Aug 3 (Reuters) – U.N. sanctions experts have accused British company Soma Oil and Gas of making large payments to Somalia's oil ministry that created a "serious conflict of interest," some of which appeared to have been used to pay off senior officials.
In a report to a U.N. Security Council committee, the experts said Soma paid nearly $600,000 as part of efforts to protect and expand an energy exploration contract it signed with the ministry in 2013.
According to a confidential report compiled by the experts on the U.N. Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group, which was reviewed by Reuters, Soma also paid $495,000 to a lawyer who was advising the Somali government when it was negotiating a contract with the company. The eight-member panel of investigators that compiled the 28-page report monitors compliance with U.N. sanctions.
The allegations outlined in the report, which has been submitted to the U.N. Security Council's Somalia/Eritrea sanctions committee, triggered an investigation into Soma by Britain's Serious Fraud Office (SFO), according to people familiar with the situation.
The SFO has confirmed that it opened the inquiry but it has not outlined the allegations against Soma Oil and Gas. The company's London headquarters were searched last week.
The U.N. Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group said the evidence it collected demonstrated that the Soma payments "created a serious conflict of interest, in a number of cases appearing to fund systematic payoffs to senior ministerial officials".
In its response to Reuters, Soma denied any wrongdoing, saying the contract to the company was awarded by Somalia's cabinet and not members of the petroleum ministry and as such there was no conflict of interest.
Somalia's Petroleum Minister Mohamed Mukhtar Ibrahim declined to comment.
Somalia's petroleum ministry declined to comment as the ministry staff has not yet seen the report, according to Ibrahim Hussein, the ministry's head of external relations.
According to the report, Soma Chief Executive Robert Sheppard told the Monitoring Group that the payments were part of a "Capacity Building Agreement" requested by the Somali government. This aimed to help the ministry hire local and foreign experts to build up geology and other oil industry expertise, something the country lacks after decades of conflict destroyed its state institutions.
The U.N. monitors described the capacity building programme as "likely part of a quid pro quo arrangement", whereby the ministry would protect the Soma contract from any negative consequences when a panel chaired by the Somali finance ministry began conducting a review of all its contracts.
The monitors allege these "quid pro quo" arrangements "undermine Somali public institutions through corruption".
Soma told Reuters in an emailed statement that the U.N monitors "fundamentally misunderstood the nature, purpose and destination of the payments made under the terms of the Capacity Building Agreement", and said the company has been transparent about the programme.
Soma is chaired by Lord Michael Howard, who led the British Conservative Party when it was in opposition and was succeeded in 2005 by David Cameron, who is now prime minister. The company said the SFO had told it that "no suspicion whatsoever attaches to Lord Howard".
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