On the last day of January 2023, in a half-full London courtroom, a lawyer grilled an Irish businessman about his alleged bribes to a former Nigerian government lawyer. The businessman, Brendan Cahill, appeared via video conferencing from Ireland on a TV screen in the corner of the courtroom, as lawyers, journalists and communications teams looked on distractedly.

“Something shady is going on,” said the lawyer at one point.

Little about the atmosphere indicated the stakes: $11 billion, the fate of Nigeria’s economy and a decision that could legitimize the practice of assigning moral responsibility for one country’s corruption inside the courtroom of an entirely different country.

The court case originated in Nigeria in 2008, when the nation’s president at the time, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, decided to end gas flaring in the Niger Delta. Gas flaring involves the burning of natural gas associated with oil extraction and was responsible for heavily polluting communities in the region. Instead, Yar’Adua instituted a policy of channeling the gas into salvaging Nigeria’s perennially ailing electricity sector.

P&ID, a firm registered in the British Virgin Islands and controlled by two Irish nationals with no experience in the oil sector, a skeletal staff and no website, approached the Nigerian government with an unsolicited proposal to refine the wet gas released when extracting oil. According to an agreement signed in January 2010, the Nigerian government would transfer gas for 20 years to a facility which was to be built by P&ID. The company would refine the gas for Nigeria for free. Nigeria would use the gas for power generation and P&ID would make a profit by selling the by-products on the international market.

But neither Nigeria nor P&ID laid a single brick toward fulfilling their contractual obligations, resulting in a lengthy legal tussle that has divided opinion about where responsibility lies when foreign businesses engage in shady deals with former government officials in developing countries. The resulting case shines a spotlight on an international system that can be seen to favor Western companies over poorer nations.

A London tribunal in 2017 found Nigeria guilty of a breach of contract and awarded P&ID $6.6 billion as compensation for what could have been its profit if the deal had materialized. Nigeria refused to comply with the judgment. With interest, the payout ballooned to $11 billion, which amounts to one-third of Nigeria’s foreign reserves, or 10 times its current health budget.

The devastating potential liability that the lawsuit imposes on Nigerian citizens is not widely known by the public. But there is a generally held consensus among Nigerian experts and academics that the country is the victim and that P&ID was in cahoots with corrupt government officials to fleece the country’s resources.

“It is a scam, from the onset, the whole transaction from the beginning was enmeshed in an unclear situation which could be attributed to corrupt practices by both parties,” said Chima Williams, the executive director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria.

Nigeria’s central allegation in the case is that the initial contract was always a con in which neither party would perform their side of the bargain and then a sham arbitration would be held, according to Helen Taylor, a legal researcher at Spotlight on Corruption. Nigeria has insisted that P&ID officials — Michael Quinn, who is now deceased, and Brendan Cahill — deliberately worked with officials to defraud Nigeria and bribed the country’s legal representative who negotiated the contract and then again during the arbitration process.

“It is obvious that the so-called contract, coming from the background that the company lacks the profile, the experience, the pedigree even to establish such a kind of business transaction shows there is more than meets the eye in the whole transaction,” said Olarenwaju Suraju, the chairman of the Lagos-based Human and Environmental Development Agency.

In a 2020 U.K. High Court ruling granting the Nigerian government the opportunity to challenge the arbitration case, the judge, Sir Ross Cranston, said that there was strong evidence the contract was obtained through bribes as part of a scheme to defraud Nigeria.

Questions swirl around how a business deal that was supposed to revolutionize Nigeria’s energy sector became a threat to the stability of Africa’s biggest economy. According to a detailed 2019 Bloomberg story, Quinn had been involved in numerous failed contracts bearing a resemblance with the P&ID contract.

Quinn circulated among top-ranking military officials in Nigeria including Theophilus Danjuma, Nigeria’s former chief of army staff, and former Nigerian presidents Yar’Adua and Olusegun Obasanjo.

Through these connections, Quinn won a contract in 2001 worth tens of millions of dollars to upgrade British tanks for the Nigerian army, but the parts were never delivered. Almost a decade later, Quinn was involved in a 5-million-dollar contract to repair jets and aircraft for the Nigerian Airforce. The Nigerian Airforce reneged on the deal, and Quinn, who by then had become partners with Cahill, took the case to a Nigerian arbitration court. They lost.

In the P&ID contract, the seat of arbitration was the United Kingdom.

“Anti-corruption campaigners have long warned that courts and international arbitration tribunals in the U.K. and elsewhere are being used by criminals to launder money,” said Nick Hildyard, the founder and director of the Corner House, an advocacy group focusing on human rights and the environment. “This is achieved through seeking court orders that monies are due on the fake contract,” he said.

The idea that the fate of a huge chunk of the Nigerian economy can be decided in a Western court is seen by many in the Nigerian government as a legacy of colonialism. Outside Nigeria, experts say the case is less an extension of colonialism but instead points to culpability among those same Nigerian government officials.

Everyday Nigerians and business people understand that the case “isn’t about colonial legacy but about Nigerian officials and all their kleptocratic inklings,” said Matthew Page, an expert on Nigeria at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in London.

And for Nigerian analysts and academics, it is a classic case of transnational businesses having too much sway in developing countries.

“This is the kind of scheme by some of these companies, that still operate with their colonial imperial mentality, to sign contracts with many of the developing countries and partners when they are very much aware that their process of contract agreement is actually a product of fraudulent concoction,” said Suraju of the Human and Environmental Development Agency.

Nnimmo Bassey, the former executive director of Environmental Rights Action, is in agreement. “Transnational corporations are quickly assuming imperial powers and actively procure rules that favor them against nations,” he said.

In 2016, Argentina was forced to pay out over $4 billion to a group of hedge funds following a 14-year battle — which included the seizing of an Argentine military ship in Ghana — over a debt the country had defaulted on in 2001 during a disastrous depression. Argentina’s hand was finally forced when a U.S. judge blocked the country from paying other creditors until the hedge funds had been paid. The case was an example of the immense pressure that can be brought to bear on governments dependent on having unfettered access to the global financial system.

Reports that the VR Capital Group, a private equity firm specializing in distressed assets whose subsidiary bought a 25% stake in P&ID following their arbitration win in 2017, might go down this route by seizing Nigeria’s assets abroad has rattled Nigerian government officials.

International investment agreements are “highly problematic” because they strip “national governments of sovereignty and effectively give investors the upper hand,” said Hildyard of Corner House.

The Nigeria case is less about corruption in Nigeria and more about the U.K. legal system, said Taylor from Spotlight on Corruption. “This was an arbitration held in London, involving London-based lawyers, and it’s the legitimacy of that system which was allegedly abused to cover up and give a veneer of legal legitimacy to what is alleged to be a corrupt deal,” she said.

In 2020, the U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel urged Nigeria to pay P&ID, infuriating Nigerian analysts. “I find continuities between this sham contract and previous sham protectorate contracts that were not only signed under dubious circumstances but also that exploited the significant power disparity and vulnerability of leadership unaccountability and poor oversight,” said Akin Oyewale, an assistant professor of international politics at the University of Warwick.

As Nigeria prepares for a crucial presidential election this month, the prospect of a debilitating payout will be a major issue to contend with. The next president is set to inherit a battered economy struggling with rising inflation, a heavily depreciating currency and an inability to service national budgets. But the posture that Nigeria is a victim of past corruption is also a message that is very well received by business people in the country.

The trial will end in March 2023 and it will be months before a decision is made. If the judge rules in favor of P&ID, it will no doubt provoke outrage within Nigeria. Anger is unlikely to deter P&ID and its backers, who have been dogged in their pursuit of a lucrative judgment. The case has garnered little interest in the U.K., which does not bode well for anyone seeking to reform the country’s legal system that they see as facilitating the exploitation of poorer countries.

Correction: an earlier version of this story stated the court will come to a decision by March 2023. It is unknown when a decision will be made.