Chairman of Zinox Group, Leo Stan Ekeh has cautioned contemporary African entrepreneurs to guard against a rising wave of corporate blackmail, even as he disclosed that he has never met one Benjamin Joseph, a fellow Igbo and owner of Citadel Oracle Concepts, a small Ibadan-based retail firm who has been in the news recently as standing prosecution for allegedly falsely accusing Mr. Ekeh and others as well as one of Ekeh’s companies of an N170m fraud.
Ekeh made this submission while addressing participants at the end of his final virtual mentorship project for 2022 with the theme – The Last Card – involving a cross-section of budding African entrepreneurs and postgraduate scholars drawn from select foreign universities last Thursday. He had altered the earlier listed case study –“The emerging corporate miracle” to “ The Last Card” based on his current experience.
The Zinox Chairman’s comment comes even as lawyers from various backgrounds have continued to debate how Femi Falana, a popular Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) could have taken on a brief without carrying out due diligence into a case in which his client, the said Benjamin Joseph, has continued to sponsor a series of potentially defamatory media reports against Ekeh, despite having a subsisting N20m fine awarded against him by an Abuja court of competent jurisdiction for giving the Federal Government false information, while also facing another criminal charge for false petitioning before an FCT High Court in Abuja filed by the Inspector General of Police (IGP) in which the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami had instructed the IGP and the courts to prosecute Mr. Benjamin Joseph to a logical conclusion.
Also featuring at a recent discourse on the subject among the lawyers is how Falana failed to advise his client on the difference between a corporate and personal transaction. In law, there is a separation of personalities between corporations and their individual owners. The law separates the two of them as different persons. So, a contract entered into by a company in its normal course of business cannot become the responsibility of a shareholder, especially when that shareholder is not in any way involved in the day-to-to running of the company. Anyone mixing up the two is only acting mischievously to achieve an ulterior motive, which includes embarrassing and blackmailing the shareholder.
Of great concern to the participating lawyers is a perceived attempt to destroy the reputation of a distinguished and humble African and one of Nigeria’s pride identified by President Obasanjo and honoured on October 1st, 2001 as an Icon of Hope and a model for Nigerian youths.
Correspondingly, while addressing his audience on Thursday, October 6, 2022, Ekeh stated that today’s entrepreneurs must remain alive to the growing threat of blackmail in professional circles which he described as the fifth highest revenue earner globally. In addition, he added that in a case of corporate blackmail, there is often a ‘small masquerade’ involved.
‘‘This challenge is a good case study for upcoming African entrepreneurs. As businesses in Africa continue to take a hit from global economic crises – due to the lack of provisioning for tough times – the threat of corporate blackmail will increase for those of you in business. Doing business in Nigeria or Africa is not for cowards. You must prepare like someone going to the war front. If you have the will and capacity to succeed as an entrepreneur, you must be always aware and take measures to protect your business from corporate blackmail. Most times, it is the work of small competitors who wish to see you go down or who have a desire to rubbish your credit rating or public image.’’
Referencing his experience in the earlier mentioned case involving Benjamin Joseph, Ekeh added: ‘‘Corporate blackmail has grown exponentially in recent years and often, the end purpose is extortion. I can confirm to you that there is no court case or indictment against me or any of my colleagues or my wife either with the Police, EFCC or any court in Nigeria or abroad. I decided from the first day I started the business to be a child of the trust economy and delete my passion for money but instead, hold on to my passion for technology and that informed me in seeing myself as an only child even though I have other five successful siblings.
‘‘I am my greatest adviser and never had a privilege of a mentor outside my tough British-trained mother and humble father who was an only child of his parents. I concentrate more on why brilliant, good and hardworking people fail in business in Africa but succeed in civilized countries. This informed me why I stayed with tech business 360 degrees as I am in total control and the business does not lie. It’s either you are right or wrong. Never concede to blackmailers. Be humble but launch out with confidence as far as you have content to deliver. Blackmailers don’t last in the business.
‘‘This is why my blackmailer failed because there is digitally undisputable proof. I run a tech family – my wife and all my five kids are in tech and comfortable. If you are in the tech business, wealth becomes a right, no matter how old you are. Rich guys in tech all over the world don’t make noise because there is no reason to do so. Successful entrepreneurs don’t make noise because they worked for it. It is not an inheritance,’’ Ekeh stated.
When asked by one of the participants on how to prevent or guard against corporate blackmail, Ekeh submitted that entrepreneurs must remain above board in their dealings, while also putting in efforts to investigate and understand where the threat is coming from.
‘‘It is your right to know and in the future, I will tell the full story. You must embrace integrity and have well-defined processes and procedures guiding your business. It saves you a lot of headaches. But even when you have done your best in these areas, you may still be targeted. Therefore, you must investigate your accuser or blackmailer to fully understand what is at play. It could cost you some money, but technology has made it easier and could be a great lesson. I can tell you that the staff of our Group learned a lot from this experience.
‘‘My blackmailer had claimed first that no computers were supplied to FIRS by my company on his behalf and in seconds, we produced original serial numbers and delivery notes and they tallied with what FIRS received. Zero mistakes. Later, he claimed he was not aware of the contract, and in seconds FIRS produced a letter of authority he issued to his partner, Princess Kama physically with a copy of his passport and he now agreed under oath.
‘‘He now claimed the account opened was forged and a forensic analysis report conducted by Police SFU confirmed that he indeed signed the Board resolution. My staff had nothing to do with the opening of his bank account, but our system dictates that you do a Board resolution including two of our staff as majority signatories until we are paid and after the transaction is complete and we are paid, they will resign. We instituted this after a few such companies we funded defrauded us. We have a team of first-class lawyers and tech to back up our structures and systems and we have done these for over 30 years. This Citadel case is the only blackmail we are tolerating. TD is the largest company in my Group and possibly in the IT Distribution sector in Africa and industry players know this. The N170m in question is an insult to TD and I am sure he knew before trying his luck with us.
‘‘We have enough to run all our companies globally. We may be a local company, but I have tried my little best based on some defined principles. I have never applied for an overdraft in any bank, nor has any of my companies, not to talk about loans, so we are technically not desperate financially to cheat. When you are a child of a trust economy, integrity is everything, so why do you have to borrow if you are trusted by your global partners and they extend any amount of credit to you? African entrepreneurs cannot scale in business by pledging houses and share certificates as collateral to raise cash to do business. The financial institutions are ready to help but you have to earn their trust. When you make commitments, sweat and keep to them as your past transaction records have a lot to do with the decision to support you.
‘‘I have not taken alcohol or smoked since childhood and frankly, I don’t know why, so, I don’t have bad dreams. I don’t have a single enemy in my life but you must run into storms sometimes, but never contain blackmailers. Even Benjamin Joseph shall become a born again soon and one of my best friends and I shall be glad to assist him in any little way. Life is very simple. But you must work hard to earn.
‘‘I only became aware of this particular case involving Benjamin Joseph and his company, Citadel Oracle Concepts two years after it started. It was a business transaction with Technology Distributions (TD) and did not, in any way involve Zinox. Yet, each time he goes to press, he mentions Leo Stan Ekeh and Zinox. TD is the pioneer and biggest distributor of tech products in Sub-Saharan Africa representing the biggest global brands in Africa. His mandate was to destroy my global credit rating so that our multinational partners could terminate relationships, but he failed. This is why I always advise entrepreneurs to build themselves as personal collateral during their incubation period and then their business as corporate collateral. In summary, be a child of the trust economy and keep your word, and trust me, no person or financial institution can mess around with you. I am a living testimony and this is why I never sued Benjamin Joseph.
‘‘To start with, I have never met this man in my life. Neither has my wife met him in person. Even when he made attempts to meet with me, I rebuffed him because by that time, I had investigated him and discovered where he was headed. In the tech business, we do not pay blackmailers because technology does not lie and that is the biggest mistake he has made in his life. Every lie he has told has been substantiated against him.
‘‘When he pressed on with his media campaign against me, I took the pains of hiring local and foreign detectives which cost me a huge amount of money to investigate first my staff who handled the transaction, and then Benjamin Joseph, his company and his relationship with his partner, Princess Kama and her uncle, Chief Igbokwe and the discovery further strengthened my resolve not to engage him. Yes, it cost me big money, but it was money well spent. Remember, I mentioned there is often a small masquerade involved in such cases. I say small masquerade because someone bigger than you cannot spend his time blackmailing you for extortion.
‘‘If you have made up your mind to be a successful entrepreneur in Africa, you must be a knowledge packed to alter your destiny positively, be ready to take pains before pleasure, implement auditable financial and legal structures backed with strong technology and most importantly, be spiritually strong. Most digital entrepreneurs in Africa fast more than most pastors in Africa. It is a creative war like this that delays progress, but you will get there. These inconveniences shall gradually be deleted in the next ten years with the power of technology.
‘‘Blackmailers have, with the backing of some innocent press successfully destroyed our politicians, public office holders and their families as heads of criminal gangs, no matter how decent they are, and now they are gradually destroying wealth creators. Africa would be gone if they are allowed to succeed with our corporates,’’ the Zinox Chairman warned.
Furthermore, Ekeh shared some insights into the saga which has seen Benjamin Joseph facing an ongoing criminal trial for giving the Federal Government false information.
‘‘Benjamin Joseph’s company was among 13 others to which TD Africa extended a credit facility for the supply of laptops to the FIRS. To guard against creditors making away with funds extended to them, TD insists on opening a joint account with each creditor so that they are fully aware of when the fund for the contract is paid. After he was paid, Joseph attempted to divert TD’s money but his partner, one Princess Kama refused. From my investigations, he (Joseph) had wanted to marry her but they could not agree.
‘‘However, when she objected to his attempt to divert the funds, Joseph petitioned the Police and EFCC, initially claiming that his company was fraudulently used to execute the contract without his knowledge and that nothing was supplied. This was despite the fact that he gave his partner a duly signed letter of authority and his passport to act on his behalf in executing the FIRS contract. But investigations revealed that the FIRS confirmed that all the laptops were supplied with the serial numbers intact.
‘‘He later fell out with his partner over profit sharing for the contract which Afe Babalola SAN, his lawyer at the time intervened but could not resolve. According to Princess Kama, Mr. Benjamin Joseph demanded all the profit from the business and the lady refused. If he was not aware that his company was fraudulently used to execute the contract and his signature was forged as he claimed, why was he later asking for a larger share of the proceeds?’’ Ekeh queried.
In conclusion, while advising his audience to learn from his experience and never give in to cheap blackmail, he stated that cowards don’t succeed in Africa as entrepreneurs, even as he expressed confidence that the course of justice would eventually be done in the matter.