by ‘Jola Sotubo
The number of times the operating identity of the telecommunications company now called Airtel has been changed is a constant subject of discussion among Nigerians.
Many have been counting down to the next name change ever since the present owners took control and it seems that their predictions might be accurate afterall.
According to a Daily Independent report, Airtel is going bankrupt or already is. This was said to have been deduced from court documents filed by 16 commercial banks before a Lagos High Court.
Daily Independent reports:
In the affidavits, copies of which were obtained by Daily Independent, the net sum of Airtel’s assets pale into insignificance in the face of the liabilities of the firm.
The total cash standing to the credit of the firm, according to the affidavits, was N131 million as at February 5, whereas the company was indebted to the tune of N51,176,406, 896.90.
According to the case, which brought about the revelation, Airtel had in 2003, terminated a contract earlier awarded to an indigenous Nigerian telecom service provider, Procomtel Limited.
Dissatisfied with the development, Procomtel approached Airtel in an attempt to resolve the matter.
Airtel was said to have agreed to pay Procomtel some money, while the rest was referred to arbitration.
The company paid the promised money, but refused to proceed with arbitration as agreed, a development which prompted Procomtel to file a suit against the company before the High Court of Lagos State.
The court, however, granted a request by Airtel that the matter should be taken back for arbitration. The court had also directed that the President of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) should appoint an independent arbitrator since that was the agreement between parties.
After the service of court order on the NSE President, a fellow of the society was appointed to arbitrate on the matter, which later took place in Ibadan with both parties submitting to the jurisdiction of the arbitrator.
At the end of the proceedings, the arbitrator awarded N415 million in favour of Procomtel against Airtel. The arbitrator had also awarded interest at 17 per cent per annum till the whole amount is paid. The award was made in 2007. Airtel had then made attempts to set aside the award, but this was dismissed by Justice Adefope-Okojie of the Lagos State High Court.
Procomtel also sought for the specific performance of the agreement between the parties to arbitrate and to abide by the outcome of the arbitration at the same Lagos State High Court, but the suit was vigorously resisted by Airtel by filing a defence and also calling a witness during trial. On December 19, 2013, the Lagos High Court ruled in favour of Procomtel and awarded an additional N25 million damages against Airtel.
In a bid to recover the judgment sum, Procomtel filed garnishee proceedings against Airtel and an order ‘nisi’ was subsequently made by the court, directing all 23 banks operating the account of Airtel to state the true state of things via affidavits. Out of the 23 banks, the affidavits filed by 16 banks, however, revealed the bankrupt status of the telecom firm.
An official of Procomtel who spoke with Daily Independent, said the information in the affidavits were strange “because this is a company (Airtel) that makes money virtually every second of the day and has been doing so over the last 10 years without stopping for one day”.
He added: “To us, what is safe to deduce from this scenario is that either the banks are holding the court in contempt and lying about Airtel’s true position in order to curry favour with their customer; or the banks are in collusion with Airtel and are aiding and abetting capital flight from Nigeria; or Airtel has been fleeced by its management and is facing imminent bankruptcy.”
The source who craves anonymity believes that necessary agencies such as the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) ought to look into the activities of the bankers to Airtel and the company itself with the view to bringing about necessary sanction where applicable.