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Deportations at MTN

Story behind dumping of 5 bosses

Kampala, Uganda | HAGGAI MATSIKO | Officially, the Feb. 14 deportation of MTN Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Wim Vanhelleputte was sparked by President Yoweri Museveni’s concerns over alleged gross crimes by MTN staff; including threatening national security.

But investigations by The Independent have found that an internal fight between the CEO and the company’s little-known but powerful and now sacked General Manager-Corporate Services, Anthony Katamba, could have caused the spark.

Vanhelleputte’s deportation follows that of three other senior staff weeks earlier, including Annie Tabura, then-General Manager for sales and Distribution and from Rwanda.

The Independent has learnt that the MTN saga has escalated into a diplomatic crisis involving MTN, its mother country South Africa, Rwanda, France, Italy and Belgium.

The breadth of reach of the crisis, the political might of the players, and the financial muscle involved show that something big is at stake.

The question is no longer whether Uganda, and in particular; Museveni, is right in going after MTN. The question now is whether he can handle the fallout.

Rwandan authorities have complained publicly and The Independent understands the French, Italian and Belgian embassies in Kampala have all been sucked into the matter.

Initially, following the deportation of Tabura, who is Rwandan, the biggest suspicion was that this was part of the tensions between Kampala and Kigali, which have escalated over the last years. Rwandan authorities have accused Ugandan officials of plotting to overthrow the government of President Paul Kagame. Ugandan officials also say Rwandan authorities are plotting to overthrow the government of President Yoweri Museveni.

The puzzle many had failed to crack is how a Rwandan, a French citizen and an Italian; all working for a South African company, could have been working for Rwandan authorities to jeopardise Uganda’s security. There is no love lost between Rwanda and France. And the same applies to Rwanda and South Africa. Just as many were trying to crack this puzzle, Wim, a Belgian, was thrown into the mix.

Equally inadequate as an explanation was the claim that MTN was being punished over accusations of fraud surrounding Mobile Money, under declaration and evasion of taxes, unfair competition with competitors and recently, a disagreement over licence fees.

Since 2013, MTN has had on and off run-ins with authorities and endured bad press for its perceived profit repatriation and exploitative transfer pricing practices.

However, all these have continued to be discussed without threatening the sustainability of the business or Uganda’s national security.

The ongoing refusal of the government to renew MTN’s license has also raised uncertainty. But it is the spate of deportations of top MTN staff that spells an escalation.

To make matters worse, all the four started working together, at least after July 2017, that is a year and about nine months. Tabura, the Rwandan, had not spent a year on the job in Uganda—having joined in April last year.

The deportations saga seemed to explode when one of the top Ugandan managers at MTN, Anthony Katamba, was sacked.

Apparently, Katamba’s sacking happened just two days before Wim was deported and word on the grapevine was that Charles Mbiire; the local business mogul and MTN Uganda chairman is targeted.

With all these pieces flying, secretive organisations like the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) raiding MTN, and the sector regulator; the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) speechless, The Independent set out to attempt to explain what is going on.

In all four cases, done in a similar manner and over apparently similar circumstances, the security agencies have, through the Police Spokesperson Fred Enanga, cited “national security”.

In the case of Wim, however, insiders cite an internal power fight with Katamba. But Wim, of course, could not fire Katamba without sanction from HQ in South Africa. In which case, he needed to build a strong case against Katamba. So what was it?

Insiders have told The Independent that the fight between Wim and Katamba can be traced from the first months Wim took the job in July 2016.

Katamba joined MTN in 2003 as General Counsel but had risen to become the most powerful person at MTN Uganda. Relatively young, in his mid-40s possibly, with a final title of General Manager in Charge of Corporate Services, he was the company fixer who knows where all the skeletons are, and the legal advisor of management and board. He held more sway than any CEO.

He derived part of this power from his close relationship with shareholder and MTN Uganda Chairman Charles Mbiire. He also reportedly had godfathers based within MTN Group in South Africa.

Apart from these connections, his role as General Counsel gave him control over everything; from procurement, access to data, and several other operations for the company.

Because of all this, company CEOs before Wim always had to submit to Katamba or at least be in his good books to survive. At some point, those close to him say, he started eyeing the post of CEO itself. But every time there was need to change a CEO, South Africa always appointed a new officer.

Also because Katamba felt too powerful, it became inevitable for him and CEOs to collide. For instance, Wim was appointed after a fight between Katamba and then CEO, Brian Gouldie led to his firing.

They fought over a procurement deal, which Katamba blocked.

At the height of the fight, this reporter spoke to both Katamba and Gouldie. Katamba said he was not involved in the decision to fire Gouldie. He also spoke only generally about the company’s performance.

Gouldie also did not speak directly about Katamba. He only noted that some high level people within the company had embarked on a campaign to bring disrepute to his name. He said that he had caused a lot of changes which had affected these people and contractors and that this is where the problem was coming from.

Weeks after those interviews, it was made official—Gouldie was leaving. While Gouldie was recalled, Katamba was investigated but kept on the job.

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