The Book Haunting Jim Ovia
By Immanuel James Ibe-Anyanwu
Three months after my article in April 2018 stating that Jim Ovia, former Managing Director of Zenith Bank, owes Nigerians a story, he incidentally published “Arise and Shine”, his autobiography. While the launch of the book dominated media conversations, a certain WhatsApp video went viral, calling the book into question and making some allegations against the billionaire banker. The face of the video was Andy Briggs, journalist and author who earlier had published a book he deemed the more authentic Jim Ovia story. Titled The Godfather of Banking, his book, though published since 2017 and available abroad, is bogged by a court suit instituted by Ovia halting its official release. Forbes Magazine reports about the suit here.
My copy of The Godfather of Banking was procured from London. Slim and in fine prints, the book details the glorious story of Zenith Bank and how Ovia shaped it through grit, brilliance, and graft. There are forays into his paternity, love affairs, and other personal details. As a banking professional presiding over public funds held in trust, his right to privacy may not override the imperative of necessary public information, hence the revelations. But the focus remains his stewardship of Zenith Bank and some untold events around it.
The book says Zenith Bank was founded in 1990 by three directors, with one of them as chairman — the late Baba Aladura of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church, Dr Godfrey Itse Mene Otubu. It alleges that Dr Godfrey Otubu, “a former director at the Ministry of Defence…recruited Ovia from Merchant Bank of Africa to run his new banking enterprise and, after he died in 2004, Ovia took over the bank”. This is contrary to official records, and is supported by attached documents obtained from the Corporate Affairs Commission. If the impression is to point at a foundational deceit in the production of the Ovia phenomenon, it worked.
What follows is the story of Ovia’s brush with the EFCC in 2008. A young bank, Zenith Bank had yet survived the stormy banking consolidation program of Chukwuma Soludo in late 2005, posting insane profits and winning fantastic awards. Briggs credits Ovia’s ICT innovations and managerial “cunning” with the bank’s fortunes, but equally alleges that corruption assisted.
Earlier in 2008, a bank account had been opened without a photograph at a Port Harcourt branch of Zenith Bank, bearing the fictitious name Harrison Da Princewill. Within months of operating, the account had received an impressive haul of over N4 billion. The Nuhu Ribadu-led EFCC linked the account to one Nyesom Wike, then chief of staff of the Rivers State government, and a money-laundering case was established. Ovia was later arrested in this connection. His detention at the EFCC office was being perfected when Michael Aondakaa, then Attorney-General of the Federation, intervened and he was let go. But three Zenith Bank staffers who allegedly colluded with Nyesom Wike to operate the account became the scapegoats, writes Andy Briggs. The case, now totally forgotten, died a slow natural death.
Ovia sat tight as Managing Director of Zenith Bank for 20 years, until Lamido Sanusi, after his 2009 purge of some top Nigerian banking executives, pegged the tenure of the top office at two terms of 5 years each. The book says Ovia holds the highest volume of shares in the bank through his own equities and those of “relatives and special purpose vehicles”. With such vast shareholding came extensive influence on the executive board. As the bank became dominant in the sector and, in turn, a strategic value to the economy, its fortunes grew magically, with Ovia inserted at the center of a new explosive wealth. As if in recognition, Forbes Magazine crowned him The Godfather of Nigerian banking. Andy Briggs Report, a magazine owned by the author, had been the first to use that title in a cover story on Jim Ovia four months earlier. Forced into retirement by Sanusi, Ovia would later hand over to his kinsman, Godwin Emefiele, now Governor of the Nigerian Central Bank..
Although a public liability company, Zenith Bank has continued to source its leadership mostly from within the premises of Ovia’s kinsmen, the book notes. In 2014, largest-shareholding Ovia returned as board chairman of the bank, with his erstwhile successor and kinsman heading the nation’s apex bank. His cousin, Ebenezer Onyeagwu, is also a Zenith Bank executive director, contrary to the Revised CBN Code of Corporate Governance for Banks in Nigeria, which forbids “members of the same extended family from occupying the positions of executive director and or board chairman” in the same bank. Briggs is calling out this abuse of process among other perceived infractions, insinuating that Godwin Emefiele is looking the other way due to his relationship with Ovia and Zenith Bank.
The whistleblowing book is dedicated to President Mohammadu Buhari “for championing the war against corruption”, and therein lies a contradiction. Corruption-fighting Buhari is perhaps either not interested in said irregularities, or he’s just not fighting graft. Briggs attempts to make excuses for Buhari, saying the president was unhappy that Ovia “gate-crashed” his US presidential dinner in June 2015. Emefiele, he further suggests, may have been smuggling the diminutive billionaire into presidential events, with the president tolerating such business-sector invasions “in the interest of the economy”.
Yet The Godfather of Banking retains its significance as a work of thorough investigative journalism and a sharp commentary on public policy. It strikes at a Nigerian deficit in record-keeping that allows for the fictioning of important stories. It questions Ovia’s true identity, alleges that he highjacked a bank set up by a deceased shareholder, and claims he also facilitated money-laundering transactions.
But rather than make a case for false representation, if any, the subsisting suit is trying to stop the circulation of the book on claims of privacy breach. On November 22, 2018, the court will sit again on the case to decide whether free but honest speech voiced in the public interest is inferior to individual rights to privacy. The suit might also establish the boundaries of public curiosity in the lives of actors managing public trust, catalyzed by this expository work and its contestation.
On every score, Ovia is accomplished. Just from a modest beginning less than three decades ago, Zenith Bank is today in several countries of the world raking in fat profits, all thanks to Jim Ovia, one of Nigeria’s most illustrious sons who the book alleges was originally named James Nzemeke. While the case drags in court, with no indication of how the judgment will go, Ovia may be worried. A little book is blowing open many things better left unwritten. It seems the case of a godfather haunted by the nemesis of success, rattled by the inquisition of a private citizen seeking full disclosure. As silent power battles freedom of expression, may truth win.