Depending on what side of the table you’re sitting, news that Italian state-owned ENI has acquired two offshore oil and gas blocks in Ivory Coast raises a few questions. The Ivorian government spokesman, Sidi Traore, announced the deal on Wednesday, May 22nd. According to Traore, ENI will contribute $95 million to a total investment of $185 million for four blocks out of six planned for sale, with Total making up the $90 million.
Ivory Coast has been planning the diversification of its majorly cocoa-led economy for some time. As such, this deal is not a surprise to anyone who’s keenly watched the Ivorian economy since 2015. The only surprise is that despite withholding the names of potential block buyers for so long, it now emerges that ENI is one of them.
ENI is not only the biggest foreign oil and gas producer in Africa, but it also has a history replete with controversy. If Ivory Coast doesn’t play the right cards, it may not like how this ends.
The problem for Ivory Coast is that almost all the conditions that are required for ENI’s uglier side to rear its head are already present. These include: a fog of middlemen claiming to act on behalf of certain parties until signatures become difficult to distinguish, a willingness by top government officials to put major concessions in the hands of relatives, a clear disposition to shortchanging the entire country for the benefit of a few individuals, and, of course, a large capacity for soliciting and accepting hefty undocumented compensations.
Similar issues have trailed ENI in recent corruption scandals all over Africa. It happened in Nigeria, with the ongoing Malabu case which has seen several high-profile convictions, and a salvo of litigations. It also happened in Congo and Algeria. In the Algerian case, ENI fired several top management executives.
It is a good thing that Ivory Coast, the world’s largest exporter of cocoa, has the foresight to branch out its economy while cocoa is still doing okay. It is also great that it has a better-organized state petroleum manager than most African nations can boast. It is fantastic, too, that events point towards a stable political entity for the foreseeable future. But all of that could come undone if this ENI partnership is allowed to grow out of scope. And with the Italian giant, the risk is always high.
In many past cases, the governments were not only complicit, but the administrations after them also complicated the matter at hand.ENI has also blatantly rejected all allegations of wrongdoing, as a company that big and experienced in being perennially litigated would.
Thus, it is important that Ivory Coast plays the agreement right or risk major setbacks that could affect all of its gains in the last decade. Not only that, failures linked to government and oil corruption as we’ve seen elsewhere in Africa, many times, can often become a platform for the chaos that topples democracies.
This is why all Ivorian officials involved in seeing this deal through must diligently study ENI’s old casualties on the continent, and borrow wisely from the ugly scandals in Nigeria, Algeria, Congo and others-some of which are still ongoing. Ivorian officials also need to to be more open about all contact with ENI. The more transparent the business, the harder it will be for Ivorians to end up on the wrong side of any future fallouts. As a nation on the rise, Ivory Coast has it all to lose.
By Caleb Ajinomoh