An Indian fugitive duo is fueling Nigeria's oil ambitions

Lagos has refused to extradite the Sandesaras saying they were being politically targeted in India
An Indian fugitive duo is fueling Nigeria's oil ambitions
Photo: Reuters Staff (Reuters)
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Indian businessmen Nitin and Chetan Sandesara have been driving Nigeria’s oil ambitions at a time when Shell and ExxonMobil have shied away from Africa’s top oil-producing country.

The Indian brothers’ Lagos-based Sterling Oil Exploration and Energy Production is Nigeria’s largest independent oil firm today. And the west African nation wants to increase daily output by over 60% to 2.6 million barrels by 2027, Bloomberg reported.

However, there is a problem.

The Sandesara siblings are wanted in India for defrauding public sector banks of more than $1.7 billion in 2017. “...India pursues them as criminals—accusing them of perpetrating ‘one of the largest economic scams in the country’,” Bloomberg reported.

And Nigeria has been the fugitive brothers’ refuge. It has signed up Sterling Oil to drill up the recently-discovered oil reserves in the Niger Delta. The siblings have even sought Nigerian citizenship, according to Bloomberg.

The Sandesaras are clearly poised to play a lead role in oil-rich Nigeria, much to India’s chagrin.

What was the Sandesara brothers’ scam in India?

The duo fled India in 2017 after their Gujarat-based business family was accused of manipulating the balance sheets of Sterling Biotech, their flagship company. With this, they induced banks to sanction loans worth more than $700 million.

Another probe showed around $1.08 billion more was sanctioned to Sandesara Group’s overseas entities from foreign branches of Indian banks.

State-run Indian lenders such as the State Bank of India, Bank of Baroda, and Union Bank of India have even extended credit lines to their Nigerian oil business, Bloomberg reported citing India’s Central Bureau of Investigation.

How’s Sterling operating in Nigeria while Shell quit?

The fugitive brothers ventured into Nigerian oil some 20 years ago, starting with two onshore licenses. Since then, they have firmly established themselves in the country.

So much so that Nigeria has turned down India’s requests to extradite the Sandesara duo. It has said the allegations against them “appeared to be political in nature,” according to a letter published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

Their various companies extract around 50,000 barrels of crude a day in river Niger’s delta today, under contracts with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum, Bloomberg said. One such unit to be added this year is expected to raise its daily output to above 100,000 barrels.

This is a time Shell, TotalEnergies, and ExxonMobil are trying to pull back from Nigeria, concerned over theft, oil spills, and corruption.

The US-based ExxonMobil is looking for a buyer for its $1.2 billion shallow-water assets in the country as it “remains a challenging place to work in,” Reuters reported in March.

A key difference between the Sandesaras and others is that their group exports crude via the sea. Pipelines, used by others like Shell and ExxonMobil, are vulnerable to theft.

The sea route has helped Sterling consistently perform, Bloomberg reported.