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Exclusives

6 managers, 5 name changes, the journey from Econet to Airtel

We explore the two-decade transition of pioneer telecoms company, tracing the journey from Econet to Airtel.

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Airtel, econet, celtel

The telecommunication industry in Nigeria does not have a lot of players, but of the few in existence, Airtel Nigeria is one of peculiar interest to Nigerian subscribers.

Having seen the telco change its management six times and brand name five times, with each lasting about three years or less, a lot of users agree that they would not be surprised to see another change.

However, the company appears to have stabilised under its current management – Bharti Airtel and retained the name longer than every other one before it.

So, let’s look at the story behind the company that is now the second most popular telco in Nigeria.

READ: Airtel Africa set to expand its Nigeria and other Africa operations with $1.25 billion

The days of Econet

In 2001, Strive Masiyiwa assembled a consortium of 22 investors in order to raise money to bid for the $285 million GSM license, which he described at the time as “the most expensive license ever issued in Africa.”

Alongside MTN Nigeria and MTEL, Econet won the bid and was granted a Digital Mobile License (DML). Econet Wireless Nigeria immediately set up shop and started operations, gaining an estimated 57% market share in a short period, despite the existence of competition.

All seemed to be running smoothly until Masiyiwa was asked to pay about $9m in ‘bribes’ to senior politicians in different state governments, who had facilitated the fundraising to pay for the license.

READ: Airtel Africa to sell its 4,500 tower assets to cut down $3.5 billion debts

According to Masiyiwa’s social media post years later, he did not authorize the payments and thus invoked the wrath of a Governor in the South-south region at the time, who was one of the most powerful politicians in the country and had a reputation for getting what he wanted at any cost.

The Governor made good on his threat and without justification, the shareholders met and voted Econet Wireless Nigeria out of management, effectively cancelling their contract.

Masiyiwa recalled that at the meeting, one of the politicians who also happened to be a businessman told him, “Unfortunately for you, God does not have a vote.”

READ: Recession: Cost of governance in Nigeria unacceptable anywhere in the world – Peter Obi

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This move nearly drove Econet into bankruptcy and led them to withdraw about 200 foreign staff and left Nigeria. It also marked the beginning of Vodacom, the name adopted by the big international operator which was invited to take over as technical partner and operator.

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Although there is no evidence to conclude that the new operators paid the ‘bribes’, Masiyiwa insists in his blog that he has access to documentation showing that they paid the money. It was on this basis that he would later write a letter to the United States Department of Justice.

READ: NSE explains why Airtel Africa is going ahead with IPO despite failing listing requirement

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Vodacom to the rescue

With the change of management, Vodacom came into the picture in 2004 but its contract was over before it even started.

Not much information is publicly available about the events that led to the exit of Vodacom in such a short while, without even having the opportunity to change the brand name.

Within a couple of months, Vodacom left the wheels and management changed hands again – this time to Vee Networks. At this time, the company had close to a million subscribers.

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READ: Devaluation hurts Airtel Nigeria’s revenue as data revenues grow by 40%

Now V-mobile and it’s all about you

With Vee Networks as the new manager, the company’s name was changed to V-mobile and it launched a rebranding campaign in 2004.

Perhaps, the name change was to send a signal that a new company is in charge or to assure customers that the change of management could only be in their interest. The campaign branded the telco as the network for the Nigerian people, with the catchphrase being “It’s all about you”.

According to the company, all of its investors were Nigerian-based, including three state governments – Lagos, Delta, and Akwa Ibom.

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READ: Airtel loses over 100,000 subscribers in one month, as Glo chases MTN’s market share

The name V-mobile is believed to have been adopted from the Vee in Vodacom, and the new managers also retained quite a number of Vodacom’s South African staff, with some of Econet staff as board directors.

In this way, V-mobile retained a little of the character of its past owners.

Then came Celtel

In May 2006, exactly two years after Vee Networks took over the reins with all its corresponding campaigns, Celtel communications acquired V-mobile for $1.005 billion and gained a controlling share of 65 percent ownership.

The transaction covered the purchase of existing shares and a substantial equity injection expected to boost Vmobile’s financial ability to realize its growth potential.

READ: Pay TV operator, Kwese takes a major stake in Iflix Africa

Celtel International, a subsidiary of MTC Group and a leading mobile operator in Africa was thus going to expand its presence to Nigeria, making a total of 15 countries.

Before this acquisition, V-Mobile had already grown the subscriber base from less than 1 million to over 5 million subscribers in two years – the most significant growth the company had witnessed under a single management at the time.

READ: Econet wants to bring hybrid power solution to Nigeria

History strikes again

There was yet again another change in management. In 2008, another telecommunications company, Zain Group, completed its acquisition of all Celtel International’s shares of over $3 billion.

The Zain Group had earlier acquired 85% stakes in Celtel International and its 14 African subsidiaries in May 2005 in a $2.84 billion deal and increased it to 100% two years later.

With the completion of this acquisition, all of Celtel’s operations in Africa had to be rebranded into Zain. So, it was not just the end of Celtel in Nigeria but also in Africa, as the new owners rebranded the entire African operations to Zain.

READ: Ahead of London IPO, Airtel names banks to supervise listing

“We believe the Zain brand provides an optimal platform upon which we can build a top 100 global brand with the ultimate goal of better serving our customers. It builds upon the success of our African operations and will propel the Zain Group towards becoming one of the top ten global mobile telecommunications companies by 2011,” Zain Group’s Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Saad Al Barrak said at a press conference.

But it only took two years before the management ran into a brick wall.

READ: Airtel is partnering Standard Chartered Bank as it expands its fintech business

Bharti Airtel arrives to save the day

In November 2010, another acquisition took place and Bharti Airtel paid a sum of $10.7 billion to become the new owner of the telco. Zain Nigeria became Airtel Nigeria.

It is now exactly a decade since this acquisition, and it seems like the company might be done with the days of management and brand changes.

The company seems to have now stabilised, and was even rated as the second largest in terms of subscriber base at the end of Q2, 2020. The financials have also remained in the black.

READ: Airtel is partnering Standard Chartered Bank as it expands its fintech business

Court disputes

In 2014, a decade after Econet lost its management contract, the Appeal Court sitting in Lagos ruled that Econet Wireless International remains a bonafide stakeholder in Airtel Nigeria.

This ruling frustrated the efforts of Bharti Airtel to prevent Econet Wireless International from reacquiring its stakes in the company.

The court also held that the earlier sale of 65 per cent of the telco to Zain of Kuwait was in violation of the pre-emptive rights of existing shareholder, Econet Wireless and null, since it did not follow proper procedures.

READ: Managing “emotional returns” in investments is key to staying on track

In a separate but similar ruling, the Federal Appeal Court in Kaduna had ruled that Econet Wireless was an existing minority shareholder in the company and urged Bharti Airtel to accept the reality.

Prior to this time, Bharti Airtel had continued to reject Econet Wireless as the holder of five per cent equity stake and tried to get Econet removed from the register of shareholders.

The dispute between Zain and Econet over the 2006 sale was already on and Bharti Airtel inherited the dispute. Econet was thus seeking equitable compensation for multiple breaches of the shareholders’ agreement.

Econet said in its submissions that its experts believed the quantum of the equitable compensation and damages amounted to more than $3 billion.

In December 2011, an international tribunal constituted under the auspices of the United Nations Commission for International Trade Law, UNCITRAL, ordered Celtel Nigeria to pay damages and equitable compensation to Econet Wireless for the violation of the company’s rights, which finally freed Bharti Airtel of any charges.

Ruth Okwumbu has a MSc. and BSc. in Mass Communication from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and Delta state university respectively. Prior to her role as analyst at Nairametrics, she had a progressive six year writing career.As a Business Analyst with Narametrics, she focuses on profiles of top business executives, founders, startups and the drama surrounding their successes and challenges. You may contact her via [email protected]

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. KINGSLEY ENEBELI

    December 2, 2020 at 12:05 pm

    Dear Ruth,
    That was a nice write up especially for those who are not in the picture of how the telcos in Nigeria came to be. It is also embarrassing that corruption by our public officials led to the changes in management as the initial owners refused to play ball. But does that mean that the other telcos paid bribe that ECONET refused to pay?

    • Arinze

      December 3, 2020 at 8:00 am

      This question is about 19 years old. Nobody has answered it

    • Sadanand

      December 3, 2020 at 10:48 am

      Great write up, next you can come up with how Bharti Airtel did this despite facing huge challenge in its home ground by Jio and other AGR litigations

    • Sam

      December 4, 2020 at 1:55 am

      Very likely that the bribe was eventually paid. The case involved Tinubu, Ibori and Victor Attah.
      His(Masiwaya) report to the US and UK was part of what led to Ibori conviction in UK.

  2. Daniel Eleke

    December 3, 2020 at 6:31 am

    Hello Ruth,

    Thank you for this insight!! As someone in the cabling business rendering last mile connectivity services to Telcos / ISPs (& private institutions) I never knew these in details! 😲

    Thank you!👌

  3. Emeka

    December 3, 2020 at 8:05 am

    This is quite insightful

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Currencies

Why external reserves is falling despite a rise in oil prices

Increased oil prices seem not to have stopped the further slide in Nigeria’s foreign reserves.

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Nigeria’s external reserve declined from $36.3 billion as of January 29, 2021, to $34.998 billion as of March 1, 2021, losing about $1.4 billion in just a month.

The rapid drop in the country’s external reserve is occurring despite the increase of Brent crude to over $66 per barrel as of February 24, 2021, from about $51 per barrel that it closed with on January 4, 2021.

Some analysts had attributed a couple of likely reasons for this drop. This includes the CBN intervention in the forex market to stabilize the exchange rate, low foreign inflows into the country, some CBN forex policies which discourage foreign investors.

The President of the Association of Bureau De Change Operators of Nigeria (ABCON), Aminu Gwadebe, during his chat with Nairametrics, said that the decline in Nigeria’s external reserve despite the recent increase in oil prices was due to supply shocks and shortages of foreign exchange due to drop of forex inflow from various sources.

Gwadebe said, ‘’You know we have a lot of supply shocks and shortages even before the appreciation of the crude oil prices, we just came out of recession with less than even 0.1%. We know the prices of crude oil, the demand came down throughout the Covid-19 period, even now with the new variant. So the IMTOs inflow has reduced drastically, export proceeds have reduced drastically, the I & E window has also gone down drastically. You know you can appreciate what is happening at the I & E window, their trade transactions sometimes hover up to N420/$1.’’

Read Also: CBN Governor confirms exchange rate unification plans  

On why increased oil prices have not stopped the further slide in the reserves, the ABCON President said, ‘’Completely all the sources coming have dried up, the oil prices dried up, IMTO window dried up. We are talking about a month, and these are contracts that have been closed for 3, 6 months delivery, we are just witnessing it. It will take time, it’s a very good buffer, no doubt we rely on it heavily for 90% of our foreign exchange supply. So if we have that improvement, it will give the CBN the muscle, the wherewithal to continue to support the local market. It will give CBN the muscle to make any speculation, check any hoarding.”

‘’Now that we have prospects in oil prices definitely that news, that coming in of new inflows will give the CBN the muscle to make any speculation, to checkmate hoarding, because they are in I & E window, they are in BDC window, they are in a lot of windows, so they can come up with liquidity. Definitely, it is going to. And we have seen the impact because the way it was going before this increase in crude oil prices, it was worrisome and if you look at it now it has remained stable, the highest it went is N480 for the parallel market and its always trending down. There is that stability just for that news, so you can imagine when we start receiving the liquid grill just imagine what it will become just like people have predicted and analyzed N430, N450/$1 is what we might be looking at by the end of the year,’’ he added.

On his part, a treasury and financial analyst, Odinaka Nwokonkwo, while giving reasons why it should be that way, pointed to CBN obligations. He said the apex bank paid Eurobond maturities in January or thereabout, and did FX swap with local and international counterparts which may have matured and needed to be paid down.

He said, ‘’There is a Eurobond maturity that CBN funded for, so that would also reduce the reserves, then another thing is when you look at, CBN has been intervening in the forex market. So on that space, you are seeing retail, you are seeing SME and invisibles intervention weekly. Retail is biweekly and SME and invisible about $100 million weekly. So sometimes CBN has bilateral transactions with international institutions and local banks where they take their FX and basically give them treasury bills, so that also is part of the reserves.

Read Also: Oil prices break above $65 a barrel, passing 13-month high

‘’So if some of those swaps have matured and CBN needs to pay down these bonds, they will also see a reduction. So it’s a combination of a lot of things. And also what is the volume of sales of the oil, are we really selling more, is the quantity we are selling is the same as what we are selling before. The demand might drop a little bit because some countries also have a second lockdown.’’

Nwokonkwo also believes that in the next quarter, there might see an accretion because some of those obligations may not be there.

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While pointing out that the accretion rate is slower than the debit rate, he said the oil price at $65 is not a significant increase compared to CBN FX obligations.

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These external reserve figures and swings point to two things: Nigeria seems to be overestimating the power of it oil to keep the country running and the enduring reality it needs to find other ways of earning foreign exchange.

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Exclusives

These are the top stockbrokers in Nigeria – February 2021

The top 10 stockbroking firms on the Nigeria Stock Exchange have traded stocks valued at N126.74 billion in the month of February 2021.

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Top 10 stockbroking firms trade N1.35 trillion on stocks in 2019, Nigerian stockbrokers facing extinctionBanking stocks lay anchor on the shaky waters of Nigerian Stock Market, Nigerian banking stocks ignore red flags, boost nigeria stock market, stock market

The All-share Index of the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) dipped by 6.16% in February 2021, a major drawback on the 5.32% gain recorded in the previous month to bring the year-to-date loss to 1.17%.

While they may not be Wolf of Wall Street, the top 10 stockbroking firms on the Nigeria Stock Exchange have been doing big businesses, and have traded stocks valued at N126.74 billion in the month of February 2021, accounting for 58.43% of the total value of shares traded.

This is contained in the Broker Performance Report for the month of February 2021.

A cursory look at the data shows that the February 2021 figure represents a 12.32% increase when compared to N112.84 billion recorded in January 2021 and 19.27% increase compared to N106.27 billion recorded in the corresponding period of 2020.

Stockbrokers by value

  • Stanbic IBTC Stockbrokers is top on the list with trades worth N24.28 billion, representing 11.19% of the total value of traded stocks in The Exchange. It is worth noting that Stanbic IBTC also maintained the top spot in the 2020 ranking and also in the previous month.
  • Absa Securities Nigeria Limited followed closely with trade-in stocks worth N23.64 billion, accounting for 10.9% of the total value. Absa Securities climbed by position from third recorded in January 2021.
  • Cardinalstone Securities Limited stands third on the list with trades on stocks worth N18.98 billion representing 8.75% of the total trades. A step down from the second position held in the previous month.
  • EFG Hermes Nigeria Limited followed with trades valued at N14.15 billion. This represents 6.52% of the total value of shares traded on the floor of The Exchange.
  • Rencap Securities (NIG) Limited with a total value of N9.88 billion traded in stocks, accounted for 4.56% of the total recorded in the month of February.
  • Others on the list include; Meristem Stockbroker (N9.25 billion), RMB Nigeria Stockbrokers (N8.89 billion), Apel Asset Limited (N6.26 billion), Imperial Asset Managers (N6.11 billion), and Cordros Securities Limited (N5.29 billion).

Notably, the top 5 firms in the month of January, did well to retain the top spot in the month under review.

Stockbrokers by volume of shares

  • Cardinalstone Securities Limited topped the list in terms of volume of shares traded in February 2021, having recorded trades in 2.02 billion units of shares, hereby accounting for 11.33% of the total shares traded.
  • Atlass Portfolios Limited followed closely with trades in 1.83 billion units of shares. This represents 10.24% of the total volume traded in the month under review.
  • Meristem Stockbrokers Limited traded in 1.24 billion units of shares to stand in the third position. This accounts for 6.93% of the total volume of shares trades in the Nigerian Stock Exchange in February 2021.
  • Morgan Capital Securities recorded total trades of 1.03 billion unit of shares, which represents 5.79% of the total trades.
  • Stanbic IBTC Stockbrokers traded in 859.62 million unit of shares in the month of February 2021, representing 4.77% of the total traded volume.
  • Others on the list include; Greenwich Trust (740.2 million), EFG Hermes (471.05 million), Rencap Securities (364.02 million), Apel Asset (344.13 million), and CSL Stockbrokers (300.49 million).

Read Also: Top 10 Stockbroking firms trade shares worth N138.1 billion in January 

What you should know

  • The All-share index dipped by 6.16% to close at 39,799.89 index points as of 26th February 2021 from 42,412.66 points recorded in the previous month.
  • Of all the sub-indices captured by the Nigerian Stock Exchange, only two of them recorded positive growth in the month of February. NSE Growth index (+9.33%) and NSE Oil & Gas Index (+4.36%).
  • Meanwhile, the equities market capitalisation currently stands at N20.78 trillion as of 2nd March 2021, while the total bourse capitalisation stands at N38.15 trillion.

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