By Kemeseng Sanneh & Yankuba Jallow
Siyaka Sonko, the Minister of Interior in an exclusive interview with this paper recently, said Vista Bank does not exist as a legal entity.
Sonko’s statement came in the wake of a dispute involving FIBank (Slok Nigeria) and the two companies called Lilium Holdings and Lilium Grace, based in Mauritius.
Slok Nigeria and the two Lilium Companies entered a Share Purchase Agreement in 2015 for the Mauritius based companies to take over the bank for US $4,000,000. The two Liliums took over the bank, but failed to honour the terms of the Share Purchase Agreement. Slok Nigeria instituted civil action against the duo reclaiming ownership of the bank, and for an order cancelling the Share Purchase Agreement. The High Court in 2017 delivered judgment in favour of Slok Nigeria.
Sonko, who was a former policeman, told Foroyaa that he conducted an enquiry about Vista Bank after hearing the dispute between the latter (Vista Bank) and the First International Bank (FIB).
“I came to discover that apparently there was dispute between the two entities (Vista and FIB),” he said.
Barely four years after the Supreme Court of The Gambia dismissed an application for a stay of execution, lawyers for the two Liliums filed an application before another High Court judge (Justice Ebrima Jaiteh) asking the court to set aside the judgment delivered by another High Court judge (Justice Martin U Okoi) in 2017. Justice Jaiteh in his ruling declared the judgment delivered by Justice Martin U Okoi null and void.
Minister Sonko raised question about the ruling delivered by Justice Jaiteh of the high court regarding the matter. Sonko said he still could not comprehend the ruling – whether it is setting aside the judgment of the other high court judge or whether it was an injunction.
“I don’t know [what Justice Jaiteh decided],” Sonko.
Minister Sonko said the Bankers Association of the Gambia requested to meet him. Sonko said he decided to include the issue of Vista Bank in the agenda of the proposed meeting with them (Bankers Association). The President of the Bankers Association is also the managing director of Vista Bank.
“We (Government) wanted to know whether we were banking with a legal entity or not and apparently, during my enquiry, I came to understand that Vista as it stands does not exist as a legal entity,” Sonko said.
Sonko said he told them to regularize their status otherwise his office would stop banking with them.
“What if they collapsed?” Minister Sonko asked.
Sonko said Central Bank of The Gambia told him that they (Vista Bank) are relying on “something.”
The Minister of Interior said he was told during his enquiry that the former Registrar of Companies at the Ministry of Justice was sacked because of this matter involving Vista Bank.
Sonko said he discussed the matter with the Governor of the Central Bank and he came to know that the Government is aware of the case.
Sonko said he had a discussion with the Minister of Finance who told him that Vista is claiming ownership of the Bank, but they could not show him proofs to substantiate their claim.
“A country of law and you have these things happening [like this], is not correct,” the Minister said.
He added: “It is not safe for a country to have something like this to operate.”
He said the question about Vista Bank is not about identity but legality. The Minister said such operations can encourage money laundering.
Adding his voice on the issue, Justice Sheriff B. Tabally,the former Sheriff of the High Court and now a high court judge has provided clarity in the legal tussle between First International Bank (FIB) and Vista Bank.
In an exclusive interview with Foroyaa, Justice Tabally said the Sheriff of the High cannot enforce the judgment of the high court against the Liliums groups because it was a declaratory judgment. He stressed that it was for the Registrar of Companies and Central Bank of The Gambia to comply with the court orders.
He said the judgment remains in favour of FIB and not Vista Bank.
“FIB is the legal owner of the bank. As per the agreement, these people [Liliums] are in breach of the agreement because they did not pay the purchase price,” he said.
Tabally said he had engagement with some officials of the Central Bank seeking clarification on the judgment. He explained that the officials of the Central Ban came to his office to seek clarification which he provided to them.
“It seems they (officials of the Central Bank) had already taken a position at the time that Lilium can operate. Vista Bank can operate but they did not have the support of the Registrar of Companies to register and to get license to operate,” he said.
He added: “My take is that the bank still belongs to FIB. How comes Central Bank would still allow Vista to even display their sign boards and operate?”
He said ordinarily that should not have happened because they (Vista Bank) are not recognized legally as a bank.
“How comes the Central Bank is paying a blind eye to all that? They (Vista) should not be allowed to display their sign boards when the bank is not legally registered,” Tabally said.
Tabally described the scenario as ‘a very sad situation’ – Vista should not be allowed to operate without a license. He said he heard about Justice Jaiteh’s ruling setting aside the judgment of another high court judge, but he (Tabally) asked the question “who owns the bank before the ruling?”
“The Bank belongs to FIB. The situation remains,” he answered.
Tabally said a court judgment or order can only be set-aside by another court of a higher jurisdiction or status. He added that court of the same or concurrent jurisdiction can only set-aside or vary orders within a limited period of time.
Foroyaa found that Justice Jaiteh’s ruling came nearly five (5) years after the entry of the judgment delivered by Justice Martins U. Ukoi on 11 April 2017 and after both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of the Gambia concludedhearng on the matter.
“I don’t know on what authority he (Jaiteh) relied on. He cannot overrule the Court of Appeal judgment,” Tabally said.
In delivering his judgment on 11th April 2017, Justice Martins U. Okoi said the Share Purchase Agreement (SPA) between Slok Nigeria Limited (FIB) and the two Lilium Groups be terminated forwith because the defendants (the two Lilium Groups) breached the SPA. He ordered for the cancellation of the deeds of share transfer for which Capital Gains Tax was paid in the name of Slok Nigeria (Plaintiffs) without the prior or consent of the plaintiffs.
His Lordship further passed an injunction against the two Liliums restraining them from parading themselves as the owners of the FIBank or majority of the shares of the bank. He granted a declaration and further ordered that any purported change of the directors of the FIBank by the Liliums (Vista) without resolution of the original directors is null and void, and of no effect.
Lawyers for the defendants asked the Court of Appeal to stay execution of the judgment delivered by Justice Okoi and to restrain Slok Nigeria from taking over the bank. This application was dismissed by the Court of Appeal for lack of merit.
Unhappy with this decision, they (Lilium Groups) went to the Supreme Court of The Gambia to challenge the decision of the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court Unanimously dismissed the application brought before them by the Liliums Group. The Supreme Court on 30th July 2019 ruled, “The application for an injunction and further or orders against the respondent (Slok Nigeria) is dismissed in its entirety.”
Barely four years after the Supreme Court delivered its judgment, lawyer LaminCeesay for the Liliums Group filed an application on notice dated 30th May 2018 asking the High Court to set aside the judgment delivered by Justice Okoi on 11th April 2017.
In his ruling, Justice Jaiteh said” “In the interest of justice and fair hearing, and pursuant to order 41 of rule 1(c ) of the second schedule of the High Court rules, the whole proceedings in the suit and the judgment of the Court delivered on the 11th of April 2017, by Hon Justice Martin U Okoi are a nullity and hereby set aside.”
He said both parties (Slok Nigeria or the Liliums) are at liberty to file a fresh suit if they so wished.
Tabally said he cannot understand how one can own a bank without paying for it.
In our next edition of these series, we will inform you about the request made by the Registrar of Companies directing the management of Vista Bank to bring down the sign boards they are displaying. The reporters wrote to the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs seeking audience with the Minister on this very important issue. Unfortunately, after many attempts by the reporters for the aforesaid ministry to grant them audience, their request is yet to be granted. By a letter dated 15 February 2023 the reporters wrote to the Minister to grant them interview. On a follow-up, to the letter, 4 days after it was received, our reporters were told by the Minister’s secretary that she has forwarded the letter to her Minister. The Secretary promised to call the reporter concerned. Indeed the promised call to our reporter was made by the Secretary and the said reporter was supposed to conduct the interview the day after. The reporter (Kemeseng Sanneh) honoured the invitation to go to the Ministry of Finance to conduct the interview. However, upon arrival, on the appointed day he was told that the letter has been minuted to Permanent Secretary 2 , one MrSecka. This was communicated to him by the Secretary to the Minister after she went into the Minister’s Office to inform him about the presence of the reporter. At that juncture, the said Secretary accompanied the reporter to the office of Permanent Secretary 2 (PS2) and informed her colleague that her boss – the Minister of Finance has minuted the letter for request for audience to PS2.
The reporter was informed by the Secretary that her boss – Permanent Secretary 2 was attending a meeting in the Minister’s Office and requested him to sit and wait. According to our reporter, he sat for nearly one hour waiting before Permanent Secretary 2 appeared. When the Permanent Secretary arrived, he proceeded to his office with two men who were also waiting for him. After meeting the two men in his office, the Permanent Secretary appeared and headed towards the direction of the Minister’s Office. It was at this point that his Secretary informed him that the person sitting was waiting for him.
Indeed, Permanent Secretary 2 stopped briefly and said to the reporter “yes,” then the reporter who already knew what he was there for told PS2 that he has written to the Minister seeking audience with him on the FIB-Vista saga. And that he has been informed by the Minister’s Secretary that the said letter was minuted to him to grant interview.
“I cannot comment on that. You can go to Central Bank,” PS Secka was quoted to have told the reporter.
The reporter informed the PS that he has already been to the Central Bank, but his request, this time is specific to the Ministry. In his reaction, to the reporter’s response, PS2 said “I am new in this office – I have no idea about the issue” and he left without any further comments.
After this brief encounter, the Foroyaa reporter decided to go back to the Minister’s Secretary to inform her about his experience with Permanent Secretary 2. While the reporter was talking to the Minister’s Secretary, another official who was present and who was believed to be the communication officer of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs intervened and asked him to allow him to talk to the Minister regarding the matter. The said official requested our reporter’s contact details and promised to call him to give him feedback on his promise to talk to the minster. Instead, it was our reporter who called 2 days later and only to be told that he could have the opportunity to speak to the minister as promised. However, the same person promised to send the information to the Minister via WhatsApp as he claimed that the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs was out of the country at the time. After enquiring the following day, the reporter was told that the message has been communicated to the Minister who would be coming back in 3 days time. That was the last time the reporter heard from the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs.
The Central Bank of the Gambia, which is at the center of this saga and being the regulator, has also refused to grant interview to our reporters. Our reporter made three (3) attempts to talk to the Central Bank but all his efforts proved futile.
Minister of Justice
A similar letter requesting for audience was also made to the Attorney General and Minister of Justice. Our reporter made follow-ups on two occasions, but only to be told that his letter is yet to be considered.
The current Sheriff of the High Court would also not comment on the matter.
Request to Interview Vista Bank
Our reporters wrote to Vista Bank requesting for interview, but they would not reply to the request.