Business in Africa

MTN Uganda may have been caught in crossfire between Museveni and Kagame

Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Museveni (L) , Wednesday 07 April 2004, EPA/RICKY GARE

A bitter rivalry between Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan President Paul Kagame seems to lie behind the deportation of MTN’s Ugandan CEO and other top company executives over the past month.

On Thursday Wim Vanhelleputte became the fourth senior MTN executive to be kicked out of Uganda in 2019, mostly on grounds of allegedly undermining state security.

Vanhelleputte, a Belgian national, was put on a plane to Belgium late Thursday night. MTN said in a statement on Friday it had not been notified by the Kampala government of the grounds for the deportation “and is working hard to establish precise reasons for the deportation”.

However local media have quoted anonymous government officials as saying that Vanhelleputte had been kicked out because he continued to allow three other top MTN executives, who were deported in January, to continue doing their jobs online.

MTN Uganda chief marketing officer and French national Olivier Prentout, head of sales and distribution Annie Bilenge Tabura, a Rwandan national, and general manager for mobile financial services Else Mussolini, a Franco-Italian citizen, were all deported between 19 and 22 January. MTN also said then that the Ugandan government had given it no reasons for the deportations.

The Kampala-based Monitor newspaper has reported that only Mussolini has spoken publicly about her deportation, saying she had been expelled for allegedly inciting violence by funding Kyandondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi, alias the controversial musician and opposition activist Bobi Wine, and his campaigns against taxes levied on social media use and mobile money transactions.

When Tabura and Prentout were deported, Ugandan police issued a statement saying security agencies, in close co-ordination with immigration officials, had been investigating them “over their engagement in acts which compromise national security”.

Police said the two were using their employment “as tools to achieve their ill motives”.

Deputy police spokesperson Polly Namaye reportedly told NTV Uganda at the time that Prentout and Tabura “were privy to technology and information that an ordinary person wouldn’t have” and that security agencies “felt that if they remained here, it would cause us further compromise of security”.

They used their offices to jeopardise our security, so their presence here was a security threat.”

Local media have speculated that Tabura at least, and possibly Prentout, were deported on suspicion of working with Rwandan intelligence.

Museveni and Kagame, once close friends and political and military allies who helped each other to seize power in their respective countries, have since become bitter enemies who accuse each other of trying to topple or even assassinate the other.

In 2017 Kagame is reported to have protested to Museveni about Uganda allegedly providing support to the opposition political party the Rwanda National Congress (RNC). The Rwandan government accuses the RNC of being a “terrorist” organisation that is trying to topple Kagame’s government from military bases in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The RNC insists it is a legitimate political party opposing Kagame only by peaceful means. The RNC was founded by, among others, former Rwandan army chief of staff General Kayumba Nyamwasa and former external intelligence chief Colonel Patrick Karegeya after both had fled to South Africa when they fell out with Kagame.

Karegeya was murdered in a Sandton hotel room on 31 December 2013, while Nyamwasa survived several attempts on his life in South Africa. He now lives under close South African government protection. Rwandan dissidents and many South African government officials suspect that the Rwandan government was behind all these activities. In 2014 Pretoria expelled several diplomats from the Rwandan embassy in Pretoria for complicity in the attempts on Nyamwasa’s life.

The online journal Softpower News has reported, quoting anonymous Ugandan security officials, that Tabura was deported because she had set up a mobile money network which she was using to fund subversive and criminal activities on behalf of the Rwandan government.

Somehow this network was supposed to have helped Rwandan intelligence gain information about dissident Rwandans living in refugee camps in Uganda. This is alleged to have helped Rwandan agents kidnap dissidents and return them to Rwanda.

Softpower News also linked the deportations to the sacking and court-martial in 2018 of Ugandan police inspector-general General Kale Kayihura. He was accused of being a Rwandan agent who helped the Rwandan government kidnap and forcibly repatriate dissidents from Uganda.

Softpower News said it had been told by police sources that a police officer working with Kayihura had connived with one of the staffers of MTN Uganda to delete call records that were likely to implicate the officers in some of these criminal activities.

None of these allegations could be independently confirmed. DM