* Majority of board had called for CEO Tanoh to step down
* Row a test case for African financial regulators
* Tanoh defenders say he sought to expose prior abuses
(Updates with bank statement, writes through)
By Matthew Mpoke Bigg
ACCRA, March 11 The board of Ecobank
removed its chief executive, Thierry Tanoh, on Tuesday following
months of turmoil at one of the biggest financial institutions
in sub-Saharan Africa.
The crisis over corporate governance and leadership that led
to Tanoh's departure is seen as a test case for regulators and
has put a spotlight on the integrity of financial institutions
on a continent where economies are expanding
Ecobank named Deputy CEO Albert Essien as its new chief
executive. It also announced the reinstatement of finance
director Laurence do Rego, which was a demand by Nigeria's
securities regulator, which is investigating alleged breaches of
"Ecobank Transnational Incorporated today announces the
departure of Group CEO Mr Thierry Tanoh with effect from 12
March 2014. Effective the same date he will no longer be a
director of ETI," the bank's holding company said in a
Tanoh could not immediately be reached for comment.
Tanoh's supporters have said he was under pressure because
of his drive to expose and correct abuses of corporate
governance that pre-dated his tenure, which attracted powerful
enemies nervous of what he might uncover.
Essien, who is from Ghana, has been at Ecobank for more than
20 years and rose to deputy group CEO two years ago.
The 12-member board made its decision at a meeting in
Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, a senior bank official said.
Tanoh did not attend.
The Ivorian took the reins as CEO in January 2013, having
previously served as a vice president at the International
Finance Corporation, the investment arm of the World Bank.
Ecobank is based in Togo and has a presence in 35 African
countries. There are few other pan-African banks, and the
continent's biggest financial institutions are based in South
Under Tanoh, profits grew 56 percent in the first nine
months of last year, and his defenders said those results
reflected his leadership qualities.
But his tenure was also marked by a row over his bonus and
by an investigation launched last August by Nigeria's Securities
and Exchange Commission (SEC) after do Rego told the regulator
that Tanoh had pressured her to misstate 2012 financial results.
Ecobank denied that allegation and said do Rego had
previously been suspended in a dispute over her qualifications.
The SEC in January criticised what it said was an absence of
clear vision and strategy at the bank, inadequate transparency
in recruiting and conflicts of interest.
It also demanded that do Rego be reinstated as a
whistleblower, something the bank said would be against Togolese
Last week, shareholders at an extraordinary general meeting
voted to implement reforms designed in part to answer the
regulator's criticism. In an apparent snub to Tanoh, they also
told the board to reinstate do Rego.
A senior Ecobank official played down the impact of the
crisis on the bank.
"It's obviously caused people to be a bit concerned, but if
you look at the share price it is slightly down this year, but
it is still much higher than at the end of 2012," the official
BOARD ROOM BATTLE
Tanoh's position as CEO was undermined by a series of
defections from the board at a bank that had attracted little
adverse publicity under the long tenure of its previous CEO,
"This (Tanoh's departure) was just a matter of time. I
expect a positive response in terms of the market's view of
Ecobank's corporate governance," an institutional investor said,
declining to be named.
Four executives on Tanoh's top five-person committee wrote
on Feb. 13 to interim Chairman Andre Siaka to say Tanoh should
resign to solve a crisis of leadership.
That email was sent by Essien, who was executive director of
corporate and investment banking in addition to his duties as
On March 1, non-executive board member Daniel Matjila
denounced Tanoh in a letter to Siaka and the board, calling for
his contract to be terminated immediately. Matjila represents
South Africa's Public Investment Corporation, the bank's largest
shareholder with 18.35 percent.
His letter had the support of two other board members, which
had amounted to a total of seven who came out publicly to oppose
Tanoh before Tuesday's meeting.
(Additional reporting by Chijioke Ohuocha in Lagos and Tiisetso
Motsoeneng in Johannesburg; Editing by Joe Bavier and Jane