Keem Belo-Osagie and the Etisalat fiasco


Will an old stunt work once again?

By John Eche


Maverick Nigerian businessman, Keem Belo-Osagie is in the news again. And as usual, he is not talking to the public about what is going on or what exactly he is doing to resolve it

Keem, whose full name is Hakeem Belo-Osagie is Chairman of Etisalat Nigeria, the troubled telecommunications sector player that accounts for some 20 million GSM lines that phone-clutching Nigerians use.

Etisalat Nigeria is currently on the ropes on account of a $1.2billion syndicated loan given to it by a consortium of banks that include, Access Bank and First Bank.

And given that the firm cannot pay, the lenders have moved in to take over.

Etisalat Nigeria’s global arm, Etisalat UAE, which held some 45 percent stake in the firm and which had been troubled over the deal for some time now has chosen to get out, leaving Keem and the rump of the team at Etisalat Nigeria to find their way out of the mess.

Presently, the NCC and the CBN are mediating but it is clear to diligent observers that this is only a short-term and confidence-boosting intervention. The lenders want their money back, simple!

With no cash in hand and with the lenders clearly under pressure of their own, the short stick seems to be  the lender-initiated management takeover (in lieu of debt). And it is not the first time this would be happening in Nigeria’s corporate history as a similar debt bungle in the old African Petroleum Plc (which had been bought over by the Peter-Okocha- led Sadiq Petroleum without taking proper heed to its debt status) had led to Sadiq losing out a few months after it had bought the pricey AP.

The beneficiary today is Femi Otedola who has since rebranded the firm as Forte Oil.

Analysts say that the options open to the lender-consortium may be four-fold: one, run the firm with a management appointed by them; two, resell the firm to another player with capacity to pay and subsequently run it; three, keep the current management in place but supervise it very closely; and four, strip the assets and recover what it can get.

As for Keem, he is not coming public with his cards. And analysts are curious. Does he really have something big up his sleeve or is he simply lying low in the hope that, as they say, ‘this too shall pass?’

And if history is our guide, this may be the situation. When Keem served as Chairman of the old United Bank for Africa, UBA and the bank got into very dizzying waters, necessitating both EFCC and CBN intervention, he took this option even as he negotiated backstage with the then Tony Elumelu-led Standard Trust Bank, STB, that was to later emerge as the star anchor of the new UBA.

Again, when the Panama Papers scandal broke out a few years ago, indicating that he may very well have quite a fortune stashed in the dodgy tax havens of Jersey in the Channel Islands, mum was also the word even as the issue subsequently bowled over.

With Etisalat today, will this tack work? We wait.

And then, what threat does this current situation pose for brand Keem Osagie? Scion of an influential Nigerian family, Keem was in 2014 named as the 41st richest African by Forbes Magazine. So the challenge here is not looking like being broke or being near-bankrupt. Rather, it may be one of business timing, business model, super-confidence gone bust or merely a crass case of financial indiscipline and recklessness.

But to properly determine what really is at stake here, we will need to look into the books, crunch the numbers and find out what really went awry. And while we are doing these as they have to do with the current Etisalat Nigeria saga, it may also make sense to call for the other books; to look once again at what really were the issues with the UBA challenge and even at what the Panama papers can also tell us.






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