Liberia: Orange CEO in Hot Seat After Protest Over Controversial Surcharge Leads to Arrests

Monrovia — Within hours after violence disrupted the free movement of traffic on the Tubman Boulevard and the Old Road Community, last Thursday, security apparatus called in Mr. Mamadou Coulibaly, Chief Executive Officer of Orange Liberia to assist with the investigation.

"The investigation is in progress. Other people of interest are being invited. A report will be submitted in due course but he has been released to his lawyers and will be called back if the investigators need him. Off Record, we sought a warrant from the courts to do some search and seizure and the court reviewing," an official familiar with the investigation told FrontPageAfrica Sunday.

Why Mr. Coulibaly was arrested is still unclear but investigators, speaking on condition of anonymity believe he may have been behind the disruption last Friday.

Last Thursday, the Orange CEO was handcuffed and taken into custody for further questioning. There, sources tell FPA, he was interrogated regarding his role with the organizers of the early morning burning of tires.

Orange vs. The GoL

Since last November, Orange has been at war with the government over surcharges resulting from new regulations imposed by the Liberia Telecommunications Authority and upheld by the Supreme Court of Liberia.

The surcharge is a government revenue generator from the telecommunications sector which was recently implemented to replace the 5 percent tax.

The surcharge represents US$22 million on a turnover of US$93.3 million turnovers, with a big sum of that going to Orange France as management and royalties' fees to avoid further paying local taxes.

Mr. Coulibaly, who took his fight to the high court, was quoted in the France-based JeuneAfrique magazine last November as saying: "We pay an average of 20 million US dollars in taxes each year. On its own, this surcharge represents $32 million on a turnover of $63.1 million."

Orange's argument appears to be generating some traction within the Liberian government with a senior government official questioning the cellular company's contentions. "Orange does not mind paying surcharge in Guinea and Ivory Coast, both Francophone countries, where they invest a lot. But they are objecting in Liberia where they have made no investment since acquiring the company from Cellcom," a senior administration official told FPA back in January.

In April 2016, Orange Group announced the completion of its acquisition of the mobile operator Cellcom. The buyout was carried out via Orange Cote d'Ivoire, which agreed to acquire Cellcom Telecommunications' Liberian subsidiary at the start of 2016, inheriting around 1.4 million subscribers from Cellcom.

Last May, In May the Civil Law Court 'B' at the Temple of Justice denied contentions raised by Orange -Liberia, challenging the Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA) order 0016-02-25-19 that was intended to establish price floors for on-net voice and data services, a regulatory fee on telecommunications goods and services, and a regulatory surcharge for on-net voice and mobile data services.

Judge Scheaplor R. Dunbar declared at the time that: "The petition for judicial review is denied and dismissed, and the resistance is sustained. The stay order of April 15, 2019 is lifted. LTA may proceed to enforce and implement the order," adding costs ruled against Orange-Liberia."

Orange-Liberia's argument has been that despite the regulatory authority vested in LTA over the telecommunications sector and its authority to issue regulations in exercise of said authority, "LTA cannot determine and impose surcharges as same is not within its regulatory authority, as that authority was removed by an Act passed by Legislature and published on August 29, 2017."

The company contends, that LTA has no legal rights to impose floor price and levy surcharges on telecommunications goods and services and that the repealed provision was related to excise tax, which Orange claimed was within the authority of the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA).

The company was dealt a major blow on early this month, when Supreme Court Associate Justice Jamesetta Howard Wolokollie has declined to grant a Writ of Prohibition on the surcharge on voice call and mobile data bundle as the GSM Company remains adamant on adhering to the LTA regulation.

Though the GSM Company, having lost an initial petition filed with the lower court and was awaiting a hearing into the appeal filed with the Supreme Court, Orange filed for another Writ of Prohibition upon receiving an invoice from LTA as the implementation of the surcharge took effect in March this year.

COP Draws the Line

The COP(Council of Patriots) which initially took the blame for the incident through its chairman Henry Costa, issued a statement on the weekend distancing itself from the cellular giant. "We will like to make it categorically clear that it has absolutely no connections whatsoever with Orange Liberia and that news circulating in many quarters especially by government are completely unfounded," the COP said.

The COP, organizers of the successful June 7 protest last year, noted that the history of violence in Liberia is one that has caused our country enormous problems. "Whether it was the years of civil carnage and until recently, the violent incidents in Logan Town and Gardnersville during two by-elections, the Council of Patriots believes that no form of violence must be tolerated especially in our nascent democracy. While the COP encourages Liberians to speak out and protest against the wanton loot and abuse currently taking place, it believes and as it has shown, must be done in a manner and fashion which is representative of the values of the organization. The June 7th and January 6th protests are classic examples of how the organization carries itself even in the midst of provocations by state security forces."

The organization reminded Liberians and the general public that it remains committed to the fight for societal reforms within the confines of the law and can assure our many supporters that we will continue to do so until Liberia becomes a better place for us, our children and our children's children. "The COP will not compromise the collective interest of the suffering masses of our people."

Rebuke from Civil Society

Last Thursday's incident has drawn rebuke from several civil society organization, including the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL); Institute for Research and Democratic Development (IREDD); Naymote Partners for Democratic Development (NAYMOTE-Liberia); and Accountability Lab Liberia. The groups strongly Condemn the Thursday, June 25, 2020 violent demonstration in the Sinkor area, especially setting up of unauthorized road blocks and burning of car tires by unscrupulous individuals allegedly associated with the Council of Patriots (COP), organizer of the June 7, 2019 protest in Monrovia. "We are appalled by this unwholesome act of violence, as such action has the propensity to undermine Liberia's peace and instill fear in citizens and development partners as well as create a sense of insecurity. While we recognize the rights of individuals or groups to protest and or voice out their frustration (s) about any happenings in the country, they must do so civilly and legally. We call on the Ministry of Justice and Liberian National Police to timely investigate the matter and prosecute those who masterminded and executed the Violence."

By the same token, the groups also condemned misjudged statement by the Mayor of the City of Monrovia, Mr. Jefferson Kojee that he will form a Citizens Action Unit (CAU) that will serve as first responder to violent demonstrations/protests in the city of Monrovia. "Such statement is unwarranted, counterproductive to Liberia's peace and undermines the roles of the Liberian National Police and other state security apparatuses in the country. We urge Mr. Kojee to desist from making such utterances as it equally tends to ferment violence and jeopardize the peace of the country. We encourage all Liberians to jealously protect the Peace, as any violence and instability will worsen the already difficult economic condition of the Country."

For Orange and Coulibaly, the coming days could offer a glimpse in the extend of whatever, role, if any, they may have played in last week's melee.

Government investigators are yet to release the names of those arrested last week or the details of what they told investigators.

For the immediate future however, the COP appears divided over its claim of responsibility. "The COP we signed up for is one of peaceful agitation within the ambit of the law. I condemn any action by any group of citizens under any banner that would burn or threaten private and public property. I do not agree with government tariff policies but violent protests is not the way to go. We have not received any information or directive from the Chairman of COP as acting chair and we are awaiting clarity but I will not support violence," Menipakei Dumoe, Acting Chairman said last week.

Investigators, speaking on condition of anonymity Sunday, insisted that they have strong evidence linking Coulibaly to last week's incident. Coulibaly himself is remaining tightlipped and did not respond to an inquiry seeking response as this report went to press.

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