Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has pardoned deported MTN Uganda chief executive Wim Vanhelleputte and ordered the Immigration Department to remove him from the Stop List.
Mr Vanhelleputte, who was deported in February over allegations of undermining state security, returned to Uganda and resumed his role as chief executive on Friday.
A letter from the office of the Internal Affairs Minister to the Director of Citizenship and Immigration Control, a copy of which The EastAfrican has seen, had directed that he be allowed back in Kampala.
“This is...to direct that he is immediately removed from the immigration Stop List, and accordingly can be allowed into the country. By copy of this letter, the In-Charge Immigration/Security at Entebbe Airport are accordingly asked to allow him access and immigration clearance through Entebbe VIP lounge. Treat as urgent,” reads the letter dated May 29, stamped “Very Urgent.”
The surprise return of Mr Vanhelleputte is likely to put security chiefs on the spot, after separate investigations exonerated him.
His removal from the Stop List marks a dramatic reset of relations between Kampala and the South African telecoms giant, whose top leadership had been accused of spying for Rwanda.
Progress has also been made towards resolution of a separate dispute over licence fees, with President Museveni reportedly directing regulator Uganda Communications Commission and the Finance Ministry to work out a uniform formula for determining licence fees in the sector, ahead of the renewal of MTN Uganda and market rival Airtel’s applications, which have been pending since late 2018.
The fate of the other deportees — French national and former MTN Uganda chief marketing officer Olivier Prentout, Rwandan Annie Bilenge Tabura, who was head of sales and distribution, and Franco-Italian citizen and general manager for mobile financial services Elsa Muzzolini was not immediately established.
Change of heart
The development raises questions on President Museveni’s options for his security chiefs whose briefs led to the deportations.
The EastAfrican has been told that President Museveni’s change of heart followed a parallel investigation into the spying allegations that security organs had levelled against the four MTN executives, culminating in their deportation between January and February 2019.
Security organs had also told the president that MTN was under declaring revenue. These allegations have since been found to have been linked to an internal power struggle at the telecom giant.
In at least two recent meetings with MTN group chief executive Rob Shuter and local officials, President Museveni is said to have assured them of Mr Vanhelleputte’s return, conceding that he had been misled on the issue.
Charles Mbire, the MTN Uganda board chair who has led the behind-the-scenes efforts to resolve the dispute, refused to comment on these reports beyond saying:
“We are thankful for President Museveni’s personal efforts to get to the bottom of these obviously unfounded and outrageous allegations. You can never hide two things on earth — the sun and the truth, they finally come out.”
He confirmed that an agreement had been reached on a way forward over the licence renewal.
“What we agreed with the president was that there should be a transparent and uniform formula for determining licence fees across the industry. UCC and the Ministry of Finance are now working on establishing that formula. We are ready to pay for the new license as soon as the formula is out,” he said.
President Museveni also wants MTN, which controls 54 per cent of the Uganda telecoms market, to list on the Uganda Securities Exchange as a way of expanding participation by Ugandan nationals and to limit the amount of money repatriated from the country as a result of the current ownership, which is skewed against locals.
It is not known what impact the withdrawal of spying allegations against Mr Vanhelleputte will have on the spat between Rwanda and Uganda, which has led to a mini trade war.
For the first time since the border crisis peaked in March, President Museveni and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame met this past week, during South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s swearing-in ceremony.
Pictures posted on social media showed the two leaders seated next to each other in apparent conversation. But this did not go far in easing the tensions, as the accusations and counter charges continue between officials of the two states.