As the legal fireworks over the ownership of Newswatch Communications Limited begin in Lagos, Justice Ibrahim Buba, presiding judge, warns parties not to do anything that undermine the integrity of his court
| By Ishaya Ibrahim | Mar. 11, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT
IT WAS a fierce legal battle, February 26 and 27, at the ongoing hearing at the Federal High Court, Lagos, over the ownership of Newswatch Communications Limited. Nuhu Wada and Jibril Aminu, both former external directors of Newswatch, brought the case against Jimoh Ibrahim, the core investor in Newswatch Communications Limited. The-two-day sitting of the court was marked by legal maneuvering and a show of wits between Ray Ekpu, former chief executive officer, CEO, of Newswatch, who is a witness for the plaintiffs and Bolaji Ayorinde, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and the lead counsel to Ibrahim.
On the first day of the hearing, both Ekpu and Ayorinde, locked horns in an attempt to outwit each other. For instance, in a bid to maneuver Ekpu, Ayorinde had asked him that as one of the founding fathers of Newswatch, he should know everything about the company. Ekpu aptly replied: “Everything! I know a lot; not everything.” Not satisfied, Ayorinde wanted to push further but Ekpu maintained his stance. “I know a lot; not everything”, Ekpu said.
The ding-dong continued the following day as Ayorinde tried to extract answers from Ekpu about the shareholdings of his colleagues (Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed and Soji Akinrinade) including Wada and Aminu. Ekpu said he only knew his shareholding which is 3.4 million shares. But Ayorinde would not give up. He asked Ekpu again how much was paid to his colleagues as their retirement benefits. Ekpu replied that he only knew his which is N79.5 million but since he wasn’t the accountant, he would not know the exact figures they were paid. But he added that he knew that Jimoh Ibrahim cheated them all by shortchanging them. At this point, Ayorinde interrupted Ekpu and said, that wasn’t the question he had asked him. But Justice Ibrahim Buba, the presiding judge, told Ayorinde that it was already too late because he had already entered that part of Ekpu’s evidence into his record. He then asked Ekpu to continue.
Ekpu continued: “The four of us had a meeting with Mr. Ibrahim. He called one lady to read the figures of what we were going to be paid. The figures were less than what we submitted to the board on May 5, 2011. When we told him that the figures were less than we expected, he said, ‘that is the money that is available!’. He paid us what he wanted to pay us”,
When asked how his N109 million retirement benefit was calculated, he continued: “In the year 2002, we had applied to the board of Newswatch under the chairmanship of chief Alex Akinyele that we wanted to retire one after the other. The board set-up a committee to find out what would be the retirement benefits of people like us in similar institutions. A financial report was submitted which the board approved. But the board said to us: ‘you cannot retire now. We are working to bring in fresh investments into the company. If you leave now, the company may be unattractive to potential investors’. That is why we did not retire in the year 2002. When we were retiring on May 5, 2011, we had to pull out that report and submit to the board”, Ekpu said and added “out of the money paid to us, Jimoh deducted 10 percent from each of us and said he was going to pay tax with it and that he would give us receipt. But up till now, we have not been given the receipt despite several demands made for it.”
Ayorinde later showed Ekpu exhibit P3, the sales purchase agreement entered by the parties in the sale of Newswatch. He argued that only Newswatch Communications Limited was party to the agreement and that Newswatch Books Limited, Newswatch Properties Limited and Lastop were missing in the SPA. But Ekpu said Newswatch Communications Limited registered the companies and the companies came as a group to enter the agreement.
Before the hearing commenced on February 26, Justice Buba had chided those who brought two complimentary copies of Newswatch Dailies to his office. “I found an unsolicited gift on my table and when I opened it, I found two complimentary copies of Daily Newswatch of February 10 and 11. The issue here is, sending copies of the subject matter of a suit before me, is not ordinary. It is not ordinary because a judge is also on trial over the case he is handling”, he said. He then warned parties in the suit to refrain from doing things that would undermine the integrity of the court.
The case was then adjourned till March 18 and 19 for further hearing.