The Zimbabwean telecommunications sector has been crazy and toxic for a long time. From the days of Strive Masiyiwa being denied a licence to operate a mobile network there has just been too much politics in this space. And sadly, politics is a crazy domain: fascinating to talk and argue about but polarizing, unprogressive, shadowy and full of compromises and sometimes vindictive players. All these are terrible for business particularly the business of technology.
The current NetOne fiasco
On the eve of Zimbabwe’s highly contested election of 30 July 2018 the Chief Executive Officer of NetOne fired 9 members of his core leadership team. The initial ‘rumour’ that came after that action was that the Minister of ICT, Supa Mandiwanzira was not happy with that and he reversed it. It then emerged that the minister didn’t reverse it as such but he lodged his concerns with the board of directors.
The board convened an urgent meeting that weekend and this resulted in the CEO reinstating the fired executives. This of course is quite tricky because how then does the board expect the fired and re-hired leaders to work with and be subordinate to the CEO who clearly wants to get rid of them? How does the rest of the organisation fully support these executives or the CEO without being sucked into corporate politics?
It should be remembered that the CEO, Lazarus Muchenje is less than six months into the job and that one of the leaders he fired was Acting CEO for a whole two years before Muchenje’s appointment. How did the board or the government as the shareholder think this was going to work in the first place? That’s the problem we have in our approach to business in this country, we think in political terms and we attach too much stigma to firing people.
The reasonable thing in my view would have been to allow the new CEO to pick his own team. How does the board hold the CEO responsible for outcomes that result from actions he doesn’t have control of? If the CEO cannot hire and fire his own team then what’s the point of him holding the job he holds? I have nothing against the 9 executives, I don’t know enough about them but if the guy tasked with turning around NetOne does not believe that they are useful to his efforts then the board either has to let him do what is necessary or the board should fire the CEO himself. By so doing the board will be saying that the continued employment of the 9 is a key deliverable for NetOne therefore a CEO who doesn’t agree has to go himself.
Now, even before I am done with typing this article there is a new development: Muchenje has been suspended indefinitely. Well if that’s the decision then yeah that’s better than trying to force people who can’t work together to work together.
NetOne gwanz didn’t start today
Early January this year, Former Chief Executive Officer of NetOne, Reward Kangai wrote to President Mnangagwa alleging very serious accusations. To use his words: he was alleging that Minister Mandiwanzira was/is building a cartel in the telecommunications sector. His narrative mentioned some of the same people who Muchenje fired one and half weeks ago.
No one should be condemned as guilty until proven to be so hence we can’t just take Kangai’s allegations as truth without investigation and weighing the evidence. This was never done as far as I know. It didn’t seem as if the president even looked at the letter Kangai wrote. I don’t think that was respectful of the weight the allegations leveled carry.
To be fair, the allegations Kangai made seemed to have substance especially when you look at the appointments made by Mandiwanzira to key positions in the sector and the relationship a good number of these key appointees all had with one particular bank which also had some involvement in the telecoms sector. I encourage you to read this article to understand what I am talking about.
Mnangagwa is a good politician
President Mnangagwa is quite the politician. His key tactic seems to be silence. He wears out his opponents with a calm silence that they can’t predict. This seems to be the way he dealt with the Kangai letter. He just went quiet. My assumption is that he didn’t want to rock any political boats with only months towards an election and so he pretended as if he never heard from Kangai.
However, the election is over. I am plainly demanding that the president should act on the chaos within the telecoms industry. This is his problem to solve because all the chaos is within the two MNO’s that the government owns. Telecommunications is too important a sector to be left devolving into boardroom squabbles because the president is being politically expedient.
The other government owned MNO
Telecel is 60% owned by the government and we don’t know who owns the other 40% because different people are claiming different things. The company has missed a lot of growth opportunities already because of boardroom coups and shareholder wrangles. Ownership by the government came as a result of these fights and we thought that was the end but there is still a lot of scratching and punching that’s going on.
What should the president do?
The president should at least come out in the open and say what is going on and what he is doing about it. When Kangai made allegations against Minister Mandiwanzira, I didn’t necessarily want the minister to be sacked but I expected the president to address the issues that were directly brought to his attention and explain what action was being taken or not taken and why.
If Kangai’s stories are nothing then the president should say so.
Second thing: the government and the NetOne board should let the CEO of NetOne do his job and pick his own team and then hold him accountable for his deliverables. Alternatively, they should fire the CEO altogether and reinstate the fired executives. They can’t have their cake and eat it too.
Regarding Telecel, the government should use its influence to weigh in and force a resolution between the shareholders that are trading blows.
Ideally and in my dreams, the government should pull out of the telecoms sector or maybe retain minority stake in the different companies for strategic reasons. Otherwise, the government is more useful as a regulator in this area than a shareholder. In any case they have two broke MNO’s, a debt rid fixed operator and precariously positioned companies such as ZARNET, Powertel and Africom that prove that the government is not competent as a shareholder. Zviroto zviroto
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