(Bloomberg) -- At a ceremony in November, the Nigerian government celebrated the discovery of as many as 1 billion barrels of oil in the country’s arid northeast, almost 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away from the crude-rich Niger Delta.
The state’s partners in the multi-billion dollar project in the impoverished, landlocked corner of the country is a company founded by two brothers from India. 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 largest economic scams in the country.”
Now, as newly elected President Bola Tinubu sets ambitious targets for Nigeria’s hydrocarbons sector, companies created by the brothers, Nitin and Chetan Sandesara, seem poised for an increasingly prominent role — especially as international oil giants such Shell Plc and ExxonMobil Corp. retreat from the West African country.
“This discovery will provide a multiplicity of opportunity and great prosperity for Nigeria,” Tinubu said at the November event. Sworn in on May 29, he was the ruling party’s presidential candidate at the time.
The selection of a firm owned by the family of the duo branded as fugitives by India to drill wells for the project is just the latest sign of how Nigeria has provided the brothers a haven, effectively insulating them from troubles back home. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has accused the tycoons of absconding after defrauding public banks of more than $1.7 billion. Nigeria has refused India’s request to extradite them.
The Sandesara brothers, Gujarati businessmen who left India in 2017, deny cheating their lenders and say they are victims of political persecution. Having ventured into the Nigerian oil industry almost 20 years ago when they won two onshore licenses in the delta, the brothers — faced with problems in India — have shifted their focus to Lagos. They even applied for Nigerian citizenship, according to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, the country’s top investigating agency. It’s not clear if they succeeded. The brothers’ lawyer and Nigerian authorities didn’t respond to queries on the matter.
While the brothers fight fraud charges and non-bailable warrants from India, the Sandesara businesses are flourishing in Nigeria. The African nation refused to arrest them four years ago saying the Indian allegations “appeared to be political in nature,” according to a letter published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
In India, the brothers’ private jet, swanky cars and star-studded parties at a 60,000-square-foot farmhouse in Ampad village in Gujarat, routinely provided fodder for tabloids and social media sites, according to news outlet The Print. From a sanctuary on Lagos’s upscale Victoria Island, one of their Nigerian companies has continued that glitzy tradition, sponsoring annual Diwali celebrations that are the talk of the city’s small Indian community, even flying in Bollywood singers like Shreya Ghoshal to perform.
The family’s Nigerian oil and gas business — with the slogan “Success is Natural” — is thriving. The group’s subsidiaries — Sterling Oil Exploration & Production Co. and Sterling Global Oil Resources Ltd. — pump about 50,000 barrels of crude a day in the delta via contracts with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Co. Another unit expects to bring a third block into production this year that will eventually raise total daily output to above 100,000 barrels.
Other than the international majors such as Shell and Chevron Corp., the Sandesara family is the top exporter of oil from Nigeria. Its firms’ taxes contributed 2% of the Nigerian government’s revenue, 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 as other producers have floundered.
The brothers have hired the plugged-in former head of the Nigerian government’s oil regulator to head their energy operations, and concluded major contracts with the state. Two years ago, Sterling Oil sealed a separate deal with the NNPC for the commercialization of the gas within one of its oil blocks in a project designed to boost the anemic power supply in Africa’s biggest economy.
“You are a very reliable partner because when you say things, you get them done,” NNPC Chief Executive Mele Kyari said of Sterling Oil, announcing the deal.
Indian authorities take a less rosy view of the Sandesaras’s practices.
Beginning in the 1980s, the brothers transformed a family tea-trading business into a Mumbai-headquartered conglomerate spanning oil and gas, health care, construction and engineering and owning one of the world’s largest manufacturers of pharmaceutical grade gelatin. By the early 2010s, the group said it was valued at almost $7 billion.
Some of that expansion was bankrolled by a “well calculated economic fraud” that left the group owing more than 140 billion rupees ($1.71 billion) to public lenders including State Bank of India, Bank of Baroda and Union Bank of India, the CBI told the country’s Supreme Court a year ago.
Among accusations leveled 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.
State-backed lenders, including Bank of India, won two judgments from UK courts — in 2018 and 2021 — ordering Sandesara companies providing services to Sterling Oil to pay almost $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. The group’s flagship business Sterling Biotech Ltd was sold to California-based alt-dairy firm Perfect Day Inc. in November for about $78 million in a transaction approved by India’s bankruptcy court.
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.”
The brothers, who told the court their Indian companies have repaid more than was disbursed to them in loans, say the agencies’ “sole aim is to browbeat, harass, harangue and humiliate” them, and claimed they were declared fugitives in “a grossly illegal manner.” They say the Modi government has a vendetta against the Sandesaras because of their ties to opposition and Muslim politicians, according to media reports that cite their filings in other court cases.
An Indian lawyer for the Sandesaras didn’t respond to multiple emails requesting comment. The group chairman and two directors of the Nigerian oil companies didn’t reply to questions sent by Bloomberg. The CBI, ED and the Sandesaras’ main creditors also didn’t address queries on the status of the proceedings against the brothers.
Ironically, even as the Indian government was building its case against the pair, their Nigerian companies supplied cargoes of crude worth almost $1.5 billion to India’s state-owned refineries in the seven years to January 2020, the brothers said in court filings.
With their troubles in India showing no signs of abating, the brothers’ ties in Nigeria are deepening.
In Indian court filings in September 2022, the brothers claim ownership of Sterling Oil, the subsidiary responsible for most of the group’s crude production, touting it as a “very prominent company of Nigeria.” An online registry for Nigerian natural resources companies lists another family member — Devak Patel, the 31-year-old son of Chetan Sandesara’s brother-in-law — as the owner. Patel didn’t respond to queries seeking clarity on the company’s ownership.
Where the brothers currently spend their time is unclear. The ED accused them in 2020 of “shifting their base from one country to another to escape the clutches of law” and said they were presumed to be in Nigeria, the UK, the US or the UAE. They have also obtained Albanian passports, according to The Wire and other Indian media outlets. The brothers have neither confirmed nor denied the reports. Chetan signed an affidavit for the Indian court from Lagos in August.
Meanwhile, the Sandesaras’ participation in the new development in Nigeria’s north — a pet project of former President Muhammadu Buhari, who stepped down this month — may be yet another sign that their future lies in the West African country.
Sterling Oil will carry out the venture with the NNPC and another public company controlled by Nigeria’s 19 northern states to bring oil production to the upper part of the country for the first time. Almost all of Nigeria’s crude currently comes from the Niger Delta and off its shores.
“It is to the credit of this administration that at a time when there is near-zero appetite for investment in fossil fuel energy, coupled with the location challenges, we are able to attract investment of over $3 billion to this project,” Buhari said at the November ceremony.
His successor Tinubu has promised to increase daily oil output by more than 60% to 2.6 million barrels by 2027 and to 4 million barrels by 2030 – an aspiration many analysts believe to be implausible. If the incoming government intends to achieve these goals, it will have to lean on independent producers such as Seplat Energy Plc and Sterling Oil since the likes of Shell and Exxon are trying to sell their onshore and shallow water assets.
At the ceremony last year, Sterling Oil Chief Operating Officer Mohit Barot told Buhari that the company had secured funding to drill the wells and build a complex to produce fuel, fertilizer and electricity.
“We assure you, Mr. President, that we will deliver on our commitments and your expectations...,” Barot said. “Today is just the start of our long journey together.”
--With assistance from Shruti Mahajan.
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