By Alex Muhumuza
For almost a week Uganda’s propaganda papers have been trying to spin the harassment of MTN staff by the country’s security forces. They seem to be unsure, however, about the theme they should push. As a result, they have been all over the place, with a story that seems to change each day. Nevertheless, one of the themes that has emerged appears the most plausible, although its leaking also seems to have been unintended.
The real story behind the spin leaps out from a closer reading and splicing together of the different accounts about this saga. This is less about national security as is alleged; it is more of a vulgar case of the usual shakedowns that have become common place in Museveni’s Uganda: leveraging political power as well as control of security services and of paid-for propaganda outlets to shape the narrative.
The story has shifted from one allegedly focussed mainly on national security, that was initially pushed, to one that now appears to centred on a more mundane Ugandan theme of the shakedown. In what has become a recurring staple, Rwanda was again used as a convenient misdirection from what was reality at stake: A domestic intrigue involving “mafia patrons”, as their own blogs put it.
The extortion plot was set in motion on Saturday, 19 January, with the arrest of MTN Uganda’s chief marketing officer Olivier Prentout, a French national, at Entebbe airport as he returned from a business trip. It was followed two days later by the arrest of the company’s head of sales and distribution, Annie Tabura, a Rwandan national, at the MTN offices in Kololo, Kampala. The general manager of the Mobile Money unit of the corporation was also arrest. The MTN staff were arrested by the usual “unidentified security personnel,” according to MTN’s press release. After being briefly detained, all three were deported to their respective countries.
With the persons who could tell the real story behind the saga removed from the country, the Ugandan authorities let loose with their propaganda websites outcompeting each other to publish volumes of diversionary stories they were being fed through the Uganda Police to the effect that the arrests were intended to “disrupt their intended plans of compromising our national security.”
While the biggest propaganda heavy lifting was by Sarah Kagingo’s Soft Power, there was also great enthusiastic contribution from Chimp Reports, both of which were repeating Uganda Police press release claims, treating them as though they were court verdicts rather than what they actually were: Dictation from the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI).
Chimp Reports, after a long-winded effort to spin the story to accuse Rwanda, let the cat out of the bag when, towards the end of its article, it pointed to the problem as originating from Uganda’s “Mafia patrons” who were unhappy with MTN.
Another CMI propaganda website, “the edge”, added a further piece of the puzzle reporting that MTN had “annoyed some people in Uganda by sponsoring the Nyege Nyege festival.”
Who are the Mafias?
While references to “Mafias” in Uganda usually points to Gen Salim Saleh and Foreign Minister Sam Kuteesa, respectively brother and brother-in-law of President Museveni, the president himself seems to be part of this syndicate, according to information published by the Daily Monitor. On 23 January in Davos, President Museveni met with MTN’s CEO, Robert Shutter, and revealed more information on the heist that these propaganda websites had been dancing around, “Museveni insists MTN must sell shares to Ugandans,” is how the headline of the Daily Monitor read the following day. When you link the stories you start to understand who the Ugandans are on whose behalf Museveni is shaking down the company for shares: it is the “Mafia patrons” that Chimp Reports inadvertently revealed to the public.
The fast-growing Mobile Money business is an extremely profitable business in Africa, and Uganda is no exception. There are now more funds sloshing around telcos’ mobile money networks in many African countries than in the traditional financial sector. Not only is it a huge growing sector that generates massive amounts of profits, it also provides an excellent opportunity for those needing to launder vast amounts of corruption-derived cash.
MTN has remained stubborn, however. It insists that those who buy its shares must be clean. They must, in other words, not be part of any Mafia. “I think we should reward people [by selling shares] who have toiled for their money. I am talking about people in pension funds, nurses and teachers who I trust their sources of money,” Mr Charles Mbire, MTN Uganda Chairman told the Daily Monitor, adding, “you will end up getting stolen money” to buy shares in the company. Mr Mbire, in other words, fears his company being used by the Ugandan Mafia to launder the proceeds of their corruption-derived wealth, tainting both his company and himself with that association.
With that, the ball was thrown back into the Mafias’ court. The deportees were merely necessary collateral damage to impress the MTN top managers with how serious the Mafia were. The deportations were merely public cover for the attempted heist which needed to be disguised under the convenient catch-all national security shield.
Not everything in Uganda is as you are intended to see. Scratch a little, and there is another layer just below that tells the real story of what you are seeing.