Italian banker dodges queries on Africa deals

Gian_Maria_Gros_Pietro
Gian Maria Gros-Pietro

The chairman of Italian banking group Intesa Sanpaolo, Gian Maria Gros-Pietro, says he knows nothing of his bank’s involvement in co-financing Atlas Merchant Capital’s takeover of Union Bank of Nigeria (UBN) or the pan-African Africell mobile-telephone network in cooperation with the US government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).

Sources in Washington say Intesa Sanpaolo has expressed interest in entering a co-financing deal with OPIC on the two mega African M&A deals: The circa US$1 billion takeover of Africell – the Beirut-based Lintel Group of Companies’ mobile-phone carrier with subsidiaries in Uganda, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo and The Gambia – and former Barclays Bank chief executive officer Bob Diamond’s move to take control of Union Bank of Nigeria.

Diamond has teamed up with the Dubai-based founder of Atlas Mara, Ashish Thakkar, to create a pan-African universal bank network that currently has banking operations  in Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique, Rwanda and Tanzania, and now a major presence in Nigeria through UBN.

Intesa Sanpaolo co-financing two African deals with OPIC – now a strategic arm of US President Donald Trump’s administration’s use of private-sector investment in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia as a national-security objective – could cement Italy’s role as the United States’ closest NATO ally.

However, it is understood that OPIC and Intesa Sanpaolo co-financing talks are being led by former Intesa Sanpaolo CEO Corrado Passera through his €600 million (US$698 million) Italian SME lending startup Spaxs. Diamond, through Atlas Merchant, is the largest investor in Spaxs.

Intesa Sanpaolo spokesman Stefano Lucchini said he had no knowledge of Passera’s or Bob Diamond’s involvement with Intesa Sanpaolo. An Intesa Sanpaolo source said the bank’s London operations had looked at co-financing the UBN and Africell deals along with OPIC.

Italian banks, as with Italian companies in general, are top-down institutions in which the board of directors is directly informed of almost any strategic or potentially controversial activity.

While co-financing with OPIC carries little risk as the underlying investments are guaranteed by the US government, any involvement by Intesa Sanpaolo with a US government agency such as OPIC could be easily misconstrued by the Italian press harking back to past US-government-connected Italian banking scandals such as the bankruptcy of Banco Ambrosiano (Vatican/IOR) and Banca Nazionale del Lavoro’s Iraqgate scandal.

However, Intesa San Paolo co-financing OPIC deals in Africa, Central Asia and North Africa is likely to be raised during Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s meeting with Trump on July 30, sources close to the matter said.