In a high-stakes legal confrontation, a businesswoman emerged from the shadows, taking on a brewery giant and its affiliates, alleging an unlawful seizure of her ownership stake with BGI Ethiopia Plc. Her legal team pleaded to a court to restore her shares, reinstate her role, and compensate her for unpaid dividends.

Eighty-year-old Zewudnesh G. Asrat has taken legal action against BGI Ethiopia, Jean P. Blavierre, Brasseries International Holding Limited (B.I.H), and Hebu Properties Limited, seeking 8.28 million Br for a 27pc ownership stake she claims was unlawfully taken from her.

The affidavit, filed on Friday, May 31, 2024, before the special commercial bench of the Federal First Instance Court, will be adjudicated by the court. Her legal counsel has pressed for judges to summon the first defendant directly and deliver the summons to the third and fourth defendants through the first defendant.

Zewudnesh's legal battle dates back to 1991, following political changes. Partnering with Castel, the major shareholder of Castel Group, she claimed to have helped to incorporate BGI Ethiopia Plc, which was registered in February 1996. Initially holding 23pc of the shares, her stake increased to 27pc to comply with investment laws requiring Ethiopian investors to hold a minimum in joint ventures.

She also claimed to have secured land for the company's plant, supported by her family, including her daughter Lydia Mekonnen. This led to the launch of Bati Beer as a tribute to her husband's hometown. In 1998, Brasseries International Holding Ltd (B.I.H) of Castel Group won a bid to acquire St. George Brewery from the state for 10 million dollars, with Lydia playing a crucial role. The privatisation agreement was signed in September 1998.

B.I.H. bought the entire stake in BGI Ethiopia PLC in February 1999, with the transfer of shares legally approved and registered. According to her lawyers' affidavit, B.I.H. held 22,394 shares (73pc) and Zewudnesh 8,283 shares (27pc). Due to B.I.H.'s capital investments, the share value surged from 100 Br to 1,000 Br per value. Despite her legally recognised stake, Zewudnesh alleged to have discovered that her shares were “unlawfully transferred” to the third and fourth defendants without her consent, using “fraudulent documents.”

The transfer, she claims, conducted under the “guise of political pressure, caused substantial economic and psychological harm to her and her family.”

Zewudnesh's legal team, Ethio-Alliance Advocates, alleges the violation of her rights as a shareholder. They assert that the share transfer was executed without her consent through "fraudulent documents" prepared and signed without her knowledge. These actions, she argues, contravened investment laws requiring approval from the Ethiopian Investment Authority before transferring shares in joint ventures involving foreign investors.

She alleges to have been at the receiving end of a sweeping high-profile power struggle between senior members of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) at the time, and claims to have been put under intense political pressure as the then-board chairman of the Privatisation Agency, Asefa Abraha, was being investigated under corruption charges, which included the sale of the St.George beer factory.

“The necessary approvals and notifications were not obtained, rendering the transfer illegal,” reads the charge.

In her plea, Zewudnesh appealed to judges to restore her as the share owner in BGI Ethiopia and order the payment of unpaid dividends from the time the shares were “unlawfully transferred.” She also seeks a court order for a criminal investigation into the defendants' “fraudulent activities,” including preparing “false documents and unauthorised share transfers.”

Sources revealed that the legal team plans to put an injunction on the sale of the 30,000Sqm property owned by BGI Ethiopia around the Mexico roundabout, which had already been under another injunction by Purpose Black Ethiopia until recently. Considering the recent mandate to relocate major industries from the city centre and water supply needs that were not met, executives of BGI decided to relocate nearly a year ago. They were actively looking for potential buyers for the site until Purpose Black showed interest, which eventually went sour. It only got settled a few weeks ago, with BGI Ethiopia's management anticipating entering the market and looking for another buyer.

Zewudnesh claims to have learned of the proposed property sale through family members who heard of the sale through media outlets. She claims to have stalled her pleas for the past six years despite considering it following the political transition that occurred in the country due to a series of health hazards that resulted in half paralysis and partial loss of vision.

In its pursuit, the legal team summons the appearance of around 15 witnesses, including notable figures like Siye Abraha and Girma Wake.

PUBLISHED ON Jun 01,2024 [ VOL 25 , NO 1257]

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