Merchant Bank Rot (I): Several MDs Fall Over E&P Loan

Somewhere in 2007 Ibrahim Mahama, representing his then nine-year-old company, Engineers & Planners, applied for and got a loan facility of a US$43 million from a consortium of Ghanaian banks led by Merchant Bank Ghana. The loan was unusual because for a loan of its size it was unsecured and, according to some inside sources, allegedly arranged without the approval of the bank’s Board. Well, Merchant Bank has never been the same since. It has seen the most rapid change of managing directors (MD), threats to its assets, exodus of depositors, and discontent among the staff. The board sacked Mr Blaise Mankwa, the managing director at the time of the loan arrangement, for allegedly facilitating the granting of an unsecured $43 million loan to a customer. But the bloodletting has not stopped and MD after MD have since come and gone at the once prestigious bank. Having the worst effect on the bank is its non-performing loans, which forced the bank that year to form a special loan recovery vehicle – Merban Assets Recovery Trust Ltd. The intention of the Assets Recovery Trust is, in the words of the bank’s then Chairperson of Board of Directors, Mrs Rosamond Barnor, “to ring-fence the troubled assets of the bank and transfer them to a subsidiary which has the sole purpose of loan recovery and eventual liquidation.” It is the renewed effort to recover the loan to Ibrahim’s firm – Engineers and Partners – and Merchant Bank’s refusal to guarantee a foreign loan for Engineers and Partners which sent the lawyer for Mr Ibrahim Mahama, Mr Tony Lithur, to petition the Presidency to intervene on behalf of Engineers and Partners. In the petition, Mr Lithur admitted the difficulties the company was facing in servicing the loan, blaming it on a revision of the repayment period from five to three years, and 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. Following the petition, 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 in a letter dated September 3, 2012. The Board of the bank’s response 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. According to the Board’s response, 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. In part II, The Finder will examine the arguments on whether it is Engineers and Planners or the bank which is at fault.