By Modupe Gbadeyanka
Aiteo Group has reacted to online reports that its Executive Vice Chairman (EVC), Mr Benedict Peters, acted as a frontman for the immediate past Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs Diezani Allison-Madueke, to purchase posh property in England and luxury furnishings in return for contracts from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).
In a statement issued by the oil firm this week, it said, “The publication contains several untrue and malicious allegations against our EVC and the Aiteo Group.”
“It is obviously directed against the image, reputation and integrity of our EVC and the company in what we have identified as an orchestrated large-scale campaign of calumny which is sponsored and designed to tarnish our image,” it said.
The company noted that, “We have responded to most of the baseless allegations in previous publications but global best practice demands that we tender this rebuttal for the sake of our shareholders, stakeholders, host communities, the many thousands directly or indirectly deriving their livelihood from the company and the public at large.
“It is well known in the Oil, Gas and wider Energy sectors that the Aiteo Group comprises a number of separate, legal and corporate entities whose asset base includes OML 29 and NCTL upstream, and other substantial assets downstream, developed more than 16 years ago.
“The company became a major player in the oil and gas industry especially in importing and exporting petroleum products in Nigeria and was flourishing as a prosperous corporate entity, by any standards, long before Mrs Alison-Madueke was appointed as Minister for Petroleum Resources.
“It is indisputable that our EVC is “experienced” in the oil and gas industry, having worked in the industry in the topmost positions for more than 23 years.
“Similarly, Aiteo Group is neither an inexperienced nor “newly minted” company and we note that while the publication impliedly recognises this position, it does not provide express clarification as should have been done.
“Already, Mr Peters, through his lawyers, has challenged the veracity of the claims made in the article in court. There is a related civil case in the United States which recites matters relevant to the UK and Nigerian court cases in respect of which further comment cannot also be made for the same reason.
“Neither our company nor EVC is a party to the US proceedings. We need hardly remind the publishers that in Nigeria, discussing facts of cases that are pending in court and making prejudicial statements pertaining thereto is a criminal offence. Section 133 of the Criminal Code Act, Cap C38 of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, which broadly, defines contempt of court and prescribes punishment for same, provides in Section 133(1&9) that: ‘Any person, who while a judicial proceeding is pending, makes use of any speech or writing, misrepresenting such proceeding, or capable of prejudicing any person in favour of or against any party to such proceeding, or calculated to lower the authority of any person before whom such proceeding is being heard or taken; or commits any other act of intentional disrespect to any judicial proceeding or to any person before whom such proceeding is being heard or taken’ is guilty of an offence.
“In summary, all allegations of impropriety contained in the said publication are expressly and categorically denied. Mr Peters has not been charged with any criminal offence in Nigeria or any other jurisdiction with respect to any of the matters stated in the publication. Like every major player in the oil and gas sector, including international oil companies (IOCs), Mr Peters and the Aiteo Group’s interactions with the Minister of Petroleum Resources as with other Ministers before her, were in accordance to acceptable corporate practice in Nigeria. Other than such interaction, there is no commercial link between them and there is no basis for inferring any.
“We add that our Group’s contribution to the overall financial capacity of the country, over several years predating her appointment as Minister cannot be overemphasised. Aiteo has created significant direct and indirect employment, contributed billions of Naira and millions of US Dollars to the nation’s treasury and led to direct foreign investment worth more than US$4 billion. In addition, the company engages in several other corporate social investment programmes in its host communities and the nation generally.
“The case in the United Kingdom is a civil case. An application has already been made to discharge the restraint order which is a mirror order of, and largely relies for its authority on, interim forfeiture orders granted by a Nigerian Court with respect to the same properties. There is incontrovertible evidence in the form of provenance of funds utilised to acquire the property or properties concerned; legal documents of title and documentary proof of rights of ownership from purchase to date that completely confirm that the material purchases were transacted solely by our EVC and his companies; that he irrefutably owns the material property or properties. It is therefore ridiculous, false and highly defamatory to suggest or infer that properties were ‘bought for Mrs Alison-Madueke’. The matters in Nigeria and United Kingdom remain active and extant.
“The US proceedings which refer to United Kingdom properties does not substantiate any wrongdoing on our EVC part. He purchased furniture for one of his United Kingdom properties. This furniture was delivered to and placed in that property. The furniture was for his own use and not purchased for Mrs Alison-Madueke as stated in the publication; and is entirely consistent with his status, stature and financial compass as well as the value and location of the property for which the furniture was bought.
“These comments seem unquestionably designed to injure and damage our EVC and our reputation; destroy the fabric of our commercial objectives and outlook; divert business away from us and create such opprobrium that our entire business is severely prejudiced and undermined.
“We note that the publishers did not seek any verification of the account set out in the publication from us prior to publishing same. Aiteo has a Media and Communications Department, fully staffed by professionals who deal with matters of this nature. It is easy to contact us either through contact details on our website or by phone. But the publishers chose not to do so. Instead, they elected to publish defamatory material in a most irresponsible, reckless and malicious exercise of journalistic licence.
“Finally, we are aware that a certain group has committed considerable resources to this global campaign of hate and denigration. The reason for this mindless and incomprehensible offensive is unclear, but we are confident that sooner than later, our investigations shall reveal the irrepressible truth.
“Regardless of the stories being bandied around by detractors, the facts of this matter are in the public domain and accessible in the courts of law for everyone to see. However, given the potential consequences of this publication, we are considering all options to protect the personal and professional integrity of our company and our Executive Vice Chairman.”
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