Let's have clarity once and for all on Soma Oil & Gas

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The Independent Online

It’s not always easy getting a straight answer out of Michael Howard. Ask Jeremy Paxman, who famously asked him 12 times if he had threatened to overrule the boss of the prison service.

The former Conservative leader was similarly tricky to pin down more recently when questioned by journalists about a letter he wrote last year to the government minister Michael Fallon in his new guise as chairman of his Somali company Soma Oil & Gas.

In it he described how the Soma job was “an appointment I accepted with the encouragement of the FCO”.

However, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office flatly denied giving any such encouragement. There followed long and baffling verbal jousting between Lord Howard and the media about what the phrase actually meant.

Anyway, since then, a Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation has been launched into alleged bribery of Somali officials by Soma, following a damning, and subsequently leaked, interim report by United Nations monitors. Soma strenuously denies wrongdoing and there is no suggestion Lord Howard was involved. He is not personally under investigation by the SFO.

On Thursday, he published a letter he has written to the UN security council criticising the leak and saying the investigators completely misinterpreted Soma’s payments.

In a combative accompanying press release, Soma warns that the leak left Somali officials vulnerable to attack from militants and could delay much-needed oil exploration in the cash-strapped country.

As for the investigation itself, Lord Howard writes that the UN monitors showed a “basic misunderstanding” of the oil industry and says the law firm DLA Piper advised Soma throughout on anti-corruption measures.

Besides, he adds, the payments Soma made are standard in developing countries, where staff need training before dealing with the consequences of big oil finds.

For good measure, he includes a document from another law firm, Akin Gump, describing how such payments, known as “capacity building arrangements”, are often made. To my mind, the Akin Gump stuff serves little purpose beyond spin, given that the UN report itself says CBAs are “relatively common”. The thing is, they usually involve funding for scholarships, training programmes and the like. Not alleged direct payments to civil servants. It isn’t CBAs per se that the report criticises, it’s Soma’s CBAs.

Furthermore, the UN report may not be as naive as Soma claims. It cites advice and evidence drawn from “oil and gas experts, legal experts and diplomats” during its investigation, not to mention current and former Somali government officials.

Still, Soma and Lord Howard must now be given a chance to respond, preferably in a public forum.

For Somalia to move on and enjoy its oil wealth, we need clarity and transparency about Soma’s actions.

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