By Our Reporters
As implied in our previous articles, it’s increasingly becoming clear that long-serving MTN Uganda Chairman Charles Mbire is beginning to gradually lose much of the clout he once had.
From the very disappointing failure to secure the necessary political approvals for the renewal of MTN license as fast and as easily as his bosses in SA Group Headquarters expected to failing to access or meet the President as often as he used to, the once very flamboyant Mbire has clearly fallen on hard times. This has prompted many former allies and henchmen (ba peregesi) to begin perceiving him as one that deserves writing off.
He is no longer the powerful and very attractive power broker Buganda powerful Katikkiro Charles Peter Mayiga famously referred to in his book. Writing in his compelling “KING ON THE THRONE” book (basically a reflection on Kabaka Mutebi’s reign), Mayiga nostalgically recalls how Mbire’s personal efforts (informal as they were) often ensured communication lines between Mengo and Entebbe remained open even when Museveni-Mutebi relations were at their lowest. A former influential assistant to Gen Salim Saleh, Mbire often utilized his first family connections to de-escalate things. That only shows how powerful the man had grown especially during the days John Patrick Amama Mbabazi still called shots in government.
Businessmen who had been frustrated by government bureaucracy always flocked the Ferdinand Mugisha-owned Mpata Island on Lake Victoria (Mukono side) to just gain access to top government officials Mbire would mobilize to camp there for recreation as part of their Christmas/End of year holiday. The list would often have big names like BoU Governor Emmanuel Mutebile, Eng Ferdinand Mugisha himself, Amama Mbabazi, REA boss Godfrey Turahikayo, Ruhakana Rugunda and countless attention-seeking city tycoons with an eye on the next lucrative procurement deal from government.
Many leading company CEOs would equally flock the place as did top corporates in the city trying to have audience with JPAM who was Museveni’s defacto number two.
Even in regulator UCC sector meetings, Telecom sector bosses would give way letting Mbire to naturally take leadership as they presented their grievances to the regulator. In banks, queuing customers easily gave way and even at his home, events as basic as children’s birthdays would attract all the leading Catholics in Kampala as Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga always led mass.
He is the man low-profiled diplomats (of course excluding those from US, Canada and EU) went to in case they desired quick appointment to meet the President or other influential officials in government. He is the one lawyers desiring to be appointed judges or even Magistrates went seeking to be correctly understood by ISO and other relevant security agencies. Landed Ganda families seeking quick buyers had to go to Mbire for effective connections to people with money for a quick purchase. Some two years ago, the Chinese who own Blue Wave water got into problems with MPs and UNBS and the anxious employees thereof hoped Mbire’s intervention would be sufficient to have their factory reopen for work to resume.
SHUNNED @ BURIAL
Now this clearly isn’t the case anymore and the extent to which Mbire is these days shunned glaringly manifested recently when his young brother John succumbed to his diabetic condition. It’s during bereavement that one will count on solidarity if any such genuine friends exist to stand with him/her.
In Mbire’s case, you could clearly see a once a very powerful man being deserted by people who in the past strove to show loyalty to him. Vigil was at his mother Teresa Mbire’s Kansanga residence where the Kampala fraternity was expected to converge and condole with the powerful Mbire family.
But knowledgeable sources say even here, you had to be told to realize it was the Mbire family mourning one of their own. The usual convoys of posh cars that one would ordinarily expect to congest the Kansanga neighborhood were nowhere to be seen. And one of the biggest persons that devoted significant time to condole with the family was ex-Finance Minister Maria Kiwanuka and the rest were ordinary souls. Even in the media, there was no pompous publicity of John’s passing as would have been the case in the past.
“Even the private business people who came clearly seemed too timid and didn’t want to make their presence very conspicuous. One of them told us ‘my friend you have to be very cautious because our friend Charles doesn’t seem to be the President’s favorite businessman anymore and even us coming here might be blacklisted to be part of whatever he did to deserve such isolation by the powerful people in this country,” one of the mourners (a renowned city wolokoso king) confided in Mulengera news quoting one of the tycoons who briefly came to the Kansanga vigil.
Even when it came to time to take the body home for burial in Kigezi (for unknown reasons), the Mbire family preferred a low profile approach. Sources close to the team that oversaw funeral arrangements say there was a small convoy of very modest cars that followed the body. And that the Mbire family avoided using any funeral management companies and the body was carried in a modest ambulance all the way from Kansanga to Kigezi for eventual burial. And as she mourned her son, a clearly distraught Teresa Mbire occasionally wailed “All people close to me have gone. I wish God takes me also.”
CRACKING BAKIGA SOLIDARITY
Bakiga are known for showing solidarity always to their own regardless of the political consequences or reprisals but in the Mbire case, this solidarity didn’t manifest. Only Rugunda and Mutebile attended the deliberately low profile burial ceremony. And this wasn’t because they travelled all the way from Kampala to be there for their once very vibrant and influential protégé Charles Mbire.
It’s because they had been in the area for the burial of Rugunda’s close relative who had been buried only 2 days earlier. So they were here at the Mbire brother’s burial simply because it was convenient given that they were already within the vicinity. Maria Kiwanuka again is among those few high profile Ugandans who showed genuine solidarity by trekking all the way to Kigezi for Mbire brother’s final send off. The deceased anticipated death months earlier and kept jokingly asking one of his sisters to get him papers to finalize his will.
WHY SHUN HIM?
Mbire has lately not been having a good time and it has all had to do with President Museveni’s determination to tame the telecom giant MTN Uganda which made Mbire great and a house hold name in the first place. As MTN Chairman, he was always associated with lots of pomp, charity and seldom missed high profiled VIP parties in Kampala. He was among the city tycoons whose perceived loyalty always made Museveni’s NRM cadres very comfortable about the future.
THINGS FALL APART
But a number of things have lately happened, leaving Mbire very demystified. These include failure to secure MTN license. Then came Museveni’s decision to publicly begin bashing the Mbire-led MTN, something that couldn’t be anticipated only months earlier. The big man has been out accusing MTN of so many unflattering things including economic sabotage, criminal espionage, tax evasion and profit repatriation.
He has also accused some top officials at MTN of exploiting the fact that he doesn’t often interact with Group Headquarters in South Africa to always engage in self-aggrandizement. Consequently not only has MTN faced the wrath of security forces resulting into deportation of top employees but even men like Mbire (previously thought to be infallible) have found themselves being subjected to very demonizing investigations by Police CIID department. These have often been open-ended investigations, making the whole experience even more painful. Some say the marriage-related bonding between Museveni political foe JPAM and SA President Cyril Ramaphosa (also large MTN stakeholder) has naturally complicated things not only for Mbire but for many other people at MTN. There are also powerful people who have never forgiven Mbire for not being keen to use his cloud to save fellow NRM supporter Patrick Bitature when the MTN management diminished the business territory for his Simba Telecom in favor of new players. This constrained growth of Bitature’s business empire leading to financial misery that saw banks threaten to auction his property.
326BN TAX BILL
There is also the ever recurring tax evasion-related investigations by ISO whose operatives claim this is something the President is personally supervising. It relates to the Shs326,796,568,160 tax claim URA originated against MTN particularizing it as evaded VAT (Shs177,511,107,743); excise duty (Shs38,570,540,452) and corporation tax (Shs110,714,919,965)-related tax obligations. Filed in the Commercial Court Division as Civil Suit No. 938 of 2016, the URA claim also related to undeclared monies made through mobile money transactions. Museveni, who badly needs money for his politics and service delivery, has never come to terms that all this would happen at the Mbire-led MTN and has gradually been showing disinterest in interacting with local MTN officials which explains the increased involvement of guys from Group Headquarters in SA.
What even caused the big man to become more enraged and subsequently write off MTN Uganda bosses were the persistent reports by Kaka-led ISO that there have been efforts to compromise officials both at Court and URA to curiously drop the bill from Shs326bn to something less than Shs30bn. ISO, whose allegations URA Commissioner General Dorris Akol recently described as “unfounded and very outrageous [in an interview with Mulengera news],” accuses court and URA officials of attempting to hide behind mediation to let MTN off the hook. “It’s very unfortunate such a big allegation is being made against us by ISO and many other people to the President without us being accorded an adequate opportunity to sufficiently explain our side of the story to H.E. the President,” Akol protested in a recent Mulengera news interview.
She said whereas it’s true MTN hadn’t been fully compliant with tax obligations, the situation had been exaggerated and upon verification (undertaken as part of mandatory mediation), lots of things had been reconciled significantly bringing down the MTN tax obligation. “On what has so far been verified and agreed upon under mediation, the taxpayer [MTN] has paid taxes that are due and the remainder is what remains disputed and the matter is still in court,” Akol explained. She clarified many other things (regarding the MTN Shs326bn claim) which we shall unveil in our subsequent stories.
Yet there are more reasons why Ugandan opportunists and pretentious fortune-hunters would shun Mbire. There are reports that a group of key NRM supporters have prepared money and are waiting for the listing of the MTN shares (up to 30% as Museveni decreed) on the stock exchange to acquire much more stake in the company than his less than 5% shareholding. Once that is accomplished, Mbire will be dethroned from the position of MTN Uganda Chairman and this is something that will surely blow him off and diminish his clout like never before. (For comments, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org).