General News of 2013-12-02

Presidency stopped Merchant Bank’s recovery of Mahama’s brother’s debt

Struggling state-owned bank, Merchant Bank, may have been stopped from recovering huge debts owed it by Engineers and Planners, a company owned by President John Mahama’s brother.

As the controversy over the sale of Merchant Bank to Fortiz continues, it has emerged that the presidency was petitioned to intervene in the matters surrounding the recovery of huge debts from Engineers and Planners, a company owned by Ibrahim Mahama.

Joy News has documents that suggest lawyer for Engineers and Planners, Tony Lithur, petitioned the President to intervene on the company’s behalf.

The Bank had attempted to recover a debt of $38 million from Engineers and Planners.

The Bank’s board described the debt in a letter to the President, in response to Mr. Lithur’s petition as constituting 30 percent of its 50 percent non-performing loan portfolio.

In that letter, the Board refers to various meetings its chairperson had with President John Mahama and his predecessor, the late President John Mills where they were asked on one occasion to explain to President Mahama why they refused to release funds to Engineers and Planners to meet their operational cost.

Joy News’ Evans Mensah, who has been studying the documents, reported that after months of defaulting on its loan, Merchant Bank wrote a final letter to Ibrahim Mahama on 18 June 2012 demanding repayment of a loan the company took from the bank but failed to pay on the due dates. It threatened to resort to legal action to retrieve the money if E&P failed to pay up.

The threat probably triggered a petition to the President through the National Security Advisor by Mr. Lithur dated 4 July 2012 and was received at the office of the President on 13 of July, 2012.

In the petition, Mr Lithur admits the difficulties the company was facing in servicing the loan. He blames it on a revision of the repayment period from five to three years.

He accused the chairperson of Merchant Bank Board, Marian Barnor, of being “bent on destroying the E & P”.

The bank had refused to guarantee a $60 million loan facility from the Africa Export Import Bank, part of which would have been used by Engineers and Planners to pay off its debt to Merchant Bank.

Mr. Lithur asked the President to intervene to “maintain the status quo ante” and to “enable Engineers and Planners take a structured approach to solving its problems with Merchant Bank”.

In a letter dated September 3, 2012, the then Secretary to the President J.K Bebaako-Mensah wrote to the Managing Director of Merchant Bank asking the bank to respond to Tony Lithur’s petition.

The Bank’s board responded in a ten-page letter dated 24 September, 2012.

It referred to various meetings the board chairperson had at the Presidency following earlier reports to the seat of government about the bank’s handling of the Engineers and Planners’ debt.

According to the Board, the first of the meetings was with President John Mahama, who was then Vice-President.

At that meeting, the board chairperson, Mrs Barnor was asked by the Chief of Staff to meet Mr. Mahama to explain why the bank at the time had decided not to release monies to Engineers and Planners to meet operational expenses.

The board also referred to another meeting called by the late President Mills where John Mahama was again present to hear Merchant Bank’s position on the Africa Export Import Bank loan facility to Engineers and Planners.

The board reiterated its resolve to recover the 38 million dollars borrowed by Engineers and Planners, a debt it described as constituting 30 percent of the bank’s 50 percent non-performing loan portfolio.

The board highlighted how the Engineers and Planners debt alone was threatening the survival of Merchant Bank.

The board also highlighted how the loan had been revised downwards from 38 million dollars to 28 million dollars to allow the company to pay up and yet it failed to do so.

It warned of Merchant Bank’s collapse if the loan was not recovered. The board said “a Merchant Bank that collapses will cause systemic risk to the banking sector, there will be loss of pension funds, total erosion of the Ghanaian staff provident fund; loss of jobs etc”.

The board noted that the Engineers and Planners indebtedness was a purely commercial matter and it is “unfortunate that Lithur, Brew and Co, have escalated this to the office of the President.”

The Board members concluded by stating “We leave the matter to the good judgment of his Excellency the President”.

The sale of 90 percent stake in Merchant Bank to Fortiz Equity Bank has been a subject of intense debate.