Jim Ovia goes to court over ‘the Godfather of banking’


If the court rules in Jim Ovia’s favour, the ruling will be used several times in the future to censor media publications. By dragging Andy Briggs Ikeotuonye, author of the book ‘The Godfather of Banking’ to court, Jim Ovia chairman of Zenith Bank has unwittingly set out on a warpath against the Nigerian media. Any one who becomes an instrument of media censorship risks being considered to be working against the interest of the Nigerian media.

Jim Ovia must have very compelling reasons for this court battle against an industry that he has always supported. Some newspapers have allegedly chosen to remain silent on this matter because of their business relationship with Zenith Bank which is actually the first plaintiff in this court battle. It does seem unusual for one of the biggest companies trading on the Nigerian and London stock exchange, using shareholder funds to be embroiled in a court battle between its chairman and an author of a book about the chairman and not the bank.

Writing on his timeline, Richard Akinnola a veteran journalist and lawyer commented that, ‘A novel battle that would have far-reaching implication on  PRESS FREEDOM and RIGHT OF EXPRESSION  begins in earnest tomorrow in Lagos at the Federal High Court, with Justice Hadizia Shagari presiding. Zenith Bank Chairman, Jim Ovia went to court to stop the publication of a book- JIM OVIA: THE GOD FATHER OF BANKING written by a journalist, Andy Briggs.

If Jim Ovia succeeds, the court’s decision would have a far-reaching impact on journalism. Courts can’t actually act as press censors. If the book had been released and Jim had objectionable areas by way of defamation,  he could seek redress in court, just like Alhaji Femi Okunnu did against Prof. Wole Soyinka.

Unfortunately,  this “gagging writ ” would not help Jim Ovia because he has unwittingly publicised the book. People who hitherto were not interested or who never knew of the existence of such a book, would be more interested in knowing what Jim Ovia does not want people to know. However,  we keep our fingers crossed and wait for the case to commence. Whichever way it goes,  this case would have far-reaching implication on press freedom and freedom of expression.’

Thankfully, the social media in Nigeria is yet to be censored. A Lagos writer-activist Immanuel Ibe-Anyanwu who also wrote about the court case in a story titled: ‘Jim Ovia and the story he owes Nigerians’, had this to say: Times have changed and investigative journalism, once the talisman that freed truth from darkness, is now hardly at work. But Andy Briggs is bringing hope. Astute journalist and publisher, Briggs has dug into the unlit depths of Jim Ovia, powerful businessman and founder of Zenith Bank.

From the investigation, he has published a book awaiting release, titled “The Godfather of Banking.” which unsettles Mr Ovia, who has gone to court seeking an interlocutory injunction to stop the release of the book. The second hearing is slated for late April, and Ovia is alleging that the book is an invasion of his privacy and therefore must be stopped. At personal cost, Andy Briggs has assembled what is perhaps Nigerian banking’s most illustrious story, one which, by virtue of its public significance, ought to be told. He is again to incur legal costs on behalf of a largely altruistic pursuit.

Mr Ovia is indeed entitled to his privacy, but not in his capacity as a manager of public funds contributed by Nigerian shareholders. He can sue for libel if the contents of the book merit such a charge. But he cannot stop a story of public interest, a fundamental right to free speech, and a journalistic insight into his banking journey.

For the most part his story has been inspiring: brilliance, enterprise, and power. There is no illumination on the deeper and more personal trajectories of his banking career. More opaque is the story of his collaborations—who are the co-founders of Zenith Bank, and to what extent did they facilitate the production of the Jim Ovia phenomenon? There is perhaps no need to interfere with this press freedom, except the book holds some promise in dangerous and monumental revelation.

While the court is to determine this litigation, such judicial redress does not preclude the expression of public opinion. To that extent, one is free to think aloud about this case in the public interest. As young people, we have often wondered why most of Nigeria’s billionaires leave neither some biography nor any open clues into their break-evens. Foreign millionaires have their stories splashed all over the internet, both for public inspiration and for social, if not corporate accountability.

I am writing this, not in support of Andy Briggs, but in support of freedom and truth. In support of openness and justice. And in support of investigative journalism, that intervention active in all decent societies, which, given its due, can perform the much-needed surveillance on the heart of power.’

The battle continues in court. This is neither a case of libel nor defamation. This is an attempt to stiffle a book that is yet to go on sale, a book which Jim Ovia and his lawyers claim not to have read. So how do they know what is in the book?

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