By Our Reporters
In his January letter, directing all government MDAs to quit NITA and begin procuring all their internet needs from Uganda Telecom, President Museveni unambiguously states that UTL is too resourced to fail. He makes reference to the vastness of its assets and HR resources and underlines these as some of the key indicators that the fast-revamping UTL can thrive again and gradually become Uganda’s number 1 telecom service provider-and therefore market leader.
WHY ALL THIS OPTIMISM;
In this news story, we reflect on the asset and HR-related capabilities that make UTL a strong formidable force to reckon with in the telecom industry in the coming months and years. When it comes to assets, much of what it owns is in terms of prime land and buildings that only need comprehensive refurbishment. It also has significant (9.13%) shareholding in West Indian Ocean Submarine Cable Company which supplies internet to much of Sub Saharan African countries. UTL’s strength also lies in the highly experienced personnel (especially telecom engineers) whose profile Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda proudly referred to during the April 30th Cabinet meeting in Entebbe State House where cabinet unanimously voted to have UTL revamped on top of compelling NITA to hand over the National Backbone Infrastructure (the NBI) which in basic terms is like the road thought which internet data is transported.
The vastness of UTL land assets has its background in the way Uganda Posts & Telecommunications was split. Whereas the financial aspect metamorphosed into PostBank Uganda and the mail delivery aspect became Posta Uganda, the telecom aspect became Uganda Telecom (UTL). The Telecom Company, originally 100% government-owned, was vested with a lot of land and this is why, inspite of the land grabs by mafia groups here and there, the UTL land estate remains vast. UTL was vested with vast prime land in all the 21 old (colonial) districts and towns of Uganda examples being Jinja, Masaka, Mbale, Mbarara, Kabale, Tororo, Arua, Gulu and Lira etc. The offer in each district/old town comprised of buildings for office space and land for the telecom masts/towers to facilitate network penetration. The good example on this mast issue is Mbarara town where 2 acres of land adjacent to Booma Grounds was vested in UTL. In his letter, Museveni clearly denounced the unnamed Mafias (called them corrupt officials) whom he says were out to create chaos, devalue and subsequently grab UTL land assets and other properties.
In capital city Kampala alone, UTL owns 1.5 acres of prime land in Mengo outside Bulange immediately after the Kabakanjala road round about. This comprises of the big compound and the old-ish building to your left as you move towards Bulange from the Mengo palace direction. Its lately a center of lots of commercial activities as mostly foreigners and Somali refugees from Kisenyi always flock it to purchase telecom services mostly land line phones whose network they consider to be affordable and the most reliable. There is another almost 2 acres in Wandegeya comprising of a large compound and a huge dilapidated commercial building. This broadly speaking is located adjacent (opposite) to the Ministry of Public Service offices. There are many entities with land assets adjacent to State House Nakasero but UTL is the most prominent of them. Why? The revamping telecom owns the vast vacant plot (measuring 1.5 acres) located opposite Sheraton Hotel and Rwenzori Courts. It’s that vast parking space to your left as you drive towards Sheraton from the direction of the High Court/Grand Imperial hotel. Currently designated as parking space for Pine, UTL (in administration) staff and those of nearby Barclays Bank and other Rwenzori tenants, the huge plot has capacity to hold 300 cars at a time. Once the new investor comes on board (and this is going to be pretty soon), this property is being considered as the most suitable location for a structure that will be appropriately named UTL Towers. It will serve as the corporate headquarters for the company once Twebaze Bemanya’s administration team is out of the picture. It should be clarified that once the investor is on board, Bemanya’s team will get out of the picture and be financially facilitated (by GoU & the new investor) to sort out the creditors starting with NSSF statutory obligations arrears followed by secured creditors.
Still in Kampala, UTL owns prime land in Nsambya equaling 2 acres on the street near Seroma Ltd and not very far from Clock Tower street lights along Nsambya road. Its 2 acres remaining and another 2 acres was to your right as you drive towards Nsambya Hospital. These originally were two pieces of land but one was controversially sold by the old UTL management team and the dubious circumstances of the sale are well captured in the report of the Parliamentary Committee on UTL. Some 2 acres were lost but another 2 remains intact having been properly secured by Bemanya’s administration team. Then in Mbuya, UTL owns ½ acres near the MTN switch. And most importantly is Kololo on the Summit View Hill where UTL undisputedly owns 15 acres on top of the hill overlooking the rest of Kampala city. This is the land that has for years been under occupation and use by the defense ministry that is ready to either pay up or vacate the land depending on how best the President will guide. Still in Kampala, there is the current UTL headquarters at Telephone House. Here you have a huge high rise old building and a vacant
vast compound behind it currently serving as parking for both UTL and nearby Posta Uganda staff. This is located straight opposite Standard Chartered Bank headquarters below Sheraton Hotel. It’s also directly next to BoU. Sources that we spoke to for this investigative article revealed that this building is going to be refurbished and converted into a state of art data center. It will be stuffed with centrally-controlled servers for the different MDAs and other clients and will all be remotely controlled by the owners who are UTL clients mostly MDAs. It will also house the switching centers for all these servers. This complies with the President’s guidance that all the government data, belonging to the different MDAs, must be centrally stored in the most secure way by a telecom company in which government has controlling stake. Until a few years ago, UTL also owned vast land (3 acres) on 5th Street Industrial Area. This is opposite Bata Shoe Company but the land was unfortunately sold off by the old pre-Bemanya management in the circumstances the MPs in their UTL report characterized as shady and dubious. It was sold to a powerfully connected city tycoon that is renowned for investing in Casinos and generally the gambling business.
104 ACRES IN MUKONO;
Then somewhere in Mukono near Mpooma Satellite Station, UTL owns 104 acres of prime land and it’s on this land that the much-hyped smart phone manufacturing is going to take place as a joint venture between the GoU/UTL and the Chinese company called Xinlan. This renowned mobile phone manufacturing entity is partly responsible for the smart phones-enabled internet revolution in China because of its productive twinning partnership with (world’s biggest firm by subscription) China Telecom (a mobile telecom operator) that boasts of 260m subscribers. President Museveni hopes that using the Mpooma land (the 104 acres), this smart phones manufacturing will increase affordability and access and lead to the realization of UN objective to have all citizens of the world access internet as a matter of right as opposed to privilege.
THE UPCOUNTRY LAND;
When he became administrator, Bemanya prudently embarked on coming up with an inventory of all UTL assets and the report shows that on average, UTL has a minimum of two acres of prime land in each of the 21 traditional districts and towns upcountry. Examples include Soroti, Mbale, Jinja, Fort Portal, Tororo, Masindi, Arua, Mbarara, Kabale, Masaka and others. In these same 21 traditional towns and districts, UTL also owns a well laid copper and fiber network that will take agencies like NITA more than 50 years to have in place (assuming the Lugogo-based entity was to last that long). Unlike the competitor telecoms like MTN, Airtel and others which sold their mast/tower sites to ATC (American Tower Company) and Uganda Towers/Eaton, from which they now rent, UTL still owns all its tower/mast sites. This means that, once appropriately restored, UTL can ably compete with Eaton and ATC in the provision of mast services besides its core mandate that ultimately is going to be provision of telecom services.
THE BEST PERSONNEL;
When it comes to personnel and relevant human resources, UTL is a giant that has only been in abeyance. This is the very point, Premier Rugunda eloquently made during the April 30th Cabinet meeting in Entebbe State House where the matter of UTL revamp was comprehensively discussed and unanimously voted upon. It were engineers of what became UTL that laid Uganda’s very first optic fiber cable network and they were working under a company called Maruben of Japan. Some of these are still alive and actively part of the UTL staff. These same engineers later got more exposure to additional specialized training when a consortium of Germans bought into UTL before the coming of the Libyans. The Germans took them to Germany when they got exposed to the very best hands-on experiences Europe has to offer for the telecom business. Some of the best telecom engineers at UTL are some of the very best in the industry and they include Francis Kazinduki and David Kakembo, currently the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) UTL. In Kazinduki’s case; he is a previously retired well accomplished wealthy engineer still giving his labor for the UTL revamp out of patriotic duty and pride and not necessarily for money. Otherwise he would be working with any other telecom capable and willing to pay him much more. Its patriotism and not desire for money parse that is keeping him at UTL. For many years, David Kakembo worked for MTN and did many high profile assignments including building MTN Iran from scratch. Highly experienced and much-sought Kakembo has been at UTL since 2013 and is one of the 87 engineers the telecom has. Their professional career profiles have partly made UTL more attractive to a number of willing investors from whom one is being selected. The fact that MTN CTO Gordian Kyomukama previously worked at UTL is indicative of Uganda Telecom’s capability when it comes to quality staffing. In fact even Soliton Telmec, which NITA and MTN often contract to facilitate internet provision and maintenance to their respective clients, sometimes reaches out to some UTL engineers who are privately hired to offer some consultancy services especially on weekend and public holidays. Mantrac too privately hires them for its caterpillar generators’ maintenance. Mantrac is the largest generator maintenance company in Uganda. As UTL, the company has a range of engineers with different specialties including cable engineers, wireless transmission engineers, mobile switch engineers, enterprise switch engineers, fixed line network engineers and power systems engineers.
THE NITA SETBACK;
Even when things are seemingly moving very well, there are some operational hurdles the UTL team continues to encounter. These mostly relate to smoothening the transition from NITA (the previous MDAs internet provider) to UTL as per the President’s January directive. Whereas the 30th April cabinet resolution meant that NITA stops all procurements relating to NBI and MDAs internet provision, NITA has continued manifesting bad faith including maintaining two notices internationally soliciting for service providers/tenderers for NBI and internet supply to MDAs. These two bid solicitations continue to run on the NITA website instead of being taken down immediately to comply with the Cabinet directive. And that isn’t all. Some of the MDAs that have since shifted to UTL as their internet supplier are having difficulties going about email communications. Why? Whereas they can access UTL internet and do anything including browsing or reading stuff off any website, they are unable to access their email services using the UTL service. To be able to receive, read or reply emails, they still must use NITA internet (not UTL) and this mischief by NITA has created some discomfort and many are construing it as an act of sabotage to the President’s directive. For example Media Center ICT Head Anthony Eropu has recently raised a red flag over this discrepancy and defiant NITA officials are so far blaming this deliberately-generated constraint on the ICT Ministry PS Vincent Bagiire whom they say hasn’t authorized them to let in UTL. This position is clearly very anomalous because the President’s written directive supersedes all other would-be powerful officials including PS Bagiire. It’s understood that the UTL team has already reported this sabotage to State House for the President to intervene.