MTN Uganda CEO deported; fourth exec this year

By Fred Ojambo and Loni Prinsloo

(Bloomberg) – MTN Group Ltd.’s Uganda business head was deported over what police called a national security matter, the latest in a string of headaches that Africa’s biggest wireless carrier has had around the continent.

Chief Executive Officer Wim Vanhelleputte was expelled from the East African nation at about midnight, police spokesman Fred Enanga said by phone on Friday. Police will issue a detailed report after further investigation, he said. MTN hasn’t been given a reason for the move and is in talks with local authorities, the Johannesburg-based carrier said in an emailed statement.

The loss of the local CEO comes as MTN pursues a plan to give up some control of the Ugandan business, with a view to increase domestic ownership. That may result in a private placement of shares or a stock-market listing in Kampala, the capital, an MTN spokeswoman said in an emailed response to questions. The carrier is also in discussions about an extension to its Uganda license, and agreed a three-month extension last month to enable talks to continue.

MTN has come under pressure in various countries to sell down stakes in local units, and completed an initial public offering of its Ghana business last year. A long-held plan to list MTN Nigeria in Lagos is penciled in for 2019.

MTN shares rose 0.8% to R86.66 as of 2:28pm in Johannesburg, valuing the company at R164bn ($11.6bn). The Uganda division is small in the context of the whole business, with about 10.8m subscribers out of a total of more than 225m across the continent and the Middle East.

The row also comes as MTN sweats on the outcome of a dispute in Nigeria over $2bn in allegedly unpaid back taxes. That followed a months-long battle in the same country over an accusation that the carrier illegally transferred money out of its biggest market, though that was settled with a relatively minor penalty of $53m. MTN has had other recent crises in Benin and Cameroon in recent years, and is struggling to get money out of Iran, its second-largest market, due to US-led sanctions.

Vanhelleputte was placed on a plane to Belgium after police, military and anti-terror unit officers questioned him, Uganda’s state-owned New Vision newspaper reported Friday, citing Enanga.

He is the fourth MTN Uganda executive to be deported this year after the removal in January of Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Prentout, Sales and Distribution Manager Annie Bilenge Tabura and Elisa Muzzolini, according to the Kampala-based newspaper. Muzzolini was the corporate services manager.