Weird Claims In Uganda – The Phone Company Was Wiretapping The Government

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All things are possible of course but this one does sound more than a little odd. A mobile telecoms company in Uganda was wiretapping the government. That’s what the claim is at least however bizarre it sounds. As ever with things out of Africa, there’s always something new, eh?

But this is what is being claimed:

The MTN Uganda chief executive officer, Wim Vanhelleputte was deported to Belgium for allegedly conspiring with other workers to record phone conversations of high ranking government officials and security chiefs. Last week, minister of Internal Affairs, Gen. Jeje Odongo ordered for the deportation of Vanhelleputte who has been in the position since August 2016. His deportation came days after the arrest and deportation of three other senior employees of the telecommunications giant including chief marketing officer, Olivier Prentout (French), mobile money general manager, Elsa Mussolini (Italian) and Annie Tabura (Rwandan) who was the general manager for sales and distribution at the telecom giant.

It is, obviously, possible that this was happening. Quite why is a little more difficult to understand but there we are.

That wiretapping can be done by the company should be obvious. It’s the law that it can:

President Yoweri Museveni has signed into law the Regulation of Interception of Communications Bill, 2010, giving powers to security officials to listen into private communication if they have sufficient reason to suspect the communication is in aid of criminal activity.

But it is rather the expectation of the law that it will be government using the telecoms company to do the tapping rather than the other way around.

As to quite what did happen, there is a no doubt entirely scurrilous rumour floating around which suggests that not all is exactly as it seems. Back in January the President was most unhappy with the terms upon which MTN renewed its licence:

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has criticized the telecommunications regulator after it slashed MTN Uganda’s fee for renewing its telecoms license, according to a letter seen by Reuters.

The regulator insisted that MTN invest more as a condition of retaining the licence. As these things go, demanding that more be invested is going to mean a willingness to pay less for spectrum and the operating licence and so it turned out. And this is where the scurrility comes in. For it was only a few days after that that the allegations that the company was tapping government were first floated:

On 19 January, MTN Uganda chief marketing officer Olivier Prentout was arrested by police at Entebbe airport upon arrival from a business trip abroad. Then on 21 January, MTN Uganda head of sales and distribution Annie Bilenge Tabura was arrested by unidentified security personnel upon arrival at the MTN headquarter offices, in Kololo, Kampala. Subsequently, Prentout and Bilenge were deported from Uganda to their home countries, France and Rwanda, respectively. MTN said on 22 January, Elza Muzzolini, head of mobile financial services, was also deported from Uganda.

It’s possible that pointing out those basic economic facts about licence fees was not well received. Or, of course, that tapping really was going on as a result of the company wanting to find out what was going to happen next. Really all we know at the moment is that the allegation itself is bizarre. We might gain more elucidation when we see whether MTN is willing to increase the licence fee it pays in the near future.

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