The crisis of confidence rocking Newswatch magazine took a new turn last week when businessman Jimoh Ibrahim declared that he has 89 percent stake in the company. But the founding directors of the newsmagazine, Ray Ekpu, Yakubu Muhammed and Dan Agbese, dismiss the claim in an interview with Raheem Akingbolu
These are certainly not the best of times for Messrs Ray Ekpu, Yakubu Muhammed, Dan Agbese and Soji Akinrinade, all former directors of Newswatch magazine. A few days after they expressed outrage over the sudden suspension of publication of the magazine until after a surgical operation on the company by its new board chairman, Mr. Jimoh Ibrahim, they received another salvo from the businessman. Ibrahim had told THISDAY in an interview that he owns 89 percent equity in the company. He said the four founding directors of the company had been bought out and that they are now nominal shareholders, having exchanged their previous shares for cash.
To Ekpu and company, who believes Ibrahim’s stake is just 51 percent, the statement was like a joke carried too far. In their reactions, they expressed shock over Ibrahim’s statement, saying there was no time they were ever consulted on whether they wanted to sell their shares or not. Ekpu described Ibrahim a ‘congenital liar’, saying what the businessman said could not have been the true position of things. Speaking in an interview with THISDAY, Ekpu said: “That we have exchanged our shares for cash as stated by Mr. Ibrahim was like a fiction because there was no time anything like that came up. To me, this is rubbish. Did it mean other shareholders have also done the same? You cannot buy share from somebody without the consent of the person. Is it not funny that Mr. Ibrahim said in a statement while suspending production that he own 51 percent, only to change it a few hours later that it had jumped up to 89?”
‘All We Were Paid Were Our Terminal Benefits’
Ekpu said the only cash that was transferred to his account and those of his three other colleagues by the new board was their terminal benefits, which had been concluded since 2002 by the former members of board of directors. He also added that the idea of retirement was first proposed to the board 10 years ago but was temporarily put aside, when the board urged them to stay on for awhile. “All we were paid were our terminal benefits, which had been on record for the past 10 years. Even at that, it would interest you that when the money was being paid, Mr. Ibrahim held back part of it, claiming that he had used it to pay our tax. We demanded for tax receipts but he couldn’t provide it. Till now, we are still waiting. I know the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) to be a pro-active agency of government in this regard and so couldn’t imagine a situation whereby receipts could not be provided a year after payment was made,” he said. Ekpu recalled how Mr. Ibrahim had ignore the company’s accounts in Zenith Bank, Intercontinental and other banks to open a fresh account in the then AfriBank in the name of Newswatch Communications Limited. He said he (Ibrahim) then transferred N510million to the account from Nicon Investment Limited, with him and one other staff of the company as signatories. “With the way the transaction went, it was as if Mr. Ibrahim only paid himself but unfortunately we had resigned by then and so couldn’t change that. From the new account, he paid our terminal benefits and some of the staff salary before he transferred another N150 million back to the account of Nicon Investment,” he said.
Newswatch Hasn’t Moved an Inch
Ekpu stated that “it is as though the company has not moved an inch forward from where it was when Mr. Ibrahim bought into it. The staff are owed salaries, Academy Press where we print are still being owed. The man just speaks and moves on and when you remind him, he claims he can’t remember saying so...” he said.
Its selective perception, cuts in Soji Akinrinade. On steps they had taken to save the company before now, Ekpu made available a letter he and his colleagues wrote to Mr. Ibrahim recently where they reminded the businessman of his failure to meet up with most of the promises he made while buying into the company. In the letter, Mr. Ibrahim was reminded of the non-fulfilment of his promise of paying a ‘parting gift’ to Chief Alex Akinyele, who was said to have served the company diligently as the chairman.
They also reminded him of the non-payment of staff’s outstanding salaries and the additional N500 million that was supposed to be paid either in cash or in kind a few months after he made the N510 million initial deposit. Explaining what they meant by paying in ‘kind’, Ekpu said since the company didn’t have its own printing press, they were looking at the possibility of an investment in modern printing equipment that would change the face of the magazine. Speaking on why they had not been playing any serious role in the company as agreed between them and the new board last year, Ekpu narrated how Mr. Ibrahim suddenly reneged on his promise to make them directors, overseeing various departments. “After we concluded everything last year, the new chairman had cheerfully expressed his willingness to still have us around. To this end, he said I, Muhammed, Agbese and Akinrinade would be group executive directors in charge of Corporate Planning and Strategy, Planning Research and Development, Book and Staff Training and, Editorial Content respectively.
“When we met in his office on Broad Street, he asked us about our decision to go on vacation and we confirmed it. Later he took us to the 3rd Floor and told us that would be our office with our staff and that we were expected to resume on August 1. A few days before our resumption date, we reminded him but he down played it. By the time we would raise it again after the three months had elapsed, he only said as his elder brothers, he would not want some small boys to push us around. And that was the end of it till today.”
National Mirror Advertorial
Meanwhile, in what looked like a confirmation of the promise made by Mr. Ibrahim’s to deal with the case of the former directors this week, his Global Media Mirror Limited ran a front page advertorial in the National Mirror of Wednesday, August 15, and spelt out the details of the transaction between him and Messrs Ekpu, Muhammed, Agbese and Akinrinade. The advertorial was also repeated in Nigeria Tribune newspaper.