Kampala expels boss of MTN’s Uganda arm, citing ‘national security’
Kampala, Uganda | AFP | Compromising national security has been cited as one of the reasons Kampala has deported the Belgian CEO of the Ugandan branch of MTN Wim Vanhelleputte. It is the fourth such expulsion targeting the South African telecoms giant within a month.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior official from the Ugandan police told AFP that the intelligence services had discovered last year that “a neighbouring country had infiltrated the police and was in the process of intercepting our communication lines.”
“On investigating, we discovered a link between that country and MTN, where some foreigners were recruited specifically to carry out espionage and subversion,” he said, without naming the country in question.
Last month, Kampala expelled three other foreign nationals serving as senior executives at MTN, accusing them of using their positions to “compromise national security.”
They included Olivier Prentout, a French national serving as chief marketing officer, Rwandan Annie Bilenge-Tabura, who was head of sales and distribution, and Elsa Mussolini, an Italian who headed MTN’s mobile financial services.
Last month’s expulsion of the Rwandan executive had raised questions about whether the matter was linked to ongoing tensions between Uganda and Rwanda who regularly accuse each other of espionage.
“It was further discovered that the recently-deported MTN managers were behind that infiltration by a foreign country and were in the habit of allowing third parties to hack into communication channels of senior government officials including State House,” he said.
– Museveni points the finger –
Days after the first three managers were expelled, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni met Rob Shuter, MTN’s chief executive, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos where the pair discussed the Ugandan telecoms market.
Following the meeting, Museveni accused MTN of under-declaring call volumes to avoid tax.
He demanded shares in the company to be floated on the Ugandan stock exchange or transferred to the national social security fund “to allow for local ownership.”
MTN Uganda’s 20-year licence expired last year and it is currently operating under an interim licence.
In July 2018, the company said armed men claiming to be from Uganda’s Internal Security Organisation “kidnapped” two of its contractors and forced them to open up the company’s main data centre, where they made an unsuccessful attempt to access servers.
At the time, MTN denounced the incident as “criminal” and reported it to the authorities but said it had no reason to believe it was under investigation.
After Wim Vanhelleputte deportation, Police spokesman Fred Enanga simply said he had been deported for reasons of “national security”.
MTN on Friday confirmed the deportation but said it was unclear why Vanhelleputte had been asked to leave.
“MTN has not been notified of the grounds for the deportation and is working hard to establish precise reasons” for it, said communications manager Valery Okecho.
“We are understandably concerned about these developments and are engaging with the authorities to seek understanding that would lead us to resolve this matter.”
MTN operates in 22 African countries and Vanhelleputte has served as CEO of its Uganda branch since July 2016.
The company said Friday it had appointed its Ugandan chief technology officer Gordian Kyomukama as acting chief executive in order “to ensure business continuity”.