Sunday, September 20, 2020

Will the real Sam Asmal please stand up!

When the presiding judge finally pronounces his verdict on the Lobtrans alleged fraud case, it will be interesting to see which Sam Asmal steps down from the dock.

There is Sam Asmal the workaholic, a true believer who lived for his company and its employees. Those close to him say there were times during Sam Asmal’s career when friends and relatives were concerned about the long hours he was putting into Lobtrans. “Why don’t you slow down? The stress of running such a big business is ageing you.” Asmal would invariably respond: “I do it for the people that worked for me and have worked for me for the past 30 years. My employees are my extended family.”

Then there is another Sam Asmal, a shady character whose name is being linked to kite-flying scams. The Botswana Police Service has opened criminal investigations against Lobtrans’ sole bank signatory following reports that Lobtrans defrauded Barclays and Standard Chartered Banks by writing cheques moving money to and fro between the two banks to hide the company’s troubled financial status.

Asmal is accused of masterminding Botswana’s biggest ever banking fraud that has sent shockwaves throughout the country’s banking sector. His lawyers are fighting an application by Barclays and Standard Chartered banks to have Lobtrans liquidated.

It is a farcical story that has everything: a botched multi-million pula enterprise whose alleged corruption stain is spreading from the banking industry to the government enclave.
How the plot went awry and landed Asmal in a mess may come to be judged as the time when Botswana’s banking sector suffered its biggest error of judgment.
Asmal has spent most of his life in business. The son of Goolam Asmal, receiver of the prestigious Presidential award for Meritorious Service to the people of Botswana, Sam was an establishment man.

He began his career in the transport industry in 1986, when he identified a business opportunity in the building boom. He started transporting building material. Asmal, however, longed for something more. Through a long association with BP, in 1992 Sam Asmal was awarded a contract to transport fuel throughout Botswana. This marked the inception of Lobtrans (Pty) Ltd. His contract with BP required a fleet of 13 vehicles. Tanktrailers fitted to skeletal interlinks were utilized. At the time this was considered an innovative way of transporting fuel to neighboring countries.

Sam Asmal was never averse to risk. He decided to buy fifty horse and tanker combinations, opening depots in Lobatse, Gaborone, Francistown and neighboring South Africa. He even placed a bid to buy Air Botswana. South Africa’s Financial Mail reported in one of its articles that ‘few African companies have expanded to SA and made a success of it. One of the notable exceptions is the Lobtrans transport Group from Botswana.”

That was the Sam Asmal the world new, until a few months ago when the Standard Chartered system which was being overhauled suffered a few glitches, exposing Asmal’s alleged shadowy life. Asmal had allegedly been kite-flying; moving millions of Pula to and fro between his bank accounts with Standard Chartered and Barclays bank allegedly to conceal the fact that the company was financially insolvent.

The plot unraveled when the disruption in the Standard Chartered new banking system threw a spanner in Asmal’s designs. When Standard Chartered phoned Barclays bank demanding that they be credited in honour of Asmal’s P5 million cheques, they found Barclays also waiting for them to honour Asmal’s cheque from the other direction. When the two banks discovered that they had been defrauded they moved in to try and impound the fleet of trucks they had financed. To their shock, they discovered that the blue books for the trucks had been forged and were not bonded to them. Criminal investigations were instituted against Asmal while the banks tried to chase the P300 million that Lobtrans owed them. They then invited First National Bank to join them in applying for the company’s liquidation, but FNBB refused maintaining that their loan to Lobtrans was secured. For now there are still questions on how secure the loan is.

Thousands of Lobtrans workers were shocked when they turned up for work and were told that the company had been liquidated. Some went on the rampage, pulling down Asmal’s portraits from the company office walls and smashing them on the floor.

Unraveling the riddle of Sam Asmal is not easy. When everyone was accusing him of bleeding the Lobtrans system he was in his hospital bed in Johannesburg, allegedly heart broken and unable to come to terms with the shocking reality that his vision had finally come to an end.

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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.