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Ecobank Chairman Lawson to Step Down Amid Fraud Allegations

Ecobank Transnational Inc., the most geographically-diverse lender in Africa, said Chairman Kolapo Lawson will step down amid allegations of fraud that are being investigated by Nigeria’s capital markets regulator.

Lawson, who denies any wrongdoing, will retire on Dec. 31 and hand over immediately to interim chairman André Siaka, Jeremy Reynolds, a spokesman for the Lome, Togo-based lender, said today in an e-mailed statement.

Nigeria’s Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Ecobank after executive director of risk and finance, Laurence do Rego, told the regulator in August that Lawson and Chief Executive Officer Thierry Tanoh planned to sell assets below market value. Do Rego also said she had been pressured to write off debts owed by a business headed by Lawson and manipulate the bank’s results last year.

“I am very conscious of the uncertainty that current media speculation has cast over the institution,” Lawson said in today’s statement. “I therefore wish to take the necessary steps to bring this to an end.”

Tanoh also denied any allegation of wrongdoing last month. Still, the bank said he’ll forgo a $1.14 million bonus for 2012 as it appointed external advisers to review corporate governance.

Huge Pressure

Lawson, who took up his position at the bank in 2009, is also chairman of Acorn Petroleum Plc and Agbara Estates Ltd., according to Ecobank’s 2012 annual report. Lawson has been an Ecobank non-executive director since 1993, according to the annual report, and also CEO of a diversified industrial and trading group with operations in the U.K. and West Africa.

“The last few months have seen huge pressure on the organization, and on me personally, in the media,” said Lawson. “These have culminated in allegations, which are untrue, made to the Nigerian SEC on issues of corporate governance.”

The Nigerian regulator said last month the investigation into alleged corporate governance breaches at Ecobank was proceeding with the assistance of KPMG.

Lawson’s departure doesn’t halt the probe into the lender, which is “progressing satisfactorily,” Obi Adindu, a spokesman for the SEC in the Nigerian capital Abuja, said in an e-mailed statement today.

Founded in 1985, Ecobank operates in France and 35 African countries and has representative offices in Beijing, Dubai and London. The bank had $21.5 billion in assets at the end of September.

The lender said yesterday that net income in the nine months through September rose 65 percent to $250 million from a year earlier.

Ecobank shares were unchanged at 13.80 naira at the 2:30 p.m. close of trading in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. The stock has advanced 22 percent this year, compared with the 33 percent gain of the Nigerian Stock Exchange All-Share Index.

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