Carlos Ghosn has launched a fiery bid to end his legal troubles, restore his reputation, and maybe – just maybe – position himself for a second act befitting a trailblazing executive.
With his bridges to Japan definitively burned after fleeing in a Houdini-like escape, and with support from France (eager to restore ties between Renault and Nissan) in doubt, the 65-year-old has found both a refuge and springboard in Lebanon.
Visibly animated and recharged at a Beirut press conference on Wednesday, having reunited with his wife after more than a year of jail and house arrest, Ghosn made clear he would not be content fading away into obscurity in his motherland.
“I’m here surrounded by people who respect me and are proud of me, but I’m not just going to say that’s it,” he said.
With an Interpol red notice hanging over his head, and with Japanese authorities having issued an arrest warrant for his wife the day before, Ghosn made clear his immediate priority was to neutralize any legal threats from Tokyo.
“You can expect me in the next weeks to take some initiatives to tell you how I’m going to clear my name and make sure all the evidence comes to the table,” he said, telling reporters they would be able to obtain key documents from his lawyer.
“Justice is the only way I’m going to re-establish my reputation. And if I don’t get it in Japan, I’m going to get it somewhere else.”
Ghosn spoke for more than an hour, and almost double that for questions, working to pick apart the financial misconduct indictment against him piece by piece, and decrying his treatment by the Japanese justice system, from the jail cell to alleged collusion between his former company Nissan and the prosecutor.
Working the mic and interacting with journalists in French, English, Arabic and Portuguese, Ghosn pledged his lawyer would pass along critical evidence shown to reporters on request.
He had even more damning details on practices at the upper echelons of the Japanese government, he said, “but I am in Lebanon.”
The former CEO said he was imposing a partial gag on himself out of deference to the Lebanese authorities and to not further complicate their relations with Japan.
We are all Carlos?
It didn’t have to be like this, Ghosn lamented Wednesday.
“I was ready to retire before June 2018. But I was asked to continue. Unfortunately, I accepted this offer,” he said.
Just two years ago, senior politicians in Lebanon were courting Ghosn for the presidency of the republic, and he likely could have waltzed into a prestigious cap to his career in a country where he enjoyed almost blanket admiration.
Born in Brazil to Lebanese parents, Ghosn spent his formative years in Beirut from age six, educated at a Jesuit school with such high-profile alumni as Banque du Liban chief Riad Salameh.
The worldly Ghosn, who holds French, Lebanese, and Brazilian citizenship, would go on to complete his higher education in France, graduating from the prestigious Ecole des Mines in 1978.
In the ensuing years, Ghosn built up a dazzling resume, earning respect across the industry his successful overhauls of tire maker Michelin and car giant Renault, and going on to form the landmark Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance.
More recently, with his reputation firmly established, Ghosn increasingly embraced his Lebanese roots in the form of investments, including the winery Ixsir.
With his record of turning around automotive companies, some Lebanese believed the man known as “Mr Fix-it” and “Le cost-killer” could reverse decades of mismanagement and corruption back in his motherland.
His sudden arrest in November 2018 sparked public indignation and incredulity in elite Lebanese circles.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil charged the Lebanese ambassador to Japan with seeing to Ghosn’s due process and well-being in prison, while Lebanese with business ties to the country publicly and privately expressed their solidarity with their compatriot.
“I am with him 100%,” a fellow Franco-Lebanese graduate of Ghosn’s elite French engineering school told the Asia Times in the wake of his arrest.
On the night of October 17, however, that reserve of goodwill took a significant hit.
Revolution vs elite
Lebanon erupted in mass protests in mid-October, with hundreds of thousands across the country taking to the street to decry decades of corruption by an entrenched class of sectarian elites.
Suddenly the globe-trotting Ghosn, in Japanese jail over allegations of financial misconduct, was a long stretch for sympathy from the protesters, seen by some as another elite playing by his own rules.
Lebanon earlier emerged in the case against Ghosn, with Japanese prosecutors alleging he misused company funds via a Beirut-based company, Good Faith Investments – a charge he strongly denied.
While the majority Lebanon’s four million citizens struggled to access their salaries and savings last week, with physical confrontations breaking out in cash-strapped bank branches, Ghosn was able to enlist a multi-million dollar operation to escape prosecution.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, whose foreign minister initially offered unabashed support for Ghosn, issued a statement denying reports that he had greeted the fugitive Nissan executive on his arrival in Beirut.
Senior politician Walid Joumblatt took to Twitter to emphasize the Ghosn affair should not be allowed to harm Lebanon’s ties with Japan.
Lebanon’s government is currently facing mounting pressure from Tokyo for Ghosn’s return, with Japan’s ambassador in Beirut holding talks with Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Tuesday to press for cooperation, on the heels of a December visit by Japan’s state minister for foreign affairs.
Ghosn acknowledged on Wednesday that Lebanon was primarily a “logistical” choice for his daring January 29 escape.
Lebanon does not have an extradition treaty with Japan.
It does, however, receive significant Japanese aid, such as a 800,000,000 yen ($8 million) grant in 2013 to cope with the influx of more than a million refugees from the war in Syria.
The Lebanese connection
Perhaps one of the most striking parts of Ghosn’s passionate Wednesday monologue, was his indignation at watching a reputation he built at Nissan vanish in an instant, and losing a trust he thought he had cemented.
“I felt I was a hostage of a country I served for 17 years … I was considered as a role model in Japan. More than 20 books about management were written about me. And just like this, a few prosecutors decided this guy is a cold, greedy dictator,” he said.
In a 2012 interview with the Lebanese news channel MTV, Ghosn reflected in Arabic on his prolific career and success at rebuilding the Japanese automotive giant.
“Nissan in 1999 was a company that had tried not just one turnaround plan but two and three. It was a company doubting itself,” he began.
As for Ghosn himself: “I was an outsider. I wasn’t Japanese, and I wasn’t from Nissan. So I was a double-outsider,” he said. The news anchor prodded, questioning how he could get the insular Japanese on his side.
“Japan respects commitment,” Ghosn began. “In their history, they have the culture of Samurai. They defend their land and if they don’t succeed they commit suicide. You have to succeed, and if you don’t – you go.”
Ghosn said he adopted a similar ethos to convince the Nissan leadership to let him implement his turnaround plan in 1999.
“I told them if this plan doesn’t succeed – and the definition of success was specific: to return to profit-making after one year, to cut the debt in half after three years, and improve the profitability of the company to a profit-making level for the industry in Japan. And we don’t achieve the three, I resign, along with all the members of the executive committee. So all the people who were against the plan dropped their opposition, because they said, okay if it doesn’t work, this guy is gone after a year.
“But it was a big risk for you,” the journalist pressed. “In life,” Ghosn replied, “you need to take risks.”
Ghosn, asked Wednesday whether he would be open to a new political role in Lebanon, seemed to leave the door open: “I am not a politician. But if I am asked, of course, I will share my expertise.”