Indian 'fugitives' thrive in Nigeria

The selection of a firm owned by the Sandesara brothers Nitin and Chetan (right) - fugitives in the eyes of the Indian government - to drill oil wells in Nigeria is the latest sign of how they have found a safe haven in the African country, reported Bloomberg.

As President Bola Tinubu sets ambitious targets for Nigeria's hydrocarbons sector, companies created by the brothers seem poised for an increasingly prominent role, especially since international oil giants such as Shell and ExxonMobil retreat from the West African nation.

The siblings have built the largest independent oil company in Africa's biggest crude-producing nation even as India pursues them as criminals - accusing them of perpetrating "one of the biggest economic scams in the country".

The Gujarati businessmen, who left India in 2017, deny cheating their lenders and say they are victims of political persecution.

Twenty years ago they won two onshore licenses in the Niger delta. Now, they have moved their operations to Lagos and applied for Nigerian citizenship, according to India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

While the brothers fight fraud charges and non-bailable warrants in India, they flourish in Nigeria.

The Nigerian government refused to arrest them four years ago, saying the Indian allegations "appeared to be political in nature", according to a letter published by Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

From a sanctuary on Lagos' upscale Victoria Island, one of their Nigerian companies has continued its glitzy tradition of sponsoring annual Deepavali celebrations that are the talk of the city's small Indian community. It even flew in Bollywood singers like Shreya Ghoshal to perform.

The family's oil and gas subsidiaries - Sterling Oil Exploration and Production and Sterling Global Oil Resources - pump about 50,000 barrels of crude a day in the delta, via contracts with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum. Another unit expects to bring a third block into production this year, which will eventually raise total daily output to above 100,000 barrels, Bloomberg reported.

Apart from international majors such as Shell and Chevron, the Sandesara family is the top exporter of oil from Nigeria. Its firms' taxes contributed 2 per cent of the Nigerian government's revenue, Mr Nitin said in 2019.

An export system of transporting crude on barges to a floating storage vessel in the Atlantic Ocean - rather than relying on pipelines that are vulnerable to thieves - has enabled the family's companies to maintain a consistent performance while other producers floundered.

Indian authorities take a less rosy view of the Sandesaras' practices.

Starting in the 1980s, the brothers transformed a family tea-trading business into a Mumbai-headquartered conglomerate spanning oil and gas, healthcare, construction and engineering. They also own one of the world's largest manufacturers of pharmaceutical-grade gelatin.

By the early 2010s, the group was valued at almost US$7 billion ($9 billion). Some of that expansion was bankrolled by a "well calculated economic fraud" that left the group owing more than US$1.71 billion to public lenders including State Bank of India, Bank of Baroda and Union Bank of India, CBI told India's Supreme Court a year ago.

Among accusations levelled against them include the use of "false and fabricated documents" to secure bank loans and the diversion of funds overseas.

The same lenders also provided credit lines to the entity that owned the Nigerian oil business, the CBI said in a December 2019 charge sheet, Bloomberg reported.

State-backed lenders, including State Bank of India, won two judgments from UK courts - in 2018 and 2021 - ordering Sandesara companies providing services to Sterling Oil to pay almost US$60 million after they defaulted on loans.

India's Enforcement Directorate (ED), which investigates money laundering and forex violation cases, said in 2019 that it wanted to seize the brothers' overseas assets, including a Nigerian oil field, four drilling rigs and a Gulfstream aircraft.

Following a petition by the Sandesaras to quash the CBI and ED cases against them, India's Supreme Court paused proceedings last year.

The brothers said they wanted to reach a financial resolution with creditors. But the investigating agencies have said any settlement "cannot absolve the criminal liability of the accused".

Indo-Asian News Service


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