THE late president Robert Mugabe stopped his son-in-law Simba Chikore and daughter Bona from joining the scramble to take over the country’s third-largest mobile network operator, Telecel Zimbabwe.
The NewsHawks has confirmed that Chikore and Bona in 2015 approached the then minister of Information Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services, Supa Mandiwanzira, seeking to leverage their powerful family position and influence through Mugabe and his wife Grace to take control of Telecel.
Simba and Bona
At the time, Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of the late Angola president Eduardo dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman then before her business empire crumbled in chaos amid corruption charges, also wanted to buy Telecel.
For 37 years, while her father ruled Angola, Isabel held the top positions in the state trade of diamonds and oil and became one of the most influential people in and outside Africa.
Following a well-established system of kleptocracy and nepotism, Isabel had been able to weave a complex web of companies and banks related to her family, mostly in tax havens, but also with the complicity of corrupt businessmen, lawyers and consultants.
Isabel already had shareholding in Angolan mobile phone company Unitel S.A.
Ownership of Unitel was split equally between Isabel, Brazilian telecoms company Oi, Angolan state oil company Sonangol and Angolan businessman and former government official Leopoldino do Nascimento.
As part of her business expansion programme, Isabel then flew to Zimbabwe below the radar and met with Grace to cut the Telecel deal, but that did not go anywhere as local corporate vultures were already circling above the company.
“Simba and Bona wanted to use their family position and influence to take over Telecel through an undisclosed bid and funding structure. They approached Mandiwanzira for discussions about that, hoping the minister would simply fast-track the deal for them. However, Mandiwanzira asked to meet Mugabe to seek guidance on the matter as the minister responsible.Typically, the late president completely refused to sanction the deal,” a source said.
“From there, Mandiwanzira did not facilitate anything as he had been told by Mugabe that it shouldn’t happen.”
While Mugabe destroyed the economy through leadership, governance and policy failures, as well as mismanagement and corruption, he did not actively push for his family’s primitive accumulation of wealth and self-enrichment as is happening now.
After the jostle for Telecel, Nasdaq-listed global telecoms giant VimpelCom sold its majority shareholding in Telecel for US$40 million as the government tried to tighten control on the country’s telecoms sector.
The Amsterdam-based telecoms firm in 2016 announced that it had entered into an agreement with the Zimbabwean government to sell its 60% stake to a chaotic quasi-government entity, ZARNet.
VimpelCom then formally confirmed that, together with its 51.9% owned subsidiary Global Telecom Holding (GTH), it had completed the sale of the equity stake for US$40 million.
Telecel’s other shareholder, alongside GTH, were local Empowerment Corporation (E Corp), which had a 40% stake and was itself owned by James Makamba Kestrel (23%), IEG (18%), Indigenous Business Women’s Organisation (17%), National Miners’ Association (14%), Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union (14%) and Magamba eChimurenga (14%).
Local tycoon James Makamba was the de facto controller of Telecel.
From that controversial deal, Telecel then became owned by ZARNet, the Zimbabwe Academic and Research Network, an internet service provider wholly owned by government through the Ministry of Information Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services.
The completion of the deal meant that the Zimbabwean state owned two of the three mobile operators in the country, Telecel and NetOne, leaving only Econet Wireless, which is owned by the same group as wholesale fibre operator Liquid Telecom, in the private sector.
Russian-based Vimpelcom’s 51.9% subsidiary GTH — formerly Orascom Telecom Holding — sold the 60% interest in Telecel after bids were invited from various interested parties.
At the time, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s son-in-law Gerald Mlotshwa, a lawyer and Telecel board director, entered the fray battling Makamba over Telecel ownership. Both claimed the company.
The disposal of Telecel formed part of a strategic review by Vimpelcom of its international assets; in October 2016 it sold its mobile operations in the Central African Republic and Burundi to Zimbabwe’s Econet Wireless Group for US$65 million.
Econet Wireless already controlled the largest cellular operator in Zimbabwe, which has over 63% of the overall market ahead of state-owned NetOne (around 20%) and Telecel (16%) at the time.