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Choppies supremoes slap Pwc with P450 million lawsuit

Choppies Enterprises Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Ramachandran Ottapathu and his deputy, Farouk Ismail are demanding a compensation of P450 million from accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers (Pwc) following a 75 percent decline in market value of Choppies shares traded on the Botswana Stock Exchange (BSE) and Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE).

Ottapathu and Ismail, who are the two largest shareholders at Choppies, demand P254 million and P197 million respectively. Ottapathu further demands R417 000 (about P290 000).

PwC which ranks as the second-largest professional services network in the world — and is considered one of the Big Four accounting firms, along with Deloitte, EY and KPMG — was at the helm as auditor of Choppies when the retail giant suffered turbulence.

According to court papers, Ottapathu and Ismail, who are represented by Ramalepa Attorneys, in January 2018 when Choppies began discussions with Pwc regarding engagement of Pwc as external auditors of Choppies and its subsidiaries.

From that time, Pwc was given the opportunity to obtain insight into the business of Choppies and on or about 25th January 2018, Pwc presented to Ottapathu in his capacity as CEO, its fee proposal.

In the fee proposal, according to court papers, Rudi Binedell a partner at Pwc confirmed that he had assessed Choppies engagement risk in order to ensure that Pwc had a complete understanding of the business of Choppies as it is only possible before presenting the fee proposal. Binedell had completed process that confirmed that Pwc were independent of Choppies within the meaning of appropriate regulatory and professional requirements, and that the objectivity of the proposed audit team was not impaired.

Agreement was reached on 9 March 2018. According to the court documents, Choppies engaged Pwc on the basis of Pwc and Binedell’s representations and assurances contained in the Audit Agreement 2018, and also on the basis that Pwc and Binedell were independent and that Pwc and Binedell would remain independent throughout the course of audit.

In terms of the Audit Agreement 2018 and the ISA, specifically ISA 260 (Communication with Those Charged with Governance), Pwc was required to plan their audit and communicate their plan to Choppies and specifically those charged with corporate governance, namely the audit committee.

Ismail and Ottapathu contend that from at least 19 March 2018, Pwc and Binedell were aware, or ought reasonably to have been aware that, they were required to; finalise the audit and report key findings to the Audit Committee by no later than the end of September 2018 and issue the final statements and their audit report by no later than the end of September 2018.

On the 6 July 2018, Binedell, on behalf Pwc, presented on behalf of Pwc, an audit plan for Choppies and its subsidiaries to the Audit Committee for their consideration and approval. The presentation set out how Pwc would discharge their responsibilities under the audit among them confirming their independence and compliance with ISA 20; understanding of stakeholders’ expectations and analysis of risks.

The audit timetable reveal that, about May or June 2018, Pwc would attend the stock counts and finalise the audits strategy and communicate the audit approach to the committee; by June 2018, Pwc would set out its planned audit approach and response to the risk they have identified for the audit to date.

By September 2018, Pwc would produce a report that summarises the key issues arising from the audit and present to the audit committee; produce a draft key audit matter and obtain clearance; approve the financial statements; and sign off on the statutory report. Pwc proposed a fee of approximately P8 480 00.

BINEDELL’S COMPROMISED INDEPENDENCE

In court documents, Ottapathu and Ismail allege that on March 2018, the date which Pwc made its preliminary presentation to the Audit Committee, Binedell attended a dinner with Robert Matthews and Allan Muller, members of Choppies Audit Committee.

During the dinner, the court documents say, Binedell discussed with Matthews and Muller various issues relating to Choppies and Pwc’s audit of Choppies for the 2018 financial year.

Muller requested that Binedell joins Choppies as the Group Finance Director and hereby solicited his employment by Choppies.  Subsequent to the meeting, Ottapathu and Ismail, allege that Muller and/or Matthews repeated this request to Binedell and indeed other of Choppies’ management on several occasions.

“Matthews had suggested that the Choppies Board should consider Binedell be given 60 million shares in Choppies under the employee share option scheme, as an incentive,” says the court documents.

“Ottapathu was requested by Muller and/or Matthews to formalise an offer to Binedell in writing.”

The lawyers representing Ottapathu and Ismail contended that Muller and/or Matthews made these requests and thereby solicited the employment of Binedell when they ought to have known that this was in contravention of the Audit Agreement 2018 and that it would compromise Binedell’s independence and the independence of Pwc throughout the audit.

“As a result of these facts, Pwc bore an obligation, contractually and in terms of their ethical obligation to immediately; take action in accordance with ISA 260 and IESBA Code of Ethics, and report such threats to those charged with governance and then either (1) to resign as auditors of Choppies; and alternatively and at the very least, to remove Binedell from the audit team,” Ramalepa Attorneys argues.

Pwc and Binedell, lawyers argue, failed to do so and Pwc proceeded to conduct that audits of Choppies and its subsidiaries, with the audit team as it was then constituted, led by Binedell.

AUDIT DELAYS AND SUSPENSION OF OTTAPATHU

On or about 17th September 2018, and at a Boarding meeting, Binedell advised the Board of Directors of Choppies that he would not be able to finalise audit in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe due to a number of audit issues, some of which affect all regions and of which were specific to certain regions only.

Binedell identified a number of issues of concern in which he implicated Ottapathu’s management of Choppies, and specifically the following a) related party transactions, particularly Fours Cash and Carry; Purchase Price Allocations on assets acquired; allegedly suspicious cash flows between Choppies and Devland Cash and Carry; issues with ZIA and concerns on money laundering accusations in Zimbabwe; latest provisional set of consolidated financials provided on the morning of 17 September 2018- showing a material deviation from both last year’s results and the budgeted figures for the 2018 financial and reportable irregularities identified by the auditors during the audit process.

Binedell noted his concerns about lack of transparency as well pressure from Pwc Africa Chief Operation on his association with Choppies due to Zimbabwe press issues.

Other issues he raised advising Choppies to obtain legal advice in South Africa and Botswana arising from transactions and advice on how the Board should as well as on the Board potential “exposure.”

Owing to the concerns raised by Binedell, Pwc felt exposed and would not “sign off” on the financials until various matters were resolved, therefore Choppies would not meet the deadline to publish audited annual financial results by 30 September 2018.

Consequent to Binedell’s report Ottapathu was suspended as Choppies CEO, trading of Choppies shares be suspended and a forensic audit was commissioned.

Ottapathu responded to Binedell’s concerns by proving information and documentation but Pwc insisted on an independent forensic auditor.

Failure to meet the audited financial results on time led to the suspension on BSE and later on JSE.

Other mitigation efforts, including impairing 50 percent of the assets on Choppies balance sheet also did not bear fruits.

Ottapathu, Ismail conclude that Pwc disregarded the statutory deadlines and that as dully appointed auditors of Choppies, Pwc and Binedell occupied stator office and they were obliged to among others, comply with Companies Act and Financial Reporting Act .

The duo conclude that by virtue of the role performed by Binedell and Pwc as the statutory auditor of Choppies and its subsidiaries and in implementing the Audit Agreement 2018; and by the virtue of their knowledge, Binedell and Pwc owed a legal duty to Ottapathu and Ismail as shareholders of Choppies.

Ottapathu and Ismail, through their lawyers, insist that Binedell and Pwc breached their duty to shareholders, when Binedell accepted a dinner invitation on 19 March 2018, from Matthews and Muller and then Pwc and Binedell then failed to eliminate the threatens to their independence arising therefrom or to apply appropriate safeguards to reduce such threats to an acceptable level.

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BONELA speaks on same-sex decriminalization case

18th October 2021
BONELA

In June 2019, a case involving the Attorney General was brought before the High Court, in which the applicant Letsweletse Motshidiemang challenged Sections 164 (a) and 167 of the Penal Code. The applicant contended that these sections are unconstitutional because they violate the fundamental rights of liberty and privacy. 

The applicant argued that these sections violated his right and freedom to liberty as he was subject to abject ignominy. These laws subjected the LGBTIQ community to brutal and debasing treatment through social control and public morality. On the 1st of November 2017, the Botswana High Court further allowed Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) to join the case as amicus curiae.

However, in July 2019, the respondents, in this case, i.e. the Government, filed an appeal against this iconic High Court ruling seeking re-criminalization of homosexuality. Human Rights Group has criticized this move of the Government all over the world.  The appeal was heard before five judges at the Court of Appeal on Tuesday. The State was represented by Advocate Sidney Pilane, while LEGABIBO and Letsweletse Motshidiemang were represented by Tshiamo Rantao and Gosego Rockfall Lekgowe, respectively.

Non-Governmental Organizations advocating for the LGBTIQ+ community joined the two parties at the Court of Appeal during this case. They argue that the minority group should enjoy their rights, especially the right to privacy and health. Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA) Chief Executive Officer, Cindy Kelemi says the issues being raised by LEGABIBO are that as individuals belonging to the LGBTIQ community, they have and must share equal rights, including the right to privacy, which also speaks to being able to involve in sexual activities, including anal sex.

“Those rights are framed within the constitution, and therefore a violation of any of those rights allow them to approach the courts and seek for redress. We do not need the law to be regulating what we do in the privacy of our homes. The law cannot determine how and when we can have sex and with who, so the law does not have any business in that context. What we are saying is that the law is violating the right to privacy,” she said on the sidelines of the decriminalization case in Gaborone on Tuesday.

The first case involving the homosexual act was the Utjiwa Kanane vs the State in 2003. Contrary to section 164(c) of the Penal Code, Kanane was charged with committing an unnatural offence and engaging in indecent practices between males, contrary to section 167. The conduct at issue involved Graham Norrie, a British tourist, and occurred in December 1994. (Norrie pleaded guilty, paid a fine, and left the country.)

Kanane pleaded not guilty, alleging that sections 164(c) and 167 both violated the constitution. The High Court ruled that these sections of the Penal Code did not violate the constitution. Kanane then appealed to the Court of Appeal. BONELA CEO recalls that in its judgment then, the High Court indicated, Batswana were not ready for homosexual acts. Twenty years later, the same courts are saying that Batswana are ready, she says.

“They gave the explicit example that shows that indeed Batswana are ready. There are policies and documents in place that accommodate people from marginalized communities and minority populations. The question now is that why is it hard now to recognize the full rights of an individual who is of the LGBTI community?” She further says intimacy is only an expression. The law that restricts homosexuality makes it hard for LGBTIQ members to express themselves in a way that affirms who they are.

“We want a situation where the law facilitates for the LGBTIQ community to be free and express themselves. The stigma that they face in communities is way too punitive. They are called names; some have been physically violated and raped at times. It shows that the law doesn’t not only prevent them from expressing themselves, it also exposes them to violence.” The law on its own, Kelemi submits, cannot change the status quo, adding that there is a need for more awareness and education on human rights and what it means for an individual to have rights.

“As it is now, it is very tough for some to do that because of a legal environment that is not enabling. We also want to see a situation where LGBTIQ+ people can access services and be confident that they are provided with non-discriminatory services. It is challenging now because health care providers, social workers and law enforcement officers believe that it is illegal to be homosexual. What we are saying is that if you have an enabling law, then that will facilitate for people to be able to express themselves, including accessing health services,” Kelemi said.

“As we are doing this advocacy work, one of the issues that we picked up is that there is lack of capacity, especially on the part of healthcare workers. We noted that when we provide services or mobilize Men who have sex with other men (MSM) to access health facilities, health care workers are not welcoming, forcing them to hideaway. We must put an end to this to allow these people the freedom that they equally deserve.”

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Masisi warns Gov’t officials

18th October 2021
President Masisi

The President, Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi, has declared as an act of corruption the attitude and practice by government officials and contractors to deliver projects outside time and budget, adding that such a practice should end as it eats away from the public coffers.

For a very long time, management problems and vast cost overruns have been the order of the day in Botswana, resulting in public frustrations. Speaking at the commissioning of the Masama/Mmamashia 100 Kilometres project this week, Masisi said: “There is a tendency in government to leave projects to drag outside their allocated completion time and budget. I want to stress that this will not be tolerated. It is an act of corruption, and I will be engaging offices on this issue,” Masisi said.

In an interview with this publication over the issue, the Director-General of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC), Tymon Katholo, says, “any project that goes beyond its scope and budget raises red flags.” He continued that: “Corruption on these issues can be administrative and criminal. It may be because government officials have been negligent or been paid to be negligent by ignoring certain obligations or procedures. “This, as you may be aware has serious implications on not only of the economy but even the citizens who use these facilities or projects,” Katlholo said, adding that his agency is equally concerned.

According to the DCEC director, the selection, planning and delivery of infrastructure or projects is critical. In most cases, this is where the corruption would have occurred, leading to a troubled project. A public finance expert at the University of Botswana (UB), Emmanuel Botlhale, attributes poor project implementation to declining public accountability, lack of commitment to reforming the public sector, a decline in the commitment by state authorities and lack of a culture of professional project management.

In his research paper titled, ‘Enhancing public project implementation in Botswana during the NDP 11 period,’ Botlhale stated that successful implementation is critical in development planning. If there is poor project implementation, economic development will be stalled.
Corruption is particularly relevant for large and uncommon projects where the public sector acts as a client, and experts say Megaprojects are very likely to be affected by corruption. Corruption worsens both cost and time performance and the benefits expected from such projects.

Speaking during this week’s Masama/Mmamashia pipeline commissioning, Khato Civils chairman said Africans deserve a chance because they are capable, further adding that the Africans do not have to think that only Whites and Chinese people can do mega projects.  During his rule, former president Ian Khama went public to attack Chinese contractors for costing the government a move that ended up fuelling tensions between China and Botswana after Khama dispatched the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pelonomi Venson Moitoi, to China to register Botswana’s complaints with Chinese government-owned construction companies.  Botswana had approached the Chinese government for help in its marathon battle with Chinese companies contracted to build, among others, the failed controversial Morupule B power plant and refurbishment of Sir Seretse Khama International Airport (SSIK).

 

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Guma’s battle for millions of Pula give Court headache

18th October 2021
Guma Moyo

A legal battle between former Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) legislator Samson Moyo Guma and First National Bank (FNB) over a multimillion oil refinery project intensified this week with Justice Zein Kebonang referring the matter to Court of Appeal for determination.  The project belongs to Moyo Guma’s company called United Refineries which he has since placed under judicial management.

The war of words between Moyo Guma and FNB escalated after the company’s property worth millions of Pula were put up for sale in execution by the bank and scheduled to take place on 8th October. It emerges from Court papers that the bank had secured an order from the High Court to place the company’s property under the hammer.

Moyo Guma then also approached the High Court seeking among others that the public auction scheduled for 8th October 2021 be stayed. He contended that the assets that were to be sold belonged in reality to United Refineries and that as the company had been under judicial management at the time of the attachment, the intended sale in execution was unlawful.

He also sought the Court to declare that the writs of execution against the properties of guarantors and sureties of United Refineries Botswana Holdings Propriety Limited (the company) are unlawful.  Moyo Guma also sought a stay of the execution against the property known as Plot 43556 in Francistown, that is, the land buildings, plant and machinery which make up the property and any all immovable or movable property belonging to the guarantors and sureties of the company pending finalization of the winding up of United Refineries.

But FNB disputed Moyo Guma’s assertions and submitted that the properties in question belonged to TEC (Pty) Ltd and not United Refiners. TEC Pty Ltd which is one of the shareholders in United Refineries is one of the sureties and co-principal debtors of a debt amounting to P24 million owed by United Refineries to FNB.  FNB argued in papers that the properties belonged to TEC because it was TEC which had passed a covering mortgage bond in its favour over the property it now sought to execute.

Moyo Guma submitted that the covering mortgage bond passed in favour of FNB did not tell the full story as the property in question was in truth and fact owned by United Refineries and not TEC Pty Ltd. He maintained that the shares had been had been passed by the company in exchange for the properties in question and that the parties had always been guided by the spirt of the share agreement in dealing with each other despite delays in the change or transfer of ownership of plots 43556 and plot 43557 in Francistown.

Kebonang said it was clear to him that the two plots (43556 and 435570 belonged to United Refineries notwithstanding that TEC (Pty) Ltd had passed a mortgage bond over them in favour of FNB.  “For this reason the properties were immune from attachment or sale in execution so long as the judicial management order was in place,” he said.

The background of the case is that Moyo Guma together with five other investors, namely Elffel Flats (Pty) Ltd; Mmoloki Tibe; TEC (Pty) Ltd; Profidensico (Pty) Ltd and Tiedze Bob Chapi, each bound themselves as sureties and co-principal debtors in respect of a debt owed by a company called United Refineries Botswana Holdings (Proprietary) Limited (the Company), to First National Bank Botswana (FNBB) (1st Respondent).

FNB had extended banking facilities to the company in the amount of P24 million which was then secured through the suretyship of Moyo Guma and other shareholders.  Court records show that Moyo had on the 11th February obtained a temporary order for the appointment of a provisional judicial manager in respect of United Refineries and it was confirmed by the High Court on 24th September 2019.

In terms of the final court order by the High Court issued by Justice Tshepho Motswagole all judicial proceedings against the company, execution of all writs, summons and process were stayed and could only proceed with leave of Court. Court documents also show that First National Bank had sued the company and the sureties for the recovery of the debt owed to it and through a consent order, the bank withdrew its lawsuit against the company.

But FNB later instituted fresh proceedings against Moyo Guma and did not cite the company in its proceedings.  “There is no explanation in the record as to why the Applicant was now reflected as the 1st Defendant and why the company had suddenly been removed as the 1st Defendant. There was no application either for amendment or substitution by the bank,” said Justice Kebonang.

FNB had also argued that it sought to proceed to execute against Moyo Guma and other sureties on the basis of the suretyship they signed and that by signing the suretyship agreement, Moyo and other sureties had renounced all defence available to them and could therefore be sued without first proceedings against the principal debtor (United Refineries).  The question, Kebonang said, was that can FNB proceed to execute against Moyo Guma and other sureties on the basis of the suretyship contracts they signed?

“The starting point is that the Applicant (Moyo Guma) and others by binding themselves as sureties became liable for debts of the principal debtor and such liability is joint and several. He said the consequences of placing the company under judicial management means that every benefit extended to it should also extend to sureties.

“If the company is afforded more time to pay or its debt is discharged, reduced or compromised or suspended the obligation of sureties is to be likewise treated. It follows in my view that where judicial proceedings are suspended or stayed against the company, then any recourse against the sureties is similarly stayed or suspended,’ said Kebonang.

He added that “In the circumstances of this case, it seems to me that so long as the company is under judicial management, the moratorium that applies to it must also apply to its sureties/guarantors and no execution of the writs should be permitted against them. Any execution would be invalid.”

“Mindful that there is judicial precedent on this point in Botswana, at least none that I am aware of, and given its significance, I consider it prudent that the Court of Appeal must provide a determinative answer to the question whether a creditor can proceed against sureties where a company is under judicial management,” said Kebonang.

Pending the determination of the Court of Appeal, he issued the following order; the execution of writs issued in favour of FNB against Moyo and other sureties/guarantors of United Refinery are hereby stayed pending the determination of the legal question referred to the Court of Appeal.

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