Photograph — Bloomberg

Belgian national and the Chief Executive Officer of MTN Uganda, Wim Vanhelleputte became the fourth senior executive of the telco to be kicked out of the country this year, on grounds of allegedly undermining state security.

The arrest and deportation of Vanhelleputte last Friday is the latest concern for the telecommunications firm amid an ongoing fall out between the company and authorities in the East African country.

Vanhelleputte’s deportation order, signed by Interior Minister General Jeje Odongo, did not state any official reason for the action. Although, security officials told him he was being deported for “speaking to people who had been deported” from Uganda. Police spokesman, Fred Enanga told Reuters that Vanhelleputte had been deported and was “destined for Belgium around midnight (Thursday) over circumstances of national security.”

In a statement over Twitter, MTN Uganda said it was trying to find out why Vanhelleputte had been deported, as this had not been communicated to them. “We are understandably concerned about these developments and are engaging with the authorities to seek understanding that would lead us to resolving this matter,” it said.

A report by the Daily Nation also revealed that Ugandan security had run out of patience with him after he let staff, who had been deported from Uganda, continue with direct supervision; issuing directives regarding their department’s operations through the internet.

“They kept them directly issuing directives in total contravention of what we had done. This was not the first time they were doing this. At first, we asked them to put those people aside but they refused and they continued to work using the virtual space. They (MTN) were aware this matter was under investigation, yet they continued to give access to the people we deported, just because there is a virtual space and they can work from anywhere,” a security source said about the latest deportation.

Previous deportations

Some of those already expelled from the country include Elsa Mussolini, the former General Manager for Mobile Finance Services; French national, Olivier Prentout, who was Chief Marketing Officer at MTN-Uganda; and Rwandan national, Annie Bilenge Tabura, the General Manager for Sales and Distribution at MTN-Uganda.

Intelligence from security agents accused Prentout and Tabura of undermining state security and spying on government officials for Rwanda. According to the police, they “were using their employment as tools to achieve their ill motives.”

Mussolini was deported over accusations of inciting violence by waging a campaign to sabotage the collection of new taxes. The Over The Top (OTT) tax was introduced last June on mobile money transactions and social media sites.

MTN Uganda chairman Charles Mbire said “I have nothing to say about these developments because I don’t know what is happening. Let’s wait for security to appraise us on the reasons for the deportations.”

Vanhelleputte’s deportation came just days after President Yoweri Museveni appeared to soften on the charge of lobbying against the tax. Just before the President set off for the African Union’s Heads of State Summit last week, he held a meeting with French ambassador Stéphanie Rivoal to discuss the deportations.

In that meeting, President Museveni is reported to have said that the campaign in which members of MTN’s executive committee discussed strategies to lobby against the tax could be forgiven. He, however, deferred a decision on the trio’s alleged spying on the government.

Unjustified claims

As with all previous accusations, it cannot be explained how exactly the MTN executives were compromising Uganda’s security.

Since the deportations began, the country has been under pressure from France, Italy and South Africa to substantiate claims that the trio had been engaged in espionage as alleged by security agencies. More so, Uganda’s decision to deport Tabura triggered protests from neighbouring country Rwanda.

The crisis puts the President at a crossroad -Is he to believe intelligence from his security agents or the pleadings of a multinational backed by the diplomatic power of three countries? Not only will the travails of MTN affect the country’s investment environment, but the outcome of the case may also have implications on Uganda’s relationship with other countries affected as pressure continue to mount.

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