Photograph — CFO India

The President of Ugandan, Yoweri Museveni has directed the Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister, Kahinda Otafiire, not to renew the appointment of Bemanya Twebaze as the administrator of the Uganda Telecom Limited (UTL). This decision was reached because the lawyer and executive, Twabaze, has reportedly fallen out of favour with the State Minister for Investment and Privatization, Evelyn Anite. But the lawyer’s ousting this month is just the latest development in an ongoing saga spanning half the African continent.

According to a letter to the Justice and Affairs Minister, the President said: “In the interest of cohesion, get another administrator.” He further added that “going on with endless tension is not good for management.”

Twabaze’s ousting is just the latest instalment in an ongoing saga spanning half the African continent. From Libya to Nigeria, and to the beautiful island of Mauritius. Twabaze was appointed UTL administrator in 2017 following the exit of Libyan-owned Ucom Limited – after entering a deed that made all shareholders surrender to him. He currently serves as the Registrar General of the Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB).

On November 8, a meeting to decide the administrator’s fate was attended by Secretary to Treasury Keith Muhakanizi, Finance Minister Matia Kasaija, and the State Minister for Investment and Privatization, Evelyn Anite. The President was chosen as a mediator in the year-long standoff. In the lead-up to the talks, two rival camps, for and against Twabaze, had already emerged.

The camp supporting the administrator include Otafiire and Muhakanizi, while Anite and Kasaija led calls for his removal. According to one Ugandan outlet, the meeting saw the parties “quarrel and exchange bitterly,” with Anite accusing the Secretary to Treasury of misguiding the President in regards to Twabaze and the UTL.

Dishonest dealings through privatisation

The Ugandan telecoms scandal finds its roots in a 2017 government decision to privatise UTL in a bid to rescue the struggling company. Two bids were shortlisted: one from a Nigerian-based telecoms firm, Teleology Holdings GIB (sometimes misspelt Taleology), and one from Mauritius Telecom.

With a better bid price, Teleology won the bid in October 2018. Run by Adrian Woods, the former executive of leading South African telecommunications firm MTN Group, Teleology was set to take on a 20-year deal to operate UTL- as long as it made a non-refundable injection of US$7.1 million within 60 days. In February 2019, the Nigerian-based firm failed to remit the necessary funding, and UTL went back on the market.

This situation deepened in April when Anite took to the airwaves to criticize Teleology for having no expertise or funding. “Uganda is attracting too many quack investors,” she told media in Kampala, “We are back to the drawing board to look for new investors…after the Nigerians we had given it to proved not worthwhile.”

It was later revealed, however, that Anite was most likely shilling for Mauritius Telecom. In a whistleblower’s letter to the Inspectorate of Government (IGG) and the head of State House Anti-Corruption unit, it was alleged that Anite had secretly travelled to Mauritius in order to strike a UTL deal with investors there. Coincidentally, Anite acquired prized assets after her trip, leading observers to believe she had been bribed by the telecom company to endorse their offer.

Teleology and Mauritius Teleco’s incompetence

The truth, however, is that both Teleology and Mauritius Telecom lacked the expertise to take over the struggling UTL. According to a leaked report written by the Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA) and commissioned by President Museveni, all shortlisted companies were disqualified from the bid after being found “financially incompetent.”

The shortlisted companies investigated by the FIA are Hamilton Telecom Limited, Teleology Holding Limited, Mauritius Telecom, Telecel Global, Neubacher Montage LLP, Bayliss Consortium, and Afrinet Kenya Limited. None of these firms proved sufficiently transparent or financially capable to take over operations at UTL.

There are solid reasons to believe Uganda’s Financial Intelligence Authority. If the secret trip to Mauritius morally disqualifies their bid, Teleology’s track record is equally murky. The firm pulled out of the privatisation of 9Mobile in its home country at roughly the same time UTL was struggling to get the company to pony up the promised cash. In Nigeria, Woods refused to invest the promised money, hired new South African and European executives in 9Mobile, and was accused of lacking the required telecom expertise for his ambitious acquisition plans.

The search for a lasting solution to UTL’s distress seems no easier than when it began. The distress has kicked up allegations of fraud and incompetence, in both the public and private sectors, throughout the region. Uganda deserves better.

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