Consequent upon the directive of Justice Ayotunde Faji of the Federal High Court, Lagos asking Ecobank Nigeria Limited to bring to court all his witnesses in its legal tussle with the Honeywell Group of Companies Limited over an alleged N5.5billion indebtedness, the chairman of the conglomerate, Oba Otudeko may appear in court on January 14 to give evidence in the suit.
When the matter came up for hearing on Friday, first plaintiff witness Oluwakemi Olanrewaju Owasanoye, Head of Treasury and Finance to Honeywell Group of Companies while under cross examination from Mr. Divine Agbua , Ecobank Plc counsel, told Justice Faji that by an agreement dated July 22, 2013, at a meeting with the then Oceanic Bank Limited, the company agreed to merge all the indebtedness of the company's three subsidiaries and put the total indebtedness at N3.5billion.
Owasanoye added that part of the agreement was that N500million of the debt must be paid immediately, while the balance of N3billion must be paid before the exit of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) examiners from the bank.
The witness said Honeywell Group complied with the agreement by paying N500million same day, July 22, 2013 and also ensured the payment of the balance of N3billion before the exit of the CBN examiners from the bank.
Owasanoye said after complying with the terms of the agreement, the company wrote the defendant (Oceanic Bank) informing the bank of its compliance with the terms of the agreement and the need for the bank to discharge her of any obligation. The witness said the bank in its reply to the letter did not say anything contrary. The witness added that the company was surprised when after a year, the bank came up via a letter to make further demands of the alleged indebtedness which had been fully liquidated.
Under cross examination, Owasanoye confirmed that the whole money was paid in four instalments of N500million, N850million, N1billion, N1.15billion and that all the money was paid before the exit of the CBN examiners, in line with the terms of agreement.
She added that when the dispute arose, the matter was referred to the Bankers' Committee consisting of bank managing directors, representatives of the CBN and the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC), and that the matter was resolved in favour of Honeywell.
In his own testimony, Ecobank witness, Mr Elemi Gabor, Head of Corporate Communications of the bank, while being cross examined by Honeywell lawyer, Mr Olabode Olanipekun (SAN), insisted that the agreement for the payment was for a two-term payment only. He said the agreement stipulates that N500million must be paid that same day and the balance immediately.
Agbor said Honeywell breached the terms of agreement that same day.
However, when asked about the time the first tranche of N500million was paid, the witness said on the same day July 22, 2013, but with a letter. When asked further about the importance of the exit of CBN examiners to the terms of payment as contained in the terms of agreement, Agbor said: "I don't know if payment was tied to the exit of the CBN examiners".
When asked to show where in his statement on oath it was stated that the payment must be made twice, the witness said: "I can't find it".
Meanwhile, Justice Ayotunde Faji has adjourned further hearing on the matter till January 14 and 17, 2019. He also direct counsel to bring all witnesses on the next adjourned date, and reminded them of the order of accelerated hearing made by the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
Legal hostilities over the disputed N5.5billion debt commenced afresh last Thursday before Justice Ayotunde Faji, following the the elevation of the former trial judge, Justice Mohammed Idris to the Court of Appeal.
At the last hearing of the matter before the former trial judge, Justice Idris (now Appeal Court Judge) adjourned the matter indefinitely, following an interlocutory appeal filed by Ecobank Plc, challenging his refusal to recuse himself from hearing the matter.
However, when the matter resumed on Thursday, both parties agreed to adopt all exhibits and statements on oath earlier tendered in the matter before the former trial judge (Justice Idris) and the court consequently consented to the agreement. Upon the consent of both parties, the first plaintiff's witness, Oluwakemi Olanrewaju Owasonoye, Head of Treasury/Finance of Honeywell Group of Companies, who was led in evidence by Honeywell's lawyer, Mr. Olabode Olanipekun (SAN), was subsequently asked to enter the witness box so as to adopt her earlier statements on oath, which she did.
Following the plaintiff's witness adoption of her statements on oath, lawyer to Ecobank Plc, Mr. Divine Agbua, informed the court of a pending motion to call additional witness on March 7, 2018; this was moved and subsequently granted by the trial judge. Lawyer to Ecobank Plc lawyer also sought for an adjournment till Friday, to cross-examine the plaintiff's witness. This matter was subsequently adjourned till Friday for further hearing.
The suit, which was filed by Honeywell Flour Mills Plc, and its sister company, Anchorage Leisures Ltd, against Ecobank Nigeria Limited is urging the court to hold that they are not indebted to Ecobank.
However, Ecobank Plc is claiming that Honeywell and its sister companies are indebted to it in the said sum, by refusing to comply strictly with the terms of agreement dated July 22, 2013 by which all the company"s indebtedness were merged and the company asked to pay a concessionary sum of N3.5billion.