MTN puts CTO in charge after Uganda expels Belgian CEO

15 February 2019 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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South African group MTN has confirmed that it is mystified and concerned about yesterday’s expulsion from Uganda of the CEO of MTN Uganda.

Wim Vanhelleputte was last night bundled on to a Brussels Airlines flight back to Belgium, of which he is a citizen.

MTN said this morning that CTO Gordian Kyomukama (pictured) will be acting CEO of the Uganda operation.

A Ugandan police spokesman Fred Enanga told the Reuters news agency this morning that the reason for Vanhelleputte’s expulsion was “circumstances of national security”, without giving details.

However General Jeje Odongo, the minister of internal affairs, said later this morning that he “had been deemed to be an undesirable immigrant by virtue of section 52(g) of the Uganda Citizenship and Immigration Control Act.” But Odongo gave no further details.

Vanhelleputte, who had been CEO since August 2016, is the fourth executive deported from MTN Uganda in a few weeks. In just four days in January the government expelled CMO Olivier Prentout, head of sales and distribution, Annie Bilenge Tabura, and head of mobile financial services, Elsa Muzzolini. Police said at the time that they were removed “over their engagements in acts which compromise national security”.

In January MTN said from South Africa, where the group is based: “MTN Uganda has not been officially notified of the grounds for these arrests and deportations and is trying to establish the precise reasons for the deportations. We are understandably concerned about these developments and the wellbeing of all our employees.”

This morning the company said about Vanhelleputte’s deportation: “MTN has not been notified of the grounds for the deportation and is working hard to establish precise reasons for the deportation. We are understandably concerned about these developments and are engaging with the authorities to seek understanding that would lead us to resolving this matter.”

MTN is the biggest mobile operator in Uganda and, according to some measures, the biggest company. Its official 20-year licence expired last year, though it has been allowed to continue in operation for a short time while the regulator considers an application for a 10-year extension.

However the government, led by President Yoweri Museveni, has been calling for the MTN group is list shares in MTN Uganda on the local market to allow domestic ownership and retain some of its profit locally.

But there has been other pressure on MTN in Uganda. Government security personnel last year raided its data centre and disconnected four of its servers.

Bilenge, one of the three expelled in January, is a Rwandan and one aspect of the case is increasing tension between Rwanda and Uganda. It is reported that over 30,000 Rwandans are living in Uganda and a number of Rwandan citizens have been kidnapped – including, it is alleged, by police – and forcibly deported.

There appears to be no common factor in the expulsions and disappearances: one, reported a few weeks ago by Rwanda’s New Times newspaper was Moses Ishimwe Rutare, a Rwandan who runs an events management company, who was picked up by operatives attached to Uganda’s chief of military intelligence

However the Rwandan connection does not explain the cases of Muzzolini and Prentout, both of whom appear from their background to be French. Muzzolini worked for Orange Cameroun and Orange Central Africa before joining MTN; Prentout was in Orange in Moldova and then Millicom in Chad and Tanzania.