Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Nigeria: NITEL is up for its fourth (4th) privatization under a new board of directors

[daily trust] Nigeria Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) is becoming synonymous with controversy as the renewed bid to sell the foremost national carrier for the fourth time is being threatened by infighting and battle of wits amongst stakeholders.

In what seems like a battle for spoils, parties involved are set for a show down.

And should the development be left unchecked, the entire exercise might lead to another round of failure and by extension short changing the Nigerian people.

Following the revocation of the Share Purchase Agreement of the telecoms outfit to Transcorp, the federal government in June set up a technical board consisting of members to oversee the company and to also get a credible core investor for it.

In a statement signed by Senior Special Assistant (Media and Publicity) to the Vice-President, Ima Niboro, the Technical Board under the chairmanship of Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Information and Communication Dr. Abubakar Muhammad, the board will be responsible for the day-to-day administration of the company in the interim, pending the completion of the on-going core investor sale process.

Other members of the board are Director-General, BPE, Dr. Christopher Anyanwu; Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance Steve Oronsaye (now, Head of Service); Acting MD, NITEL (to be appointed); Director, Information and Communication, Ibrahim Kashim; SSA (Econs) to VP, Mr. Sam Worlu; representative of the Chairman, National Council on Privatisation (NCP); and Managing Director, NIGCOMSAT Ltd.

At the moment, a substantive Managing Director has not been appointed for NITEL and MTEL. Speculations are rife in the media that one of the board members is currently angling to head the conglomerate whereas the BPE, which is represented by two members i.e. the DG and a director is given to having an in house head for the company. Apart from that, while the BPE wants the company sold in bits, some members of the board are said to be striving to convince the federal government to invest and reactivate it instead of outright sale at the moment.

Daily Trust reported an unnamed source at the weekend, who is believed to be a member of the technical committee of accusing the BPE of being bent on rendering the technical board useless and conniving with interested parties to sell NITEL as scrap without value.

"We have evidence that the BPE does not mean well for NITEL. We are aware of a security report showing that BPE is behind the various crises bedevilling the technical board since it was constituted to manage the affairs of NITEL after the cancellation of its sale to Transcorp. The two BPE members on the Technical Board have stopped attending our meetings and even before then the BPE refused to implement the decision to pay 50% of SAT-3 debt. We asked the BPE to also pay so that it would not be disconnected from London. We recently had to also pay PHCN debt of N350, 000 to prevent them from totally disconnecting NITEL facilities."

Not done yet, the source said, "The downfall of NITEL started with the intervention of the BPE in the privatisation process. When Obasanjo took over in 1999, NITEL was worth $8 billion. Today, thanks to the BPE which first gave the company to Pentascope and later Transcorp, NITEL value now stand at less than $200 million and they have never deemed it fit to apologise to Nigerians for misadvising government on the competence of these companies they have been off-loading NITEL to. He said since 2004, NITEL had no audited account and management were and BPE never cared because they want to sell NITEL as scrap."

But the BPE sees this as a waste of money. The BPE's spokesman told Daily Trust on phone that, "There is disagreement on procedures. Our stand has always been that while privatising, there is no need for refurbishing and rehabilitation because it is wasteful."

Other members of the technical board are believed to be taking sides with the position canvassed by the proposal of the member, because "they are ministry people and that is where they will get contracts from," a source said.

These are some of the intrigues of interest currently facing the once flag bearer of Nigeria telecoms industry.

Anichebe had said last week in an interview told Daily Trust that the CVs of top managers at the company were being scrutinised to get a capable hand for the firm.

"I am suspecting they should have the short list ready before council meeting where whoever is recommended will be approved by the council. The next council meeting comes up next (this) week. We are looking at general managers and Deputy General Managers. Within that ranks, we hope to get somebody who will be able to be in charge till we find another investor," he said. The three deputy managers are Mrs Laraba Abbas, Sabo Ibrahim and Pius Ugandem.

NITEL in 2002 had 553,471 functional lines and a generated income at N53.41 billion as a viable company apart from labour related issues, a debt overhang of over N20 billion, stripped assets and liabilities arising from unpaid workers arrears, and pensioners' dues, NITEL is no doubt a shadow of its old self.

In 2002 when the first attempt to sell the company to Investors International London Limited (IILL), NITEL had over 10,000 employees. In 2003 before Pentascope took over, NITEL generated and collected N51.43 billion as revenue in one year from about 555,055 connected lines. After 23 months of Pentascope take over, the connected lines dropped to 440,000 and a debt profile of over N40 billion was incurred which eventually led to the revocation of deal with Pentascope. In 2005, Orascom, the Egyptian telecoms giant failed to buy the company because their $250 million bid was said to be below the reserved price.

The takeover of NITEL by Trans-national Corporation (Transcorp) in 2006 was celebrated with fanfare. The $500 million deal promised to turn around the company but three years after, they left it in a sorry state.

When they took over, NITEL'S connected line was 400,000. Three years after, it dropped to less than 100,000. Working lines was 296,000, it has dropped to 5,000. M-tel had about 1.3 million lines when Transcorp took over, but today, the lines stand at less than 100, 000. The 250,000 CDMA lines that were at 90% completion before Transcorp took over have not been completed. There were 249 (out of the original 284) active exchanges in the NITEL network nationwide at the time Transcorp took over. Today less than 60 of them are working, many of them shut down due to power problems.

The Transmission link nationwide through optic fibre network and the Micro-wave (Radio) link have broken down. Today, calls cannot be made in any part of Nigeria (e.g. Abuja to Kaduna) on a land line. Most observers are waiting earnestly to see whom the BPE will hand over NITEL to this time around.

Globacom has not hidden its interest in acquiring NITEL but those opposed to this move think that it could create monopoly in the Nigeria telecom industry.

The National Council on Privatisation (NCP) chaired by Vice President Goodluck Jonathan with up to five ministers as members will definitely have the final say. However, the term of reference among others given to the board upon its appointment was to hold the forth and make NITEL/MTEL as a going concern till a credible investor is found.

How the battle of wits and interest plays out in the nearest future can only be left for time to tell but no doubt the entity to suffer most is NITEL itself and the staff who have suffered untold hardship over the years.

Nitel Privatisation - the Politics, the Crisis

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