Business

Amity Bank – Once The Pride Of Anglophones

Amity Bank | Pic credit: FA

Joe Dinga Pefok

Amity Bank was created entirety by a group of Anglophone investors, who included business magnate, Pa Francis Yong, now of blessed memory. It took off with a bang and was in fact a pride of the Anglophones in the early 90s. The bank was growing in leaps and bounds with branches springing up all over the country.

At inception, a rather controversial businessman (a contractor), Issa Bongam, who was alleged to had ‘pocketed’ a number of magistrates especially in Bamenda, was the majority shareholder and thus Board Chair of Amity Bank.  A professional banker, Lawrence Tasha, was the General Manager of the bank as well as a shareholder.

General Manager Becomes Majority Shareholder

After the devaluation of the franc CFA, the General Manager of Amity Bank, Lawrence Tasha, became the majority shareholder of the bank.  It is not certain as to how that happened, but some sources alleged that the General Manager played a fast game during the devaluation, and became a multimillionaire. Bongam and his men cried foul.

But Tasha’s Camp also accused the former majority shareholder of haven also played a fast one on the bank.  It was alleged that after Bongam put in a huge sum of money into the Amity Bank Project at inception, and became the majority shareholder and Board Chair of the bank, he along the line negatively exploited his power as majority shareholder to borrow a huge sum of money from the bank, which he did not repay. Yet he continued to parade around as the majority shareholder of the bank.

Conflict Causes Huge Damages To Amity Bank

Whatever Tasha or Bongam did or did not do, a very bitter and damaging conflict erupted between the former and new majority shareholder of Amity Bank, Bongam and Tasha, and camps emerged in the bank.  Tasha’s Camp even claimed that Bongam was no longer a shareholder of Amity Bank, and that he had withdrawn his investments through the loans he took from the bank and did not pay back. Bongam’s Camp dismissed the claim as rubbish.

The conflict led to court cases, which of course was certainly not good for the financial institution. Both the image and finances of the bank were seriously affected by the conflict. Of course it is no secret that the judiciary in Cameroon has for many years been corrupt.  And so the court cases between the two financial heavyweights, Bongam and Tasha, dragged on for years to the benefit of lawyers and judges, but to the detriment of Amity Bank and the other shareholders.

Controversial Francophone Businessman Becomes Shareholder Of Amity Bank

Along the line, one of the two camps in the conflict brought in a rather controversial Francophone businessman, Silienou, known to be a fighter, to become one of the shareholders of the bank that originally had only Anglophones as shareholders.

Silienou who is of late, was then the PDG of SCTM gas. The camp that brought in Silienou, probably did so to get his support in the fight against the other camp.

Bongam Leaves The Country

Besides the conflict with Tasha over Amity Bank, Bongam who was a contractor was also facing some serious problems in connection to some big contracts he was awarded and could not execute on time.  One of the contracts which turned into a financial scandal was in Limbe, Southwest Region.

In the face of the numerous problems, Bongam finally left the country to settle in the United States. Some people alleged that he escaped from the country.

Former Minister Becomes GM Of Amity Bank

Along the line Tasha started losing grip on the ailing Amity Bank.  At one point, a former member of Government, Sali Dairou, was designated General Manager of Amity Bank, with a mission to revive the ailing financial institution.

But despite his good intention, Sali Dairou reportedly discovered that the task was more complicated and difficult to execute. He found out that though Amity Bank had liquidity problems, the bank had money outside. There were quite a number of people who had gotten loans from Amity Bank, and had not repaid. It would appear that some of these persons took the loans without any intention to repay.

Related Story: Union Bank of Cameroon

An operation launched to recover the loans met stiff resistance, and thus recorded very little success. For one thing too, many of the debtors seemed to had obtained the loans under questionable conditions, as they did not present concrete collateral securities that the bank could have sold to recover the debts.

As Amity Bank continued to face liquidity problem, Sali Dairou finally left.

A Francophone Becomes Majority shareholder

In the face of the liquidity problem that Amity Bank was facing, the Francophone businessman and shareholder, Christophe Silienou, pumped in an additional FCFA 400 million into the capital of the bank. Silienou who hailed from the West Region, became the majority shareholder of Amity Bank. That was in 2003.

A couple of weeks later, a General Assembly of Shareholders held in Limbe. This Reporter was one of the only two journalists that had the privilege of being authorised to attend that General Assembly, which as usual, held behind closed doors.

At that General Assembly of Shareholders in Limbe, Silienou was formally presented as the new majority shareholder of Amity Bank, and thus the new Board Chair. What that also meant then, was that the Anglophones had practically lost grip of their bank.

New Majority Shareholder Plays A Fast One

Less than one week after the Limbe meeting of the General Assembly of Shareholders of Amity Bank,  the new majority shareholder and Board Chair, Christophe Silienou, hurriedly went ahead to appoint his fellow Bamilleke tribesman and friend to the post of General Manager. Silienou unfortunately behaved just like the first majority shareholder and Board Chair, Bongam.

After putting in the additional FCFA 400 million to become the majority shareholder and Board Chair of Amity Bank, and after hurriedly appointing his tribesman and friend as General Manager of the bank, Silienou in the name of a loan quietly withdrew almost all the FCFA 400 million he had put in as additional share to become majority shareholder. And so Amity Bank again found itself back in another liquidity problem.

COBAC Steps In

Due to the persistent liquidity problems that Amity Bank was facing, the Central African Banking Commission finally stepped in to redress the situation. Amity Bank was thus temporarily placed under COBAC.

As is generally the case, the restructuring of Amity Bank by COBAC was supposed to end with the coming in of a new majority shareholder.

Enters Banque Atlantique

At the time that Amity Bank was placed under COBAC, it coincidentally happened that a Togolese bank known as Banque Atlantique, wanted to expand to Central Africa by opening a branch in Cameroon. The key Ministry that Banque Atlantique had to work with, was Cameroon’s Ministry of Finance.

When Banque Atlantique met the then Minister of Finance, Lazare Essimi Menye, the Minister proposed that the Togelese bank should instead takeover Amity Bank that was being restructured by COBAC. The Minister presented the advantages that the Togelese bank would have, taking over Amity Bank, than opening an entirely new branch in Cameroon.

Banque Atlantique accepted the proposal of the Minister because it would greatly facilitate things for them. Amity Bank had structures on the ground, workers and customers that Banque Atlantique was simply to take over.

Alleged Shady Deal

The arrangement between the Finance Minister and Togolese bank, Banque Atlantique, for the latter to take over Amity Bank, left a lot of unanswered questions. The shareholders of Amity Bank were not involved in the discussion.

There were rumours that Minister Essimi Menye had struck a deal with the Togolese bank to secretly sell Amity Bank. But whether in reality it was true or false, the fact was there was total lack of transparency and honesty in the way things were done.

Togolese Bank Finally Takes Over Amity Bank

At the end of the restructuring of Amity Bank, many thought that Banque Atlantique had come in as a majority shareholder. Nobody then could imagine that the Togolese bank had instead taken over Amity Bank.

At the end of the restructuring, the original shareholders of Amity Bank started raising their voices. They questioned how Banque Atlantique could get into Amity Bank, without the shareholders being formally told by Government what was happening.

Related story Shady Deals, Mismanagement: The Cancer Killing Cameroon’s Locally Owned Banks

The first response to the original shareholders of Amity Bank was that Banque Atlantique would soon meet with them. But weeks and months passed without any meeting. The next thing the shareholders were told was that Banque Atlantique met the account of Amity Bank in red, and that the original shareholders no longer had a franc in the bank. In other words, the message was that Amity Bank had been completely taken over by Banque Atlantique.

That was how Banque Atlantique took over Amity Bank, and changed its name to Banque Atlantique Cameroun.

Silienou Wins Case In CEMAC Court, But

The former majority shareholder of Amity Bank, Christophe Silienou, denounced the takeover as a mafia. Minister Essimi Menye claimed that the Government decision to let Banque Atlantique take over Amity Bank was to protect the savings of the bank’s customers.

Silienou who insisted that the takeover was illegal, took the matter to the CEMAC Court. Interestingly enough, Silienou won the case, which meant that the CEMAC Court too saw that the takeover of Amity Bank by the Togolese bank was illegal. 

Silienou in his typical character paraded the court judgement everywhere, and as well shouted all over places that the takeover of Amity Bank by the Togolese bank was not only illegal, but that it was also a mafia.

But unfortunately, the Cameroon Government ignored the ruling of the CEMAC Court and by the time that Silienou unfortunately died, nothing had changed. That was how the story of Amity Bank that was created by a group of Anglophones, unfortunately ended.

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