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Is Uganda running paranoid over Rwanda’s deep connection in MTN?

Did RPF really sell its stake in MTN Uganda in 2006 or are they holding on through a proxy that is making Museveni uneasy?

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SECURITY | The cracks between Uganda and Rwanda have widened into a gaping hole, with little to suggest that the two protagonists in Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame have any intention to plug it. Either of them could fall into the hole. An abyss.

As the relations soured, three senior managers at MTN Uganda were this week deported over engaging in activities deemed threatening to national security. Rwandan Annie Bilenge Tabura, the general manager for sales and distribution, and Frenchman Olivier Prentout, the chief marketing officer, were seen out of Entebbe International Airport on Monday.

Sendo Cleaners

On Tuesday, Elsa Musolini, the head of mobile money, was driven to Entebbe airport on a no-return flight headed for Italy.

Unlike the Italian and her French counterpart, the attention has been on Tabura, who the state directly indicates was engaged in spying for her home government. Matters Uganda and Rwanda are always as feisty as they are frosty, regardless of who is frothing in the mouth.

Yet the two leaders have a long history. It was Yoweri Museveni who invited Rwandan refugees to his cause and relied heavily on their loyalty to capture Kampala. He also offered those who wished to stay permanently all they needed for utmost comfort.

But times have changed and the comrades of yesterday are a threat today. The raids on MTN Uganda and constant targeting of its senior managers and other staffers points to just that one thing: Museveni is out to weed out traces of Rwandans he believes have formed a Moo Myung (Korean historical underground organisation that ran spy networks and controlled governments with their ability to gain all sorts of information) in Uganda.

The Moo Myung, also called Deep-Rooted Tree, are legendary. Their spying network was elaborate. They lived among the people, served in governments and shared the communal borehole. They were everyday neighbours. But in whatever they did, gathering information that helps their cause was their priority.

So was Annie Bilenge Tabura one of the deep roots of the Rwandan Moo Myong in MTN Uganda?

“Spies are not grilled for a few hours and escorted out of the country,” said a sour manager at MTN in confidentiality because of the sensitivity of the matter. “Spying on a government is treason so one would think Annie would have been interrogated or jailed. But this was too casual.”

Understandably, Rwanda is not buying into the major reason Uganda gave for deporting Tabura. The country’s deputy foreign minister Olivier Nduhungirehe suggested in a cheeky tweet that the only Rwandans allowed to move freely in Uganda are rebels he claims Uganda is training to destabilise his country.

“Apparently, walking and working in Uganda while Rwandan have become a crime. The only activities allowed for Rwandans in Uganda seem to be plotting against their country, training forces for the RNC/P5 and denouncing fellow Rwandans,” Amb Nguhungirehe said.

Intrigue cited

Some staff at MTN blame intrigue at the country’s biggest telecom company for Tabura’s woes. The Rwandan was hired by MTN Group having previously worked in South Africa before being posted to her home country. The manner of her recruitment means the job was not advertised.

Since her arrival in 2018, the sales and distribution department she headed has seen drastic changes, including scrapping of 10% commissions on distribution. Competition stiffened and with this, the unhealthy side that gave way to intrigue.

“Tabura pushed for payments in the refugee camps, which meant that she could easily get the numbers, the edge over her direct competitors in the distribution chain, leaving others affected,” a source said.

With Rwandans in refugee camps and Tabura getting to work with them, major distributors like Sam Engola and Charles Mbiire found themselves in a tight squeeze. Engola and Mbiire are believed to be some of the biggest funders of the ruling NRM party.

Musolini, as head of mobile money, was in position to stop this line of business engagement but she did nothing about it. She later told staff security had told her that she had dealings with Kyaddondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine.

Musolini is understood to have met the legislator on personal terms and not on behalf of MTN, but her crime of not stopping Tabura’s dealings with refugees ultimately wedged the axe on her.

Prentout, on the other hand, was working closely with Tabura by virtue of their positions. He was involved in most of the persons Tabura contacted in her sales and distribution network. From contacts with Rwandan officials, it emerged in security that Prentout was also dealing with Bobi Wine.

Rwanda and MTN

Spying is about gathering information on your enemy to gain the edge on them and control their activities. What better way to gather information in today’s technology-driven era than through a telecom!

President Museveni is understood to suspect that Rwanda’s intelligence is deeply intertwined in Uganda’s telecommunication network. But why MTN Uganda when there are other telcos in the country?

When the telecom giants were starting off 21 years ago, among their shareholders was Tri-Star Investment, a Rwandan-based investment holding company founded in 1995. This is the company that morphed into Crystal Ventures, Rwanda Patriotic Front’s holding company, with stakes in several businesses in Rwanda.

By 1998, the RPF holding company was so robust that it even partnered with MTN Group  to establish a mobile-phone network at a time few saw viable prospects in Rwanda. Crystal Ventures still owns stakes in MTN Rwanda.

Of course, Rwanda is not the only place in Africa where political parties run businesses. In Ethiopia, Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, said to be the richest party in Africa, invests in shoes, pharmaceuticals and other ventures.

Yet in 2006, Tri-Star Investment was reported to have sold its 12% stake in MTN Uganda for a cash-only consideration of $55 million.

“At the time, MTN Uganda was flourishing, why would RPF just give up its stakes in MTN Uganda when it offered them the best possible avenue to keep an ear on Uganda?” asked a source.

To underscore the importance of the telecom industry to spying, one would look at two scenarios in Uganda and Rwanda. In Uganda, 12 years ago, an MTN engineer got his ears on a highly confidential discourse in security. Days later, the engineer received a visit from gun-toting men who demanded to know how much he knew about what he had overheard.

This was a life and death situation but he somehow was let off after he convinced the security that he knew nothing of the matter. MTN acted fast after the incident and shipped the engineer out of the country with tough conditions. Such is the potential of telecom if used in spying.

Then in Rwanda. At the time MTN Group was looking to invest in Kigali, the idea was that Rwanda shares the infrastructure hub in Uganda. With the hub, it would mean having servers installed and housed in Uganda.

In other words, if Rwanda was connecting to Uganda, they would have to go through a USSD short code. The connection between the two countries would be via a secure “internet service” link that is then routed on the MTN network, and its connected to the application in Uganda. There  would also be a single manager overseeing operations of the two countries.

Rwanda would have none of it. Kigali flatly refused. MTN Group had no choice but to carve in. Today, Rwanda has its own telephony infrastructure. Their mobile money infrastructure runs from within.

So serious are they about security that when MTN Group have to run system upgrade in Kigali, they either use a Rwandan technician approved by security or if a foreigner was absolutely needed, then all security organs are placed on high alert with approval for the upgrade having to come from “higher up”.

“How would one convince you that RPF would then give up on their stake in MTN Uganda?” the source asked, suggesting that Rwanda was probably using a proxy to own the shares it “sold” to MTN Group.

A few managers contacted for a comment on the matter at the telecom were too coy to go into such discussion, saying instead that anything to do with Rwanda presently is too sensitive to discuss.

Tabura (left) and Prentout are the latest MTN Uganda managers to be investigated and deported over suspicious activities related to spying.

Data servers

Recently, Kagame has been making veiled public comments concerning his country’s security, indicating that two neighbouring countries were working to destabilise Rwanda. Everyone has no doubt he means Burundi and Uganda.

The comments came in the wake of sporadic rebel attacks south of Rwanda with security in the country saying the attackers had retreated into Burundi.

Kagame, one of the best spies in NRA guerilla war that brought Museveni to power, is probably very much aware of what goes in Uganda, a scenario that would be unsettling to Museveni.

The last two years have seen Ugandan security go full throttle in attempt to weed out elements considered as spies in Uganda. Several Banyarwanda in the country have been arrested over the years, with some deported and others interrogated in secret locations and later released.

The climax of this operation was probably the incident on MTN Uganda data centre in Mutundwe, Wakiso District, that came under security raid in July 2017. Operatives from Internal Security Organisation and Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence “abducted” a data engineer and attempted to break into servers looking for information.

Security and President Museveni later claimed that they were investigating possibility of tax evasion by MTN Uganda, while MTN insisted client data was never compromised in the raid.

“The efforts were unsuccessful because of robust information security systems and no data was accessed or compromised by the intruders,” Mbiire, the MTN Uganda chairman, said.

Museveni has reportedly told MTN Group in the wake of the latest developments that it should sell some shares to Ugandans, arguing that MTN was taking out of the country 100% revenue generated.

The are many foreign-owned companies in Uganda with over 70 with direct interests from South African equities in the fields of communication, finance, energy, tourism, trade, hospitality, retail, winery among others.

The most prominent ones include Stanbic Bank, Eskom, MTN Uganda, Shoprite, Game and Woolworth.

While troubled MTN Uganda is listed as having over 90% of shares owned by MTN Group, Eskom is 100% owned by its parent company, and Stanbic Bank has 80% stake in the hands of Standard Group. These companies also “take huge revenues out of the country” as Museveni sees.

But they are not under the kind of intense scrutiny like MTN Uganda, so will Museveni smoke out all the Moo Myong in the telecom giant or has Kagame’s roots good too deep to uproot?

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