TOKYO — As Carlos Ghosn sits in a cramped Japanese jail with the fate of his global auto empire in limbo, two conflicting scenarios are emerging to explain the stunning upheaval.
The first — the official story laid out publicly by Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa — is that Ghosn simply got caught breaking the law. Saikawa, the brush-cut executive who for nearly two decades was Ghosn's loyal understudy, executed his fiduciary responsibility by reporting the matter to the prosecutors and having Ghosn removed as Nissan's chairman.
The second scenario isn't so cut and dried.
It's a conspiracy theory gaining currency among former Nissan personnel and observers. And it paints a different picture of Saikawa, Ghosn and the Renault-Nissan- Mitsubishi Alliance, which Ghosn seeded some two decades ago and cultivated into the world's largest auto group.
In that alternative scenario, Ghosn, 64, may or may not have violated Japanese law. Indeed, at press time, he had yet to be officially charged, and the specifics of his alleged crime have not been made public. But Saikawa, 65 and facing his own retirement horizon, seized on Ghosn's Nov. 19 arrest to jettison the iron-fisted boss and potentially wrest control of the Japanese automaker from its top shareholder, France's Renault, according to speculation.
As Ghosn enters his third week jailed in Japan, the truth of the matter is still unfolding.
Ghosn is now deposed as chairman of Nissan and Mitsubishi, two of the three carmakers he is hailed for hammering together into the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance. The future of the group grows increasingly cloudy, despite fresh efforts to present a united facade last week at an Alliance meeting in Amsterdam.
Ghosn is accused of attempting to hide about $80 million in compensation. Unclear last week was whether his alleged actions were technically improper.
Reaction to his sudden demise brought slack-jawed dismay.
"I was shocked. I just couldn't believe it," Mitsubishi CEO Osamu Masuko said last week, shortly after his board followed Nissan's in removing Ghosn as chairman.
"I still don't understand why," Masuko said.
But half a world away in France, the narrative takes a different tenor. Among that country's screaming headlines, one asked: "Is the Ghosn affair a coup d'etat fomented by Nissan?" Asked another: "Carlos Ghosn in prison: scandal or conspiracy?" And a third: "Carlos Ghosn: Is the theory of a conspiracy credible?"
Even in the U.S., The Wall Street Journal's editorial board decried Ghosn's plight as an "inquisition."
Saikawa denies the actions were part of a boardroom coup.
When asked just hours after Ghosn's arrest, Saikawa replied: "That is not how we see it."
Others remain skeptical.
"I don't accept that this was a coincidence," said Christopher Richter, senior auto analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. "This was a situation Saikawa and Nissan found very useful. The stars aligned, and the moment was right to strike. And there you have it."