Carlos Ghosn. Picture: REUTERS
Carlos Ghosn. Picture: REUTERS

Almost three weeks after his shock arrest in Japan, Carlos Ghosn’s relationship with his former protégé is emerging as key to determining what may have triggered the investigation that has put the car industry titan in a Tokyo jail cell.

Ghosn, who was ejected as Nissan’s chair shortly after his arrest, planned for months to shake up senior management at the carmaker and had made known his plans to replace CEO Hiroto Saikawa, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday, citing unidentified people familiar with the situation. Ghosn, who promoted the Nissan lifer to the CEO position in 2017, wanted to carry out his plan at a board meeting in November, one of the people told the newspaper.

But people familiar with Ghosn’s case and with Nissan’s operations told Bloomberg News there was no plan to eject Saikawa in November, or before the end of his term, which was due to run until April 2019. Any change in top management would have required the approval of the carmaker’s board, they said.

Saikawa could not be reached for a response, the Wall Street Journal said, and the office of Ghosn’s lawyer, Motonari Otsuru, declined to comment.

Relations had been strained between Saikawa and Ghosn for some time, the people who spoke to Bloomberg said, declining to be identified discussing private information.

The Nissan CEO emerged in 2018 as an opponent of Ghosn’s ambitions to deepen the company’s alliance with Renault SA via a merger. Saikawa publicly downplayed the chances of that being realised in May, prompting a dressing-down from Ghosn, according to a person familiar with the matter, who told Saikawa he was jeopardising Nissan’s credibility.

But from virtually the moment Ghosn was taken into custody by Japanese police on November 19, Saikawa moved rapidly to show he was in control. The CEO appeared alone at a late-night media conference just hours after the arrest and issued a frontal condemnation of Ghosn’s alleged behaviour, calling it “the dark side of Ghosn’s long reign”.

Asked outright if a coup was under way at Nissan, Saikawa replied: “That is not my understanding. I didn’t make such an explanation and think you should not think of it that way.”

Ghosn, who remains CEO of Renault despite his situation, is set to be indicted for financial crimes as soon as Monday, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg last week.

Prosecutors are also planning to rearrest Ghosn on new charges not yet made public, said the people.

The Franco-Brazilian executive has been accused of under- reporting his income and misusing Nissan assets, crimes that could incur a sentence of at least 10 years in jail, according to Tokyo prosecutors. Ghosn has made few formal comments since being detained besides denying reports that he passed on personal trading losses to the carmaker.

Ghosn’s downfall has rocked the auto alliance he has created and led for decades, with Nissan said to be angling for more power in the pact in the wake of his arrest.