MTN Saga: The genesis of the trouble begins with Kaweesi Murder

MTN Uganda chairman Charles Mbire

The problems that MTN Uganda is grappling with today started way back in 2017, with the investigations into the murder of former Police spokesperson, Andrew Felix Kaweesi. On July 2, last year, the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), acting on a tipoff from a source raided the MTN data centre in Mutundwe, a city suburb, as part of a wider investigation into tax evasion and national security issues.

The raid was the second, after an earlier one in 2017, during the investigations into the murder of Kaweesi. In the 2017 raid, ISO had received a tip that key suspects in the murder of Kaweesi had called each other using their MTN mobile numbers. According to sources in ISO, operatives found that call logs of numbers of suspects that they were investigating in connection with the gruesome murder had been deleted from the data system based in Mutundwe, a Kampala suburb.

Kaweesi was shot dead on March 17, 2017, as he left his home in Kulambiro, together with his bodyguard Kenneth Erau and driver, Godfrey Mambewa, by assailants travelling on motorcycles.

“It was very surprising that the telephone numbers that had been active had their call logs missing in the MTN system,” the source revealed.

kaweesi the day of his murder

As ISO conducted its investigations into the Kaweesi murder, they also received a tip from former whistleblowers, who reported that the company had under-declared tax to the tune of over sh367b by under declaring calls traffic.

UGANDANZ has learnt that security briefed President Yoweri Museveni about their findings, especially the tax evasion revelations. It remains unclear whether the President sanctioned the raid. However, ISO director general Col. Kaka Bagyenda, notified his men to trail engineers responsible for physical access of the data centre in Mutundwe, with the aim of getting as much evidence to back up their investigations. On July 2, ISO raided the MTN Uganda data centre in Mutundwe and, during the raid, the operatives arrested an engineer at the facility, Keefa Musasizi, but later released him.

In a statement, the ISO boss said they raided the offices for security reasons. Then, ISO operatives also travelled to South Africa, as part of their investigations and met senior MTN officials. ISO then briefed the President about their findings and, a week later President Museveni issued a statement putting on notice telecom companies which were involved in tax evasion by underdeclaring calls.

“Ugandans need to know that there are two types of corruption. Some of the thieves steal our money that we have already collected. Others steal the money we have not collected in form of concealling tax sources, under-declaring telephone calls, under-declaring rent collected from buildings and under-declaring the value of imports,” the President noted.

The ISO raid is also said to have revealed the level of espionage within senior MTN staff. The Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) said they landed on information that MTN staff were involved in espionage. Working with the Police, CMI said they got vital information linking top MTN staff to a spy network in which they were reported to be tracking phone calls and data of top government officials. Their investigations revealed that a neighboring country had infiltrated the telecom giant and placed key staff in strategic places, and had accessed critical information on key government officials and even eavesdropped on their conversations.

The appointment of Annie Tabura, a Rwandan national who worked for MTN Rwanda for 17 years, in April last year, as the general manager for sales and distribution, further aggravated the situation. Between January 19 and 21, Ugandan security arrested and deported Olivier Prentout (French), who was the chief marketing officer; Elsa Muzzolinni (Italian), who was the head of mobile financial services and Tabura. The trio was accused of being involved in sponsoring protests against the Government in the wake of the mobile money tax debate, espionage and also funding hostile campaigns against the Government.

Security insists that the trio, together with others, attended meetings in and outside the country, during which matters relating to the funding of the hate campaigns were discussed. Their arrest and deportation was sparked off after Tabura and Prentout attended a January 17, MTN Group conference.

“We received credible reports that these met security agents from the neighbouring country and shared confidential details with them,” the source revealed.

On January 19, as the two returned into the country, they were intercepted at Entebbe International Airport and placed in different rooms. An officer at the immigration desk told them separately that something was not clear in the system. Tabura was cleared and asked to check out her work permit while Prentout was immediately deported.

The Police trailed Tabura from Entebbe to her home in Kololo, but did not arrest her. The following day, Monday January 21, the Police raided her home, but did not find her. About 10 Police officers then raided the MTN offices and demanded her. She was arrested, blindfolded and driven to Kireka Special Investigations Directorate. Her embassy was informed about her arrest and, at around 6:00pm, she was driven to Entebbe Airport, handed her a bag, passport and a boarding pass, and put on RwandAir to leave.

Security agencies continued investigating other senior MTN officers. However, on Tuesday last week, MTN chief executive officer, Wim Vanhelleputte, who had already recorded statements with security, summoned Anthony Katamba, the MTN manager for legal and corporate affairs, and fired him. Katamba was fired after information from his colleagues linked him to internal fights within the company. An internal report sent to Vanhelleputte about Katamba indicated that he was leaking company secrets to security.

Vanhelleputte blocked Katamba’s access cards and ordered security not to allow him into any MTN facility. Security sources further said Vanhelleputte warned MTN employees against sharing any internal information about the company to security and those that would be found in breach would have their services immediately terminated.

On Wednesday, security was informed that the three former officers who had been deported still had access to MTN Uganda systems and were controlling it remotely. A whistleblower also revealed that the three former MTN Uganda staff attended an MTN Global leaders’ conference in Dubai last week as part of the delegation from Uganda, despite being deported.

(L– R): Mr. Wim Vanhelleputte (MTN Uganda CEO), Mr. Charles Mbire (MTN Uganda Chairman), (Mr Rob Shuter, MTN Group President and CEO), Rt. Hon. Ruhakana Rugunda (Uganda Premier). MTN Uganda top executives are in trouble following an escalating fall-out with govt (FILE PHOTO)

“The three had been deported because of espionage and the fact that they were allowed to travel as part of Uganda’s delegation raised questions over MTN’s commitment to reform,” a senior intelligence source revealed.

Armed with this new intelligence, Vanhelleputte was summoned to Kireka, where he recorded statements and detectives interrogated him about data security at MTN, international telephone call traffic and circumstances under which he left his employment in OLASCOM in Chad. Security also wanted to know whether MTN data is archived outside Uganda and whether any other company was contracted to handle the data.

On Thursday afternoon, he was declared persona non-grata. The internal affairs minister, Gen. Jeje Odongo, signed the deportation order and Vanhelleputte was escorted to his office at around 3:00pm, his laptop taken and was escorted to Entebbe airport. He boarded his flight at around 11:02pm.