16 February 2019

Uganda: Inside the Crisis at MTN Uganda

Photo: Alex Esagala/Daily Monitor
People wait to register their SIM cards at an MTN service centre in Kampala (file photo).

Kampala — The saga involving government and MTN Uganda bigwigs, which has been unfolding for months, appears to have reached a climax on Thursday night with the deportation of the telecom's chief executive officer, Wim Vanhelleputte.

Details emerging from Mr Vanhelleputte's deportation show that Ugandan security had run out of patience with him after he let staff, who had been deported from Uganda, continue with direct supervision and issuing directives regarding operations of their respective departments 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 have continued to do work using virtual space," a security source said in response to queries over the latest deportation.

"They (MTN) were aware this matter was under investigation, yet they have continued to give access to the people we deported, just because there is virtual space and can work from anywhere. Let him [Mr Vanhelleputte] go," the source added.

As was with all previous accusations, our source could not be brought to explain how exactly the MTN executives were compromising Uganda's security.

But Mr Valery Okecho, the MTN of manager corporate communications, when presented with the accusation, said: "I am hearing of this from you for the first time. I can't really confirm or comment on that because the police have not made us aware of the reasons surrounding the deportation of the CEO."

He added: "They have confirmed he has been deported, but we haven't been made aware of the grounds, but we are working hard to find out because we have official contacts with the security and we have contacted them since last night both in written format and other means over the phone to try and establish the grounds for his deportation."

Net cast wider

Though no details have been provided, the unprecedented deportation of four of MTN's top officials, including Mr Vanhelleputte, suggests the investigation by the authorities is wider and not restricted to only breach of national security as earlier reported.

Already expelled from the country are Elsa Mussolini (Italian), 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.

Ms Mussolini was deported over accusations of inciting violence while Mr Prentout and Ms Tabura were accused of undermining State security with the police saying they "were using their employment as tools to achieve their ill motives."

Only Ms Mussolini has so far spoken out saying she was deported for allegedly inciting violence by funding Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, the Kyandondo East MP and his campaigns against taxes levied on social media use and mobile money transaction.

Mr Vanhelleputte was "indefinitely" kicked out of Uganda according to a letter signed on Thursday by Internal Affairs minister Gen Jeje Odongo.

Mr Vanhelleputte is married to a Ugandan and has lived in the country on and off for many years.

However, Saturday Monitor could not establish his immigrant status here. Efforts to get a comment from his wife, Ms Babara Adoso-Vanhelleputte, were fruitless as she was out of office.

But her colleague later called back and provided her email address with a request that Saturday Monitor mails her any queries, but warned that Ms Vanhelleputte may not take calls from contacts she doesn't know.

Concerns

"We are understandably concerned about these developments and are engaging with the authorities to seek understanding that would lead us to resolving this matter," a statement issued by MTN group Corporate Affairs reads in part.

But Section 60 of the Uganda Citizenship and Immigration Control Act grants the minister of Internal Affairs powers to deport an immigrant,

Separate sources have told Saturday Monitor that the investigations into the leading telecom touch on very many aspects summarised in three themes of security, money and politics. We have been told that more purges of both local and foreign employees are expected to continue.

So far, the choice of deportations and not prosecution, if there is any wrongdoing, has not been clearly explained with sources suggesting that the State opted for the deportation to stop the telecom's top managers from influencing the ongoing investigations.

Plot

Reports also indicate that the authorities in Kampala have little interest in the company's top echelons but are building a case against the company that could result in hefty fines and a change in modus operandi of the telecom giant's operations in Uganda.

But commenting on the claims, Mr Fred Otunu, the Director of Corporate Affairs at the Uganda Communications Commission, said: "As a regulator, we don't have any issues with the company. We have operational and routine issues of quality of service, coverage in areas where there are few pockets of no coverage. Basically technical issues is what we have with MTN as such."

For now, it remains unclear when the house-cleaning exercise believed to have started with the July 2018 raid by Internal Security Organisation operatives, who confiscated the company's servers at its call centre in Mutundwe, located on Kampala City outskirts, will end.

Citizenship and Immigration Control Act (2009)

Powers: Provisions of Section 60 of the Uganda Citizenship and Immigration Control Act provides: "Minister may, in writing signed by him or her, order any prohibited immigrant or person whose presence in Uganda is unlawful to be deported out of Uganda, either indefinitely or for such period of time as may be specified in the order."

The order, the Act provides, shall be carried into effect in such manner as the minister may direct.

Response. A person against whom a deportation order has been made may, if the minister so directs, while waiting for deportation and being conveyed to the place of departure, be kept in custody, and while so kept shall be deemed to be in lawful custody.

If a person is brought before a court by an immigration officer, the Act adds, the court is informed that an application for a deportation order in respect of the person has been made, the court may direct that that person be detained in custody for a period not exceeding two months.

Revoking deportation. The Minister has powers to vary or revoke a deportation order.

A person aggrieved by a deportation may appeal against the order of deportation within 15 days after the date of the order to the High Court, and a person aggrieved by the decision of the High Court may appeal against it to the Court of Appeal. The High Court is vested with powers to stay the deportation order prior to its ruling in case of any challenge.

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