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Fighting fraud charges in India, Sandesara brothers flourish in Nigeria


New Delhi, June 6 (IANS) The selection of a firm owned by the family of the Sandesara brothers 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, a media report said.

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, said the Bloomberg report.

"This discovery will provide a multiplicity of opportunity and great prosperity for Nigeria," Tinubu said at a November 2022 event.

Sworn in on May 29, he was the ruling party's presidential candidate at the time.

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", Bloomberg reported.

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 the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Bloomberg reported.

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, Bloomberg reported.

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, Bloomberg reported.

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 per cent 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.

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, Bloomberg reported.

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 $1.71 billion to public lenders including State Bank of India, Bank of Baroda and Union Bank of India, the CBI told the 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, Bloomberg reported.

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.