How Rwanda Mafia Penetration, Power Struggles Triggered Storm at MTN Uganda

BY: Eyalama In Business On

On Tuesday afternoon, Anthony Katamba, the General Manager of Corporate Services at MTN Uganda was summoned to the office of Chief Executive Officer, Wim Vanhelleputte.

It appears a decision had already been taken to fire Katamba.

The controversial lawyer wielded immense power at the telecom firm due to his strong connection to MTN Uganda chairman Charles Mbire.

Wim instructed Katamba to resign or face immediate and humiliating dismissal from office.

[corona country="Uganda" title="Uganda"]

In a space of minutes, Katamba’s computer was locked and taken away. His access controls were disabled.

A visibly angry Katamba started banging doors and tables, charging at Wim.

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Katamba reportedly threatened to facilitate the deportation of Wim from Uganda.

It was just a matter of time for Katamba to be removed from MTN’s top executive job.

Wim would eventually find himself in a detention room at Entebbe International Airport before being deported from Uganda.

Mbire speaks out

MTN Chairman Charles Mbire on Thursday morning said he was yet to obtain enough information on what was happening at the leading telecommunication company in Uganda.

“I am not an executive of the company,” said Mbire, adding, “I am the chairman. I am allowed there (MTN headquarters) four times a year for meeting.”

Mbire, who is out of the country, said he “heard about the sacking of Katamba” this week. He promised to follow up on the matter on his return to Uganda.

Katamba saga

The troubles at MTN started as early as 2015 during the reign of Brian Gouldie who replaced Mazen Mroue.

Katamba is said to have undermined Gouldie and partly led to his exit two years after taking on the job.

“You can’t say Katamba merely undermined, it was actual war. He wouldn’t support activities that were driven by the Gouldie. For example, at one time, Katamba instructed the staff that reported directly to him not to do anything for the CEO,” recalled an official at MTN Uganda.

“You can imagine a situation where you had employees collecting salaries for 2 years without doing anything, simply because they knew they were untouchable. Most permanent employees were more afraid of Katamba than they were of the CEO,” the official added.

“Because as Group policy, CEOs only have 2-year contracts. So it’s easier to wait them out and not be seen to be loyal to them when they’ll go and you’re left with a permanent Head of Legal to deal with. So the system became really dysfunctional.”

Until recently, Katamba was seen as untouchable due to his long service to MTN, deep state connections and unshakeable trust of Mbire.

Most importantly, Katamba was head of MTN Uganda’s legal department which gave him a rare opportunity to determine which lawsuits ended up in court and which ones got settled.

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Despite accusations of high-handedness, intrigue and backstabbing MTN leaders, Katamba was kept on the job.

Mbire trusted Katamba as his representative in management mostly full of Group appointees. Even if Gouldie would raise complaints against Katamba, Mbire wouldn’t be interested because of the two Ugandans’ strong relationship.

The troubles at MTN have raised concerns about the future of the company in Uganda.

But insiders said MTN has an opportunity to start afresh considering that Katamba is out.

With four senior executive members gone, and the CEO, they have to start afresh.

“No CEO would have survived with Katamba still in the picture, because he always acts like he owns the company,” said a source at the telecom.

Wim’s war

When Wim took on the job, he was made aware about the difficulty in dealing with Katamba.

It is understood Wim wanted to try and co-exist with Katamba. But as they say, you cannot have two bulls in one kraal.

Wim soon found out that Katamba was a sort of CEO – at least in his own eyes.

Their relationship soon got sour after various escapades of insubordination and outright sabotage. This led to conflicts at work and leakage of sensitive information to security services.

Alleged Crimes

Officials told our reporters that while MTN top bosses had their own misgivings, the state was uncomfortable with the penetration of Rwandan security agencies.

It is said Annie Bilenge Tabura, a Rwandan national who was recently deported, leaked confidential call data of prominent Ugandans to Rwanda.

For starters, Uganda’s relations with Rwanda have in recent years worsened with both countries preparing their armies for any eventuality.

As early as 2017, Rwanda is said to have intensified preparations for war against Uganda.

The plan reportedly involved infiltrating Ugandan towns especially around Kampala with soldiers who would be supplied with guns to start an armed insurrection from central Uganda.

The reports created a very tense atmosphere to an extent that many speculated war would break out in December 2017. Of late, diplomatic relations between Uganda and Rwanda appear to have collapsed.

On its part, Rwanda accuses Uganda of supporting renegade Rwandan dissident Kayumba Nyamwasa, harassment of Rwandans in Uganda and facilitating movement of Rwandan rebels in the region.

Kampala has since dismissed the claims as baseless and expressed commitment to resolve all outstanding issues diplomatically.

Bilenge

For Bilenge, it is alleged she even had an escort car which would be occupied by Rwandan security operatives.

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“The intelligence really followed that woman. You would expect a chief marketing officer to interact freely with everyone but this was not the case. Rwandan security secured her all the time,” said a source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It is alleged Bilenge would take confidential call data to Rwanda where she regularly traveled.

“Call data does not only show who is in touch with whom but can be used to corroborate technical intelligence. For example, with call data, you can tell location of a caller. For example if top UPDF generals are making calls from one point, there is a possibility they are meeting,” the source added.

Deputy Police publicist Polly Namaye last month said Olivier Prentout and Bilenge were deported over their “engagements in acts which compromise national security.”

She added: “We strongly believe that the deportation of the two foreigners, who were using their employment as tools to achieve their ill motives, has enabled us disrupt their intended plans of compromising our national security.”

However, in Rwanda, Bilenge gave a media interview, saying she was never told why she was deported from Uganda as soon as she returned from an MTN Group conference at Kivu Serena Hotel.

She said police deployed at her apartment in Kololo but that she was not around. The following day, Bilenge said she was called to MTN head office to meet police officers who were looking for her.

On reaching the basement parking lot at about 9:15am, about 10 armed security personnel arrested her.

Bilenge was detained at Kireka Police Station until about 6.30pm when she was picked up by a police vehicle and driven to Entebbe, where they arrived at 9:00pm.

“At the airport, they handed me my passport, handbag and a boarding pass and put me on a RwandAir flight to Rwanda. It was only when I arrived in Rwanda that I read in the media that I, Mr Prentout and Ms Mussolini had been deported for undermining state security,” she said.

Deleting call data

Officials told our reporters the second main reason for the deportation of MTN staff is “manipulation of call data.”

Police and other security organs said they would be searching for call data of a suspected criminal only to find that it was already deleted.

“Sometime back a suspect from a neighbouring country was arrested from a Kampala suburb. The man was suspected of being involved in subversive activities. His phone showed he had made calls using an MTN line. But on crosschecking with the call data from MTN, it was hard to obtain this information. If this was not collusion with the suspected criminals, then what is?” wondered a source.

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MTN Uganda said in a statement on Friday that it was “fully committed to respecting and operating within the laws of the country.”

Ugandans on social media have since asked government to explain the specific reasons for the deportation of MTN staff as the current situation could affect investor confidence.

Under declarations

While meeting with MTN Group Chief Executive Officer Rob Shuter at the sidelines of the ongoing World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Museveni said his government had discovered tax under declarations on the part of the telecom.

“We had issues of people cheating our taxes and under declaring calls. We bought our own machines and were able to see all this. It is important that you float shares on the local stock exchange to allow for local ownership now that the license has been renewed,” he said.

President Museveni met with the MTN Group CEO Rob Shuter in Davos

Museveni said he was “particularly irked by the fact that telecom firms are milking vulnerable Ugandans” by not adding value to their products but instead extending “talking services” that have led to severe leakage of the country’s forex.”

He further cautioned Shuter: “Pay attention to this issue. IT penetration in Africa can end up being a problem. If you are providing a service for people to just talk without creating wealth. Telecommunications then get dollars which they take out, leaking even the little money that the country earns from its exports. You should foresee these trade deficits. More locally owned companies should be allowed to earn money so that most of it remains here.”

Mr. Shuter said Uganda has only 5 percent shareholding in MTN and that they were in the process of negotiating about disposing shares to NSSF.

NSSF managing Director Richard Byarugaba told our reporters he could not comment on the matter.

“This is material nonpublic information because MTN South Africa is a listed company.”

Meanwhile, Shuter acknowledged that disguised calls that led to less taxes are a “shared problem” and that his company was “committed to resolving this and complying with the laws of Uganda.”

He said they were open to any investigations to resolve the issues raised

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