Strive Masiyiwa, CEO and Founder of Econet Wireless, recently took to his blog to reveal why the first of the two mobile networks to begin operation in Nigeria in 2001, failed.
He told the story from a vintage position- as a major player – how he and his workforce were chased out of the country by Nigerian political mafia group, the sleaze, intrigues that led to him abandoning his pet project, the James Ibori factor, among other revelations, make this piece a must read.
I had the privilege of making Nigeria’s first GSM phone call back in 2001 when I called the regulator to say, “We’re live!” Who would’ve believed then that Nigeria today would have more than 167 million mobile phones?!
It all started out as a very exciting new chapter for enterprise in Africa. Shortly after President Obasanjo was elected, the new government announced an incredibly transparent international auction process for three national mobile phone licenses.
To participate in the bid, you not only had to raise money, but there had to be a member of the bidding consortium who was an experienced GSM operator. Econet Wireless met the requirements because of its experience in Zimbabwe and Botswana. Our Nigerian partners, which included state governments, local banks and high net worth individuals, were financial investors. The largest shareholder had only 10%. That was the written agreement.
I managed to assemble a consortium of 22 investors to put up the money needed to bid. Our shareholders were all Nigerian, mostly institutional investors including leading banks and two state governments, Lagos State and Delta State. The license cost us $285m and was the most expensive license ever issued in Africa at the time. This was 2001.
We considered the investment not only about putting together a network, but also about building a nation. We knew it had the potential to transform Nigeria’s entire business and social architecture.
Most of our investors had between 1-10% shareholding. Econet Wireless Nigeria had only 5% of the shares, but that was fine because it was 5% ownership of a very big pie.
As the “technical partner and operator,” Econet was the company with the expertise to build and operate such a business. Our financial investors recognized this, and also allowed us to receive 3% of the turnover as our fees. This was standard practice in the industry.
We were one of the winning bidders and they gave us just six months to set up business and get our network operating. We were under a lot of pressure but our network was live two days before the others! Customers were pouring in. We were number one in the market with an estimated 57% market share.
Then came the fateful day when I was told that our company must pay a total of $9m in bribes to senior politicians (in state government) who had facilitated the raising of the money to pay for the license.
I refused to authorize the illegal payments. Meeting after meeting was held to try to get me to agree, but I would not. The money would not be paid as long as Econet was the operator and I had signing authority.
James Ibori, the Governor of Delta State, was demanding $4,5m be paid to him in his personal capacity. He was one of the most powerful men in the country and had a reputation for violence. When he heard that I was refusing to approve payment he issued an ultimatum:
”Pay or I will chase you and your people out of the country.”
The shareholders met and voted Econet Wireless Nigeria out of management. They cancelled our management contract. James Ibori and his colleagues personally attended the meeting to remove us. After the meeting one of them (a prominent local businessman even today) came up to me and said: “Unfortunately for you, God does not have a vote.”
I had to withdraw all my staff and their families: 200 people in all. We left Nigeria.
Most of our people had to be retrenched. The loss of the contract almost drove us to bankruptcy as a group.
They invited a big international operator to replace us as technical partner and operator. They changed the name of the company from Econet to V-Mobile.
Within days of their arrival, the managers of the new operator signed off the payments demanded as bribes.
Then what happened?
A few noble Nigerians had both the integrity and courage to carefully collect all the documentation on the movement of the money, and pass it all on to me.
There’s a saying worth remembering in uncovering the trail of destruction that is corruption: “Follow the money”…
I bided my time… then I wrote a letter to the United States Department of Justice!
It was 2003.
As citizens, we have a duty to speak out to stop the rot
Nigeria has an agency known as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). After we had to leave the country, a few noble people at the company tipped off not only me but the EFCC about the payment of the bribes, which had by this time risen from $9m to $13,5m.
I had never actually heard about this agency myself until I got a call from the Nigerian Embassy in South Africa to say they wanted to come and see me to interview me as a witness.
A team of very senior EFCC officers came to see us in South Africa. They were solid and professional in their enquiry. It was clear they wanted to do something about it.
However, when these officers returned home to Nigeria, they got into very serious trouble. Their investigations into the irregular payments had been brought to the attention of James Ibori (Governor of Delta State)…
Soon thereafter, the most senior officer leading the investigation was demoted and sent to a remote part of the country as an ordinary policeman!
Agencies like EFCC in Nigeria sometimes have brave and gallant law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, as I observed, they’re often let down by their political bosses, and sometimes even by the courts. This can change if activism from the citizenry emerges to support their work.
We should not only support official efforts to stop corruption but also help these agencies and organizations in their investigations. If you have relevant information about illegal activities, passing it on could make all the difference between impunity and imprisonment.
In my letter to the US Justice Department, I detailed the full history of the demands for a bribe. I had dates, times, records. I then reminded them that since the big international operator had a listing on the New York Stock Exchange, they were duty-bound to launch an enquiry. Why did I go to them?
The United States government has a law called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The United Kingdom has a similar one called the British Anti-Bribery Act. Whatever you do, make sure you never fall foul of those laws because, if they ever use them to come after you, you’re a “gonner” my friends.
A few weeks later, US officials wrote back advising me that an enquiry had been launched. They contacted the big international company seeking answers to my allegations. My contacts at the company called to tell me, “All hell has broken loose at the company.”
The parent company of the South African-based multinational sent external auditors and lawyers from London to Nigeria. They immediately dismissed all the senior executives sent to Nigeria to run the company, and they left in a hurry!
Although they fled the scene of the crime and returned to their country — after admitting even to both the US Justice Department and the EFCC that the money had been paid out – the stolen funds were never returned to the Nigerian people, even to this day.
Meanwhile, the departure of the other mobile operator did not mean we could return to Nigeria. The shareholders found another operator, this time from the Middle East.
They sold this new operator the control of the company even though Econet Wireless Nigeria had the “right of first refusal” over any sale. They simply ignored that provision in our agreement. This was illegal, both according to our shareholders agreement and Nigerian Company Law. It was left for us to take up the fight in another forum, the Nigerian courts.
Beware the company you keep
The state government of Akwa Ibom held 15% of the equity in Econet Wireless Nigeria. This state was not one of the original investors but joined us later.
After five years, the governor of the state of Akwa Ibom decided to sell its stake. It had more than doubled in value in dollar terms, which meant it had been a good investment.
The state governor, an elderly gentleman called Victor Attah, sent a message through a friend that he wanted to see me in London to find out if I was interested in exercising Econet’s right to buy its shares. I agreed to meet him in London.
“I want to sell the shares to build an airport before I leave office,” the governor explained.
The governor was accompanied to the meeting by a British lawyer who sat quietly taking notes. His name was Bhadresh Gohil.
With a wave of his hand, the governor said, “Mr Gohil is our legal advisor here in London. I have instructed him to handle all our negotiations with you.”
The meeting did not last more than 30 minutes, as the governor was on his way to catch a flight to the U.S.
We agreed with Mr Gohil that we would meet with my own advisors a few days later to start the process.
A few days later, I went to his office with a professional banker who advised me on such transactions. We met in the lawyer’s plush London offices. He was confident and smooth-spoken as he explained how much we were expected to pay. Then he explained that our money was to go to a “Special Purpose Vehicle” (SPV) before it was transferred to Nigeria. It was a sophisticated structure and he showed me a drawing of how it would work. I wrote it all down very carefully into my notebook.
Such corporate entities as SPVs can definitely have legitimate purposes, but this one did not!
As I quizzed him about why such an unusual structure was necessary, Mr Gohil changed tact and tried to entice me with an offer I could not refuse (or so he hoped): “I’m also the advisor to the governor of Delta State, Mr James Ibori, and if you agree to pay for these shares using this structure, we will offer you shares belonging to all the state governments. In total, you can have more than 30% additional shares. It will be enough to take control of the company. My clients just want out, and they are willing to give you what you have always wanted.”
I listened to him, quietly taking notes in my small notebook. I did not give away anything, but inside I was very angry. From the design of the structure, I knew immediately that it was meant to siphon off money before it reached the state governments. It was clear there was a conspiracy to steal a lot of money.
Having already pocketed $13.5m, now the government officials could easily pocket probably another $100m through the sale process that they had developed with the help of Mr Gohil and other clever advisors in London!
When I left the meeting I immediately contacted the mutual friend who’d set up the governor’s meeting. The friend was so embarrassed as I explained the corrupt structure clearly designed to steal money from the state governments. He promised to raise the issue with Governor Victor Attah. A few days later he came back and said Governor Attah had claimed ignorance about the proposal put to me by Mr Gohil. He said he would speak to Mr Gohil and tell him it had to be done properly without the structures.
We never heard from them again. Mr Gohil simply vanished. A few months later we were told that the shares had been offered to a company from the Middle East who subsequently bought them. I was not privy to how they did it except that they had violated my right to buy the shares. That is another chapter in the saga, but not for now.
Fast-forward three years, long after the sale. Our lawyers in London called me one day and asked if I could come urgently to a meeting with the Proceeds of Corruption Unit of the London Metropolitan Police: “You are not in any trouble, but I think you will find what they have to say very interesting!”
This special unit was launched by the British to investigate corruption by foreign government officials who try to launder stolen money to the U.S. and the UK.
The officers asked me to explain everything I knew about the sale of V-Mobile shares to Celtel (later Zain).
I explained the history of the entire transaction and the shareholders disputes that had led to our departure. After a while, they asked me to focus on specific events, and, in particular, my meetings in London with the governor of Akwa Ibom, and also the meetings with Mr Gohil. It became clear to me that they had a lot of information!
“What can you tell us about this structure, using a Special Purpose Vehicle?”
I explained my understanding of it. Later on, I gave them my diary in which I had recorded the details of my meeting that day with Mr Gohil.
Below my drawing of the structure, I had written in bold letters:
“This is corrupt!!!”
Not long after my meeting with the Proceeds of Corruption Unit, Mr Gohil was arrested together with one of his partners and several others. I later learned that when the Middle Eastern company bought the shares, some of the proceeds had been diverted using the Gohil structure. Some of the money was sent to a bank in London. This large amount of money was enough to alert the British authorities that money was being laundered through their banking system.
Their investigations led them to Gohil and his associates. They raided his offices and found stashes of documents, including details of the structures. Now they were looking for witnesses to help prosecute them for corruption and money laundering.
The British authorities tried without success to get other parties, including the governor of Akwa Ibom, to come out and clear their names but they refused. Officials of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s government successfully thwarted all extradition requests.
I was asked to be a witness in the trial of those who had been arrested in London. I willingly accepted.
Next I will tell you about my role as a ‘Witness to the Crown” on behalf of the people of Nigeria whose money had been stolen. It would be the first time that someone big went to jail (in a foreign country) for stealing money from Africans.