interviewBy Chuks Ohuegbe And Louis Achi
Abuja — In 2004, the Bureau for Public Enterprises approved the sale of Daily Times of Nigeria Plc to Folio Communications Limited which emerged as the preferred bidder, for N1.25 billion. The new owner formally took over the comatose media giant on March 14, 2007. In this encounter, Mr. Fidelis Anosike, chairman of Folio Communications dismissed the negative propaganda against his acquisition of the media outfit. He spoke with Chuks Ohuegbe and Louis Achi. The resolute, impassioned investor vowed that the rebirth of the Daily Times can only be delayed.
On March 8, 2011, Justice Charles Achibong of the Federal High Court sitting in Lagos nullified the charges against you and your brother in your capacity as owners of Daily Times Nigeria Limited. But on March 24, 2011 Justice Pat Ajoku declined to uphold the annulment of these charges. What really happened?
I don't know the technicalities of law but what I know is that a competent court dismissed the charges they brought against us - Folio Communication.
What I expected, from the lay man's perspective, is that if the court ruling was brought to Justice Ajoku, maybe she should have upheld the quashing of the case right away. But like I said I do not know the technicality.
It's her court, and so she has the jurisdiction to entertain any case she deems fit that is brought to her court. But, what I know is that the charges have been quashed by a court of competent jurisdiction.
Also I think, speaking as a lay man, anyone that is not satisfied with the ruling of the Justice Achibong's Federal High Court, has the right to appeal the judgment, the order was made on notice and not ex parte.
The parties were served, so if you did not want the order you would have gone there to canvass it. We are talking about rule of law; so things must follow due process.
I am yet to see the criminal connection to borrowing and running your enterprise because privatization through core investor sale, states clearly and I quote "the core investor takes over and manages..." We bought 96.5 percent, the total government equity in Daily Times Nigeria Plc.
We bought it all. Government does not own any part of Daily Times anymore and we believe that both the office Attorney General and the Judge, indeed the Judiciary is the last resort of the common man and so expect nothing less than justice. Besides, I am yet to be told when borrowing money to finance a business became a criminal offence.
Daily Times has been off the news-stand. We will like to know the cause, besides the litigations. What is driving this delay?
Simply put, it is a combination of sabotage and subterfuge over the period of time that we have acquired Daily Times. I think some people still feel that we are too small or young to assume the position we are today in Daily Times.
I always remind them that when Babatunde Jose and the likes of Segun Osoba and Yemi Ogunbiyi were running Daily Times, they were at the same age bracket that we were when we acquired the Newspaper. I was 36 years old when we acquired Daily Times.
In 2003, the Daily Times Nigeria Plc was advertised for sale. Before then it had been put on sale via public offer, a process which failed.
When it failed, government decided to go the way of strategic investor. They put it back on sale to anybody that wished to buy. So we as corporate citizens of Nigeria went there to bid and having achieved all I had at the time, I needed an elevation to the national sphere.
Thus, acquiring Nigeria's foremost newspaper icon was an opportunity to be able to contribute my own quota to the economic reform programme through privatisation. So we bided and we were prequalified.
What were your experiences in the entire acquisition process?
It is a very cumbersome process to acquire a government enterprise. You apply, via expression of interest; they do what they call bidder profiling.
We were shortlisted and paid the mandatory 10,000 USD for the Request for Proposal (RFP) and subsequently posted a bid bond of N100 million.
The next step is to call for bidders' conference and then you do the technical bid. At the end of the technical bid, Folio Communication Limited came first. We scored 82 percent.
The records are there in the BPE; they are public records. We were number one (1) of over thirty (30) well known companies that bided.
In the metrics of privatization, technical bid is 75%, the financial bid is 25%. Your company has to be adjudged competent and can take up the enterprise and achieve the objective of the privatization. Also, if you fail to pay within the stipulated time you lose the bid bond amount which is a prerequisite for the financial bid.
All these steps were followed, it was a transparent process and the World Bank was involved. It was done openly in Transcorp Hilton, Abuja. Before Daily Times was sold, no other company had been privatised under the prevailing reform. Therefore, it was adjudged the best privatization process.
Our closest competitor bided N1.05billion while we bided N1.25billion to acquire it. If the Public Offer earlier initiated by BPE had succeeded, it would have cost us N300million only to acquire the entire Daily Times. But here we are; number one in technical bid and because of the value we placed on it, we bided for N1.25 billion.
Then, we had the issue of how to pay? Folio Communication Limited sought financial assistance from its bank; Hallmark Bank and they gave us a facility of N750 million. But in the agreement we reached with BPE, the company being a quoted company and was still on technical suspension, you cannot control 96.5% of a quoted company.
So it was stated clearly in the agreement that we have to sell 40% of what we are acquiring by differed offer within 5 years. So we are just holding 96.5 % on trust. We invited one Okoye, who was then my friend and borrowed the sum of N500 million under six month tenure.
Mind you when we acquired Daily Times, it had 250 cases against it at the time and none of the titles were consistent on the newsstand. So with Ben Okoye's contribution of N500million and N750million facility from Hallmark Bank, we paid for the enterprise.
We have the letters, receipts and documents to prove our acquisition of Daily Times. Folio Communications did not acquire Daily Times with anybody or institution as a consortium. Hallmark bank and Mr. Ben Okoye were financial partners for the payment of the enterprise and the transaction was guided by a clear agreement on repayment. Folio Communications Limited is a company I incorporated after I completed my Youth Service in 1990; the company became operational in 1992. By the way, I am a graphic artist by profession. For emphasis sake, Graphics is about visual communication, a critical constituent of marketing. This is my field of core competence
So what is your perception on the causes of setback and ongoing challenges?
It is a case of people we brought into the business trying to take over the company violently, thinking that they are bigger than us. I am talking of Ben Okoye and Senator Ikechukwu Obiora. I have shown you all the letters regarding positions and stakes of the enterprise. Now before you pay you are supposed to disclose to BPE your source of fund and so government cannot prosecute us for borrowing money to finance the acquisition, we have all that documentation, to prove full disclosure. At no time in the process of acquisition was the source of our fund an issue.
A consistent allegation being leveled against you and Folio Communications Limited is that of asset stripping of Daily Times. Please react to this.
Daily Times of Nigeria Plc is a Folio Communications company. The reason I am putting it this way is to make clear and establish the ownership of the company. If you own a house you appropriate rent. If we (Folio) want to sell the whole property in Daily Times it will be our decision and the prerogative of the Board of Directors of Daily Times of Nigeria Plc which still is under the control of Folio Communications as core and strategic investor because we have validly acquired it and it has been handed over to us. All that is needed is to be guided by the shares sale-purchase agreement and that again is clear. It states that if you want to sell any asset of the company within five years, you will need to get the consent of the BPE which we obtained since December 2004.
Is Fidelis Anosike synonymous with Folio Communications Limited because in law you are not supposed to hold 100% share in any company? Is this what obtains in Folio Communications?
No, I do not own Folio Communications Limited 100%. I still maintain a controlling share as founder of the company. Do not forget that it is a limited liability company, it is not a PLC, but a private company and it can be held 100%.
You mentioned some names in course of the interview, how do they come in?
They are not shareholders of Folio Communications Limited. These are people I approached to help us finance the transaction that we had acquired. Folio Communications Limited legally acquired Daily Times of Nigeria Plc and paid for it in full and obtained a Federal Government receipt as you see here.
We did not acquire Daily Times as a consortium. Everything we did was in line with the technical bid. We stated in the bid that we will sell one or two Daily Times properties, use the fund to acquire another property along Airport Road, Abuja, where we will build our printing company because we planned to relocate the headquarters from Lagos to Abuja. It was stated in our technical bid.
Daily Times was handed to us physically in September 2004, at the company premises at Agidingbi, Lagos. When we acquired Daily Times we met a stream of obsolete equipment. That was what we acquired. The total value of non real estate assets that we acquired was less than N50million. I repeat they were all obsolete, go and check the BPE records. And that is the equipment the office of the Attorney General says they are charging us for selling the Daily Times printing press amounting to N300million.
I invited Mr. Ben Okoye to the board. I put him as chairman of the Assets Disposal Committee to dispose some assets for the prompt turnaround of the company.
Don't forget we are in the business of printing and publishing. So if we have fixed asset that is up to N3billion nobody will fault us if I convert fixed assets to operating assets. As I speak with you today, contrary to the myriad of bogus allegations against us, we have only sold two assets since 2004, which is about 7 years now. One is the divestment of 60% in Nigeria Stock Exchange which was there in our technical bid.
If I go and borrow N720 million which is what we realized from it, you know what the interest will be in one year. The valuation of our shares in the building when we bought that company was less than N500m, and we got N720m. From shareholders' perspective they know that we got more.
Our plan was simple, sell these assets to enable us acquire two or three new printing presses, to be located in Abuja, Lagos and Onitsha.
So, the Nigerian Stock Exchange building was sold to acquire the premises of Folio Communication Limited in Abuja as contained in our technical bid. In privatization you seek for approval before you start. This was why we divested from the Stock Exchange.
The second asset we sold was just in January last year. You have to understand the motive, Mr. Ben Okoye and Senator Ikechukwu Obiora on realizing the vast real estate assets of The Daily Times of Nigeria Plc began to plan a hostile takeover, so all the court actions by DSV Limited, owned by Ben Okoye and Senator Ikechukwu, is to make sure that we don't get capital to turn around the company.
We used the money from that sale to acquire 4 printing plants, since May 2010 till today; they have been at the ports held by Senator Ikechukwu Obiora through a court order granted by Justice Okeke. You see Senator Obiora has been using his position and influence to harass and intimidate us hoping that one day we would succumb to their antics and allow them take over Daily Times.
We have not seen DSV Limited in any of the transaction documents. Why is the court listening to them?
When we made Okoye Chairman of the Board Committee on Asset Disposal, he tried to in connivance with Hallmark Bank to push me out. They offered me N1billion to walk away. And I said to myself, I bought this company and I have an honour and duty to the Nigerian people to turn around this company. Something I validly bought, No, I am not going to let it go. There was nothing they did not do, but I insisted that Daily Times is my own platform to prove my worth to the Nigerian public.
In December 2004, Hallmark Bank called in the facility even before expiration. We went to Equatorial Trust Bank and obtained a refinancing loan of N1billion to repurchase Hallmark Bank facility. They gave them a letter in January 2005 asking Hallmark Bank to confirm the amount Folio Communications Limited was owing and agreed on exchange of documents on payment.
Hallmark Bank declined, saying that they are stakeholders in the enterprise and must get the icing on the cake. Then Mr. Ben Okoye took up a full page advert in the newspapers that Folio Communications and Equatorial Bank were trying to use assets of Daily Times to borrow money, of course an obvious scheme to scare off our new banker. That was how the entire drama began.
Have there been any attempts at out-of-court settlement to allow the take off of Daily Times operations?
In first quarter of 2005, Hallmark Bank appointed Anthony Idigbe SAN, receiver/manager, used the police, took over the Agidingbi premises and started printing the newspaper.
After a protracted legal battle, Nduka Obaigbena of ThisDay Newspapers called and facilitated out-of-court settlement of all parties.
After we signed the out-of-court agreement within a month or two, Hallmark Bank collapsed. The implication for Mr. Ben Okoye was that he had lost his partner in crime. It was at that point that he wrote a letter to us on December 5 declaring divestment of interest in DSV limited and that was how he metamorphosed into Ikechukwu Obiora. The letter was to inform us that their interest has been transferred to Penthhust Media Limited owned by Ikechukwu Obiora. I made sure that the agreement was signed by Ikechukwu Obiora to avoid denial.
Subsequently, against the spirit and letters of the out-of-court settlement which says that none of the parties shall in whatever guise file a suit in court in respect of the transaction, DSV Ltd filed a case in court without notice. The court accepted it and we went there, it was the case called DSV Ltd and others.
So, Ikechukwu now came and said we should do a settlement again since the stock exchange building has been sold. He asked us to give him some properties to make some money and he in turn will give us the place where we will put up our printing press in Onitsha. I have documents that show the property/assets we ceded to him and the price. We documented all these and it was the basis of an out-of-court settlement with DSV Ltd duly filed in Justice Dan Aputu's Court. It was very detailed. It turned out that he had no intentions to transfer the said property to Folio. In fact one of the cheques he gave us bounced and all attempts to make him redeem it failed.
Why so many hurdles on your part to reposition Daily Times?
Some persons are unhappy about our acquisition of Daily Times. They are not happy that "Omo kobo kobo" as they call it came to acquire a whole Daily Times. So that sentiment is there. But for the likes of Senator Ikechukwu Obiora, their concern is the Daily Times properties. For instance, the property in London was sold by a lady called Joyce Benson. She is the first cousin to Mr. Ben Okoye. At this time too we were also struggling with operations of the paper. All they were targeting at is ensuring that we do not settle down to the business of rebuilding Daily Times. Encouraged by Ben Okoye, Daily Times gave Joyce Benson power of attorney to collect some rents in London. They sold it for 520,000 pounds and pocketed the money. We are soon going to move to recover the property or at least the monies.
Who gave Ben Okoye the power of attorney?
The board, I signed it. He was a member. He contributed money to the core investor
After the sale, did he report back to you?
What step has the board taken?
The board got a lawyer in London and he has done the necessary documentations. And you know the process is different from that of Nigeria. There is a bill of over 145,000 pounds to pursue it. We would soon be in a position to deal with the matter. We have all the records.
Was the property sold legally?
No. The revenue from any asset you sell belonging to the company must come into Daily Times anything outside that is illegal.
What are your current plans to ensure that Daily Times is back on the newsstand?
Since becoming a Senator in 2007, all Senator Ikechukwu Obiora has tried to do is to use his position to intimidate me and my brother. They have used all kinds of tactics and antics to bring us down.
They know that once in operation and the newspaper is in the newsstand, the public will see the evidence of the good work we promised to do. That is what they are trying to stall.
They are striving to ensure that at all times this company will not be operational. There motive is to bring us to submission and give up the Daily Times real estate assets for our freedom and peace.
But let me tell you and indeed the Nigerian public that The Daily Times turnaround strategy is completed. We know what we are doing.
As I speak, our online platform is up and running and will become the prime news source in a very close future. Folio has invested over N1.7billion of own resources into Daily Times. The records are there. We have spent over N1billion to protect the assets.
We set out strongly and engaged the best professionals in and outside the country including consultants like Sol 90 Bacelona, PriceWaterHouseCoopers, and the prestigious American Press Institute as transformation managers.
So, our appeal to all stakeholders and indeed all Nigerians is to be patient, resist oppressive capitalism and shun falsehood. We need your prayers to surmount this ugly and monstrous agenda, criminal persecution in the guise of prosecution and we can assure you that we will never give up. They can delay the dream of a new Daily Times, but we will surely overcome.