26 February 2014

Uganda: MTN Explains Row On National Park Masts

Telecommunications giant MTN this week moved to explain an apparent row with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) over fees for hoisting their mast in Murchison Falls national park.

According to the auditor general's report for the year that ended June 30, 2012, which the parliamentary committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (COSASE) is handling, the MTN contract with UWA expired but the company is yet to enter into a new contract.

The committee last week camped at Spring International hotel in Kasese, where they tasked UWA officials, led by Executive Director Andrew Seguya, to answer queries raised by the auditor general's report.

Dr Seguya told the MPs that since the MTN contract expired in 2012, the telecom firm was still paying the old fee of $15,000 per year instead of the revised fee of $20,000, making the conservation body lose $5,000 a year. MPs gave Seguya a difficult time.

"Why would you allow MTN to continue running its masts without an agreement? Isn't that double standards, allowing one company to pay less than the other?" asked the committee chairperson Patrick Oboi Amuriat.

He also asked why UWA had not moved to shut down the mast sites. Seguya responded that they had attempted to do so, only to receive "calls from above."

"These are very sensitive masts used by oil companies and security agencies. Every time you attempt to close them, they appeal to the higher authority. Because for me, it is simple to close the gates of my park until their generators run out of fuel," he said before demanding to divulge more details in camera without the press.

"You have proven to us that you don't have the powers to switch off these masts. You are like toothless dogs. You can't bite. Somebody is bulldozing you," Amuriat told Seguya.

In an email to The Observer, the MTN general manager corporate services, Anthony Katamba, refuted claims that they had refused to pay the new price.

"MTN Uganda has had a telecommunication mast at Murchison Falls national park, Paraa, for over ten years," he said. "We have fully met our rental obligations for the space occupied by our mast during its existence in the park. We are currently involved in negotiations with the ministry of ICT, ministry of Tourism and the UWA executive to extend the lease agreement for an additional period."

The expiry of the MTN contract is one of the many issues raised by the auditor general about UWA's financial management. The others include flaws in the gorilla booking system. The auditor general complained of "no provision of statistics of cancelled permits apart from 100% paid permits."

"One would not be able to obtain a report on say 30% deposit," the report reads.

Tour operators are required to pay 30 per cent of the fees upfront to book gorilla permits, which cost $600 each, before they go out to market them. For every booked permit they fail to sell, they are refunded 70 per cent of the money.

Mirembe Senoga, the finance and administration director at UWA, revealed that this flaw in the gorilla booking system was being addressed through a smart card system, which was introduced in August last year. The smart card system, now being piloted in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest national park, requires every guest to access the park by swiping the card at the entrance.

"The receipting of income is now done directly in the bank. A report on cancelled permits can be generated," Mirembe noted.

However, the auditor general further indicated that the gorilla booking system didn't "provide the feature for intending trackers to establish online availability of gorilla space." This, according to the auditor general, is exclusively known to the unit supervisor.

This explains why UWA last year moved to design the online gorilla marketing system, which has caused a rift between the conservation body and tour operators.

"We designed an online [gorilla booking and marketing] system but it was opposed by tour operators and halted by the minister [of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities]," Seguya responded. This response prompted Amuriat to interject:

"But you are serving the interests of the board, not tour operators."

Minister Maria Mutagamba halted the system late last year after tour operators claimed that the new system would drive them out of business by reducing their negotiation powers.

Gorilla permits, they said, are like the icing on the cake, which tour operators use to bargain and market the country so that a tourist is obliged to visit several other tourist sites before capping it up with the gorillas. Putting the permits online, tour operators argued, would make them accessible to anyone in any country, making them lose out on the chain as the buyer can easily trade with UWA.

In a special sitting, however, the UWA board resolved that gorilla permits would only be sold to local tour operators. But even with that provision, the tour operators objected to the idea of marketing the permits online.

For this, the committee resolved to summon the minister together with tour operators to explain why they are resisting the new system. According to Seguya, $25,000 was spent on developing the system.

"I don't fully understand why even after spending so much on the software, you are not using it. It is a total waste to have invested in the software that you are not using," Amuriat noted.

"Is it the minister slapping the ban or tour operators influencing the minister? We would like to have the minister to explain her decision."

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