Judge Asks What ‘Africa’s Youngest Billionaire’ Is Worthby and
Judge said Thakkar assets are in complex financial structures
Ruling shows difficulty in assessing net worth in divorce
Ashish Thakkar, who co-founded Africa banking conglomerate Atlas Mara Ltd. with ex-Barclays Plc head Bob Diamond, is a 35-year-old "billionaire" whose divorce fight has been prolonged thanks to a complex web of offshore assets.
The question of how much Thakkar is worth -- he says 445,532 pounds ($541,000) while his wife claims his wealth is far greater -- is coming under scrutiny in a U.K. divorce court. A judge in the London family court has denied Thakkar’s request for a final divorce decree until a determination of his real worth.
"This is a case where the wife says her husband is a billionaire,” Judge Philip Moor said in the ruling that shows the difficulty courts have in making a fair assessment of wealth. “All the assets are offshore. They are held in very complicated structures that have changed within the recent past. The situation is one where it can be very significant if you are a wife or a former wife."
The judge’s ruling, which was handed down in June and published on the court’s website last week, extends a legal battle over the less than five-year marriage that has cast a spotlight on the entrepreneur, whose own foundation has promoted him as Africa’s youngest billionaire.
U.K. judges have become used to unpicking complex webs of offshore assets in high-stakes divorces as spouses sometimes plead net worth far less than what the other spouse claims is their actual fortune. The forensic tracing of assets is a problem that has played out in other scenarios judges have faced across the world from tax avoidance schemes to fraud prosecutions.
Based on his disclosed public and closely held assets, Thakkar’s net worth is valued at $425 million according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His most valuable asset is Ison BPO, a U.A.E.-based outsourcing company that operates in Africa and India.
Lawyers for Meera Thakkar declined to comment as did a spokesman for Ashish Thakkar. Ashish Thakkar’s lawyers didn’t respond to a call seeking comment. In court filings, Ashish Thakkar has argued that the beneficiaries of his companies are his mother and sister.
While the Thakkar case is at the London High Court, similar issues have reached the country’s top court before. The ex-wife of oil trader Michael Prest won a Supreme Court ruling giving her the right to force offshore companies owned by her ex-husband to turn over assets as part of a 17.5 million-pound settlement in 2013. Prest’s lawyers argued at the time that the courts had no right to "pierce the corporate veil" of his companies to fund the settlement as they were separate entities and unrelated to the marriage.
He was later threatened with up to four weeks in jail for failing to pay his ex-wife 360,000 pounds in 2015 despite his assets being estimated by the judge to be in the region of 37 million pounds.
Allegations of hiding assets in divorce cases is nothing new and U.K. judges have wide discretion to set values as they see fit, according to Graham Coy, a lawyer at Stowe Family Law, who isn’t involved in the Thakkar case.
"If someone is determined to try and hide their assets it is possible, but they could still end up being clobbered in the end anyway because a judge can just take a view on how much they’re worth and if they don’t like it, prove it," Coy said.
The ex-wife of a property magnate Scot Young told a London judge in one of the highest profile divorce cases in recent years that Young was hiding billions from her while he claimed he was about 28 million pounds in debt.
The judge said in the 2013 ruling that Young wasn’t a "penniless man of straw with huge debts," and that he’d "hidden from the court" about 40 million pounds in assets. Young fell to his death from a fourth-floor window of his flat in London in late 2014.
The Supreme Court rolled back two divorce settlements in a 2015 decision that underlined London’s claim to be the divorce capital of the world. The top court ruled two ex-wives are entitled to larger divorce settlements because their husbands hid their true wealth, the decision could pave the way for previous divorce agreements to be revisited many years after they were agreed.
Adventures in Africa
Thakkar’s story began in Idi Amin’s Uganda. His family was among Asian families the dictator expelled in 1972, and moved to the U.K., where Thakkar was born. They returned to Africa when he was a child, this time to Rwanda, where his family lost everything during the genocide in 1994, Thakkar says in his 2015 autobiography, "The Lion Awakes: Adventures in Africa’s Economic Miracle."
Thakkar’s own success has prompted him to be branded Africa’s youngest billionaire. He’s described that way in a 2013 video on the YouTube channel for his charity, the Mara Foundation. He is introduced as that at conferences and asked about it in media interviews.
At 15, after the family had returned to Uganda, Thakkar sold a laptop to his dad’s friend, triggering the realization he could be a trader. His father gave him $5,000 start-up cash, and he started flying to Dubai to buy cheap computer products, which he sold from a tiny shop in central Kampala.
He expanded his business by setting up a Dubai-based company. He later started a packaging factory in Uganda and partnered with an Indian IT services company to help them gain entry in new markets across Africa, according to his websites.
Thakkar and Diamond met at an event, hit it off and decided that they could start a banking venture together.
Thakkar remains a non-executive director with Atlas Mara, which he and Diamond founded with the idea of buying up stakes in banks across sub-Saharan Africa. The company, domiciled in the British Virgin Islands, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from investors through share offerings since 2013.
“It’s important to think big, dream big, but start small,” Thakkar says in interviews and speeches. “I don’t want to bring Silicon Valley to Africa. I want to bring Africa to Silicon Valley. I think it’s important to be authentic, genuine, real.”