Herbert Wigwe, Group MD, Access Bank
  • No court gave such order —Lawyer
Herbert Wigwe, Group MD, Access Bank

By GODWIN DUNIA

The magnificent building known as Etiebet’s Place located along Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way, in Ikeja and owned by a former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Chief Don Etiebet, is now under Access Bank’s ownership, going by the verdict of a Federal High Court in Lagos. The property, in the name of Chief Etiebet’s firm, Obodex Nigeria Limited, has been a subject of litigation between Obodex Nigeria Limited and Access Bank Plc. over alleged indebtedness to the bank. And Etiebet is a major shareholder of the bank.

The Access Bank claim

Access Bank had sued the firm, Obodex Nigeria Limited for alleged indebtedness. In response, the firm challenged, among others, the court’s jurisdiction to hear the suit. However, in a ruling last Monday, April 15, 2019, Justice Mohammed Liman of a Federal High Court in Lagos, rejected a motion on notice seeking to stop Access Bank Plc from taking over the property over the alleged debt.

The judge refused Obodex’s plea to stop the execution of an earlier judgment by Justice Ibrahim Buba, which had empowered the tier-one bank to take over the property.

But in a telephone interview with BusinessHallmark, Counsel to Obodex Nigeria Limited, Dele Adeshina (SAN), denied that the judgment did not indicate that Access Bank Plc, should take over the property, noting that it was all lies and the Obodex will respond to all these by Tuesday in a publication that would be made public.

“No court has ordered Access Bank to take over the property situated and lying at 21, Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way, Ikeja, Lagos. All these lies that Access is circulating all over the places is uncalled for. The client (Obodex) will reply to them on Tuesday and if you (BusinessHallmark) send your e-mail address, I will forward a copy of the letter

“I don’t know why an institution that is represented by a lawyer would be lying to the public. It is wrong and uncalled for. Some other newspaper won’t take the initiative you have taken to hear from the other side; they just went and published all manners of things. If Access thinks the court had ordered it to take over the property, let them go ahead and see if the law will not catch up with them”.

Responding to a question as to the exact amount that Obodex actually owes Access Bank, the senior advocate stated: “I am not the client, I am a lawyer and I felt there is need to refute the lies told the public.

“What is the essence of the amount in dispute to you, when I have already told you the whole publications are a fabrication of lies; or have you gotten a buyer? The case is still in court and is the public not entitled to know if actually the court has ordered them to take over the property or not?”.

But in his response over compliance with the judgment of the court, Counsel to the Access Bank Plc, Kunle Ogunba (SAN), said he has taken over the disputed property, known as Etiebet Place situated at 21, Bank Anthony way, in Ikeja since last year.

He told Business Hallmark: “What I just have to say so far is that, I have taken over the disputed property and I am the one managing it now. It was taken over last year, in 2018.”

In his response to question on the amount in dispute, the senior advocate replied Business Hallmark that, “the actual amount was a little less than N1.5 billion since 2015 or so. And it is more than that by now because of the interest and all that”.

Justice Ibrahim Buba’s Judgement:

In December 2018, Justice Buba dismissed the objection by Obodex and ruled in favour of Access Bank Plc. Pursuant to this, Access Bank Plc took over Etiebet’s Place and appointed Kunle Ogunba (SAN) as receiver/manager to manage the property towards the recovery of the alleged debt.

Displeased over the development, Obodex filed an appeal as well as an application for a stay of execution. In the application for a stay of execution filed through its Counsel, Adesina (SAN), Obodex sought an order restraining Kunle Ogunba (SAN) and his privies or assignees from doing the following:

“Advertising or offering for sale, selling, mortgaging, transferring, alienating or otherwise interfering with the applicant’s equitable right of redemption on the property situated and lying at 21 Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way, Ikeja, Lagos, also known as Etiebet’s Place, pending the hearing and final determination of the applicant’s appeals”.

However, Access Bank Plc, through its Counsel, Kunle Ogunba, opposed Obodex’s application for a stay of execution. And now Justice Liman has refused to stop the bank from taking over the property.

Etiebet’s Suit Against Merger of Access Bank and Diamond Bank

Also, in his bid to stop Access Bank from taking over the property, the former minister of petroleum had filed a suit before the Federal High Court in Lagos which had been adjourned to May 7 for hearing.

Justice Muhammad Liman had declined an application for interim injunction by the plaintiff and noted that it was “better to adjourn the matter for hearing of the substantive suit” since the merged entity had begun operation on April 1.

In the suit, Etiebet is seeking an order restraining the respondents from continuing with the merger scheme pending the hearing and determination of his substantive suit. And Access Bank, Diamond Bank, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) were listed as the respondents.

In their response, Access Bank filed a counter affidavit, urging the court to dismiss the suit. Etiebet, a major shareholder of the bank and Chairman of Top Oil & Gas Development Company Limited, wants the merger nullified over fraud allegations. He accused the bank of hiding financial fraud cases it is involved in from the regulators, who it said would not have given approval for the merger had they been aware.

Etiebet also petitioned SEC, contending that the merger should be nullified pursuant to Section 124(3) of the Investment and Securities Act 2007, which empowers interested persons to voluntarily file any document, affidavit, statement or other relevant information in respect of a merger.

He also referred to Section 127 of the Act, which says: “The Commission may revoke its own decision to approve or conditionally approve a small, immediate or large merger if the decision was based on incorrect information for which a party to the merger is responsible and the approval was based on incorrect information for which a party to the merger is responsible and the approval was obtained in deceit”.

Issue of Criminal Case Against Access Bank Managing Director in Court

Etiebet also drew SEC’s attention to the fact that Access Bank, its Managing Director, Herbert Wigwe and other directors face criminal charges before a Shagamu High Court in Ogun State.

According to him, the bank allegedly did not disclose the pendency of the criminal charges to the regulators knowing that doing so would have resulted in SEC and CBN withholding approval for the merger. He urged the Commission to revoke the approval-in-principle and cancel the merger having been empowered to do so by Section 127 (2) of the Investment and Securities Act 2007.

Shareholders of Access Bank Plc and Diamond Bank Plc had however gone ahead to unanimously approve the merger at extraordinary general meetings of both banks. The banks said the merger followed due process.

 Clarification of Access Bank on the case

In March 2019, Access Bank Plc released a statement clarifying the company’s position, including that of its CEO and Directors on the said case. The Bank claimed that it actually reported the case first to the Police Special Fraud Unit before a suit was filed against Access Bank.

In the statement, the management said in 2015, the bank made financial provision for a customer — Metal Steel Products Limited — to import billets and other machinery used for the expansion of the customers’ factory. But following the arrival of the imported goods, the company, (i.e., the customer), went ahead to clear the imports without first making some necessary payments.

This prompted Access Bank Plc to report the development to the Police Special Fraud Unit, which obtained a court order for Access Bank to take over Metal Steel Products Limited’s business operations, adding that the lawsuit was instituted due to the misunderstanding between the Registrar that took charge of the property and Metal Steel Products Limited.