in the law firm of Henchy & Hackenberg; and Micheal Kanko, founder and Chief Executive Officer, Trade Data Services Company, State of Arizona, US.
According to the deponents, about 57 million barrels of crude oil were allegedly illegally exported by the defendant and sold to buyers in the US between January 2011 and December 2014 without due remittance to the Federal Government.
The deponents cited, in the court papers, an instance where Total allegedly shipped out 968,784 barrels of crude oil, valued at $106,566240, using a vessel named, TRIATHLON with a bill of landing numbered, TCVMTRIATIA 1388, and failed to declare same to the relevant government agency.
The deponents further claimed that the said crude oil was sold to Tostsa Total oil Trading SA of San Felipe Plaza-Suite 2100,5847SAN FELIPE, 770557-HOUSTON, US at the port of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
They cited another instance where about 491,850 barrels of crude oil, valued at $54,103,500, were allegedly shipped out without any remittance to the government.
The said crude oil was allegedly shipped out with a vessel named NORTH STAR, with a bill of lading marked, DROESVD23091101, and sold to BP Products North America of 501 Westlake Park Boulvard, Houston, TX 77079 United States, at port of Texas City.
They also cited two other different occasions where 768,990 barrels of crude oil, valued at $84,588,910 were loaded on a vessel named AUTHENTIC with bills of lading marked ALMYSVDM17041101 and17041102, and allegedly sold to Socap International Limited of Cannon’s Court, 22 Victoria Street, Hamilton, HM12.Bermuda at the port of Chester Pennsylvania, United States, without making due remittance to the government.
The government alleged that the oil company by-passed the pre-shipment agents appointed by the Central Bank of Nigeria to inspect crude oil shipments, leading to the failure of the shipment records to be deposited at the Ministry of Finance.
The government claimed to have uncovered the alleged illegality using high-technology information technology systems, including satellite tracking, which were deployed by its consultants.
The government is seeking a court order compelling Total E&P Nigeria Plc to pay to it $245,258,640, "being the total value of the missing revenues from the shortfall /under-declared/undeclared crude oil shipments of the Federal Government of Nigeria."
The government also wants 21 per cent interest per annum on the sum till final liquidation.
The Federal Government is also seeking general damages in the sum of $245,258,640 from Total E&P Nigeria Plc.
Last month, the court dismissed a preliminary objection filed by Total urging the court to dismiss the Federal Government's suit for failing to disclose a reasonable cause of action.
Similar suits were filed by the government against Chevron Nigeria Limited, Agip Oil Company Limited, Shell Western Supply & Trading Ltd and 12 twelve other oil companies.