(Adds comment from First Bank)
By Chijioke Ohuocha
LAGOS, April 28 (Reuters) - The Nigerian arm of Abu Dhabi telecom group Etisalat is meeting lenders in London on Friday for talks on restructuring a $1.2 billion debt, Access Bank CEO Herbert Wigwe said.
Etisalat Nigeria is the biggest foreign-owned victim of the dollar shortages plaguing Nigeria’s financial system. It signed the $1.2 billion medium-term facility with 13 local banks in 2013 to refinance a $650 million loan and fund the modernisation of its network, but is now struggling to repay the debt.
Access, one of the lenders in that consortium, is owed 40 billion naira ($131 million) by Etisalat Nigeria and more by its contractors, although Wigwe declined to specify how much.
“They are in London having a meeting as we speak. In the course of next week we would get clearer visibility on how to go about (the debt restructuring),” Wigwe told analysts on a call to discuss the loan as part of its first-quarter results.
A number of firms invested aggressively in the West African nation in the era of high oil prices but are struggling to repay loans or keep operating as the oil producer suffers from a slump in global crude prices that has hammered its revenues, its currency and dollars reserves.
Wigwe said the banks needed to verify all the debts on Etisalat’s books, especially those to trade creditors such as IHS, which has said Etisalat owe it a payment of $8.5 million for more than 120 days since Dec. 31.
Another lender, First Bank, confirmed that there was a meeting in London and said it was positive that the loan will be restructured as guided by the regulator and repaid.
First Bank said that its exposure to Etisalat was about 1.25 percent of its 2.1 trillion naira ($7 bln) loan book and that it could write it off if necessary.
A source said that Etisalat has asked lenders to convert the dollar portions of its loans into naira to help it overcome the shortage of hard currency on the interbank market but that lenders were opposed to this idea.
Wigwe said several options were being considered.
“We have done some financial restructuring which we have not closed on. We are hoping to get an agreement with everybody,” Wigwe said.
Nigerian dollar liquidity has been improving recently, with the central bank intervening in the interbank market since February.
Wigwe said his bank is also exposed to Nigeria’s biggest airline, Arik Air, which was placed under receivership by state-owned “bad bank” AMCON with debts of about 8 billion naira but only around 3 billion to cover them.
He said AMCON was looking at ways to resolve the Arik debt, either through a sale or a recapitalisation. ($1 = 304.85 naira) (Additional reporting by Oludare Mayowa; Editing by Adrian Croft and Hugh Lawson)