A RENEWED ownership wrangle has erupted over the country’s third-largest mobile network operator, Telecel Zimbabwe, following the return of self-exiled businessman and co-founder James Makamba after 12 years in banishment, the Zimbabwe Independent has established. Makamba returned home immediately after former president Robert Mugabe was toppled in a military coup last November, paving way for President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
By Melody Chikono/Hazel Ndebele
Since his return, he has been trying to resuscitate his crumbling business empire by grabbing control of the telecoms company, now controlled by government and local lawyer Gerald Mlotshwa.
Mlotshwa last year emerged a significant Telecel shareholder after he secured Makamba’s 40% shareholding. This followed reports the controversial tycoon had sold his stake in Empowerment Corporation (EC) to a local consortium that included Mlotshwa and businessman George Manyere. Manyere later exited the deal, leaving Mlotshwa with the contested shareholding.
However, sources say Makamba is now alleging that Mlotshwa, who was his legal counsel, was acting as a proxy, as he could not conduct business in Zimbabwe during his stay in exile.
Besides fighting for the EC shares, Makamba and Mlotshwa are locked in a fierce battle to buy Telecel’s controlling 60% shareholding held by government, adding a new dimension to the messy saga.
Makamba, a former Zanu PF MP and central committee member, fled the country in 2005 after he was accused of allegedly externalising some funds, although it is widely believed the real problem was social, involving Mugabe’s family.
His business interests span the retail, telecommunications, mining, agricultural, property and professional consultancy sectors, as well as digital publishing, even if he has lost some of his assets over the years.
Sources told the Independent Makamba was now vigorously trying to bounce back and assume control of some of his business interests run by proxies.
Makamba, together with women’s empowerment lobbyist Jane Mutasa, owned the majority shareholding in the EC-held shares through Kestrel Corporation. He had 95% of the EC shares.
Information, Communication and Technology minister Supa Mandiwanzira this week confirmed the issue, but said government, Telecel’s majority shareholder, is distancing itself from the new fight.
Makamba said he would only comment if the Independent reveals its sources to him.
“I will certainly give you the story, but I would want to know who your source is first. Name your source and I will talk, otherwise it is like someone comes to you and says I hear that your father is not your father,” he said.
Mlotshwa’s personal assistant said he was out of the country. His mobile was constantly on voicemail. He did not respond to emailed questions.
Mandiwanzira said besides offers from Makamba and Mlotshwa, there were several other bidders for the government equity stake in the mobile telecoms operator.
“We have been approached by so many entities claiming shareholding in Empowerment Corporation and as government we have not sought to entangle ourselves in the disputes,” he said.
“What we have advised is that those who feel short changed must approach the courts for redress. As for a dispute between Makamba and Mlotshwa; Makamba came to my office and told me that he had not sold any of his shares and that Mlotshwa was only his legal counsel.
“The truth of the matter is that they are not the only ones interested in buying the Telecel stake. We have received interest from different people and several organisations who are interested in buying government’s 60% shareholding. I don’t think it would be fair to disclose their names to the media. We don’t conduct business that way.”
Mandiwanzira said he had no mandate to dispose the government’s stake; a position he said could change depending on whether bidders provide proof of funding as well as show capacity to pay outstanding obligations such as licence fees.
“I want to make it very clear that I’m merely a custodian of government assets as the minister of ICT. I don’t have an individual say on government assets. As far as I’m concerned, I have no mandate to sell government’s 60% shareholding in Telecel to Makamba, Mlotshwa or anybody.
“But that position may change should there be a serious offer backed by proof of payment, ability to pay off outstanding obligations that are due to shareholders of Telecel and that change does not come from me, but from my principal and cabinet.”
Mandiwanzira has not been spared the drama in Telecel’s endless saga as he has often been blamed for having a vested interest in the deal, an allegation he denies outright.
“My answer is very simple. I knew of Telecel shareholding being sold by Vimplecom. I’m also the one who went to government and said we can’t allow the shareholding to change hands without our involvement and it’s high time we bought this business, clean it up and sanitise it. If I was interested in buying Telecel I would have done so without involving government,” Mandiwanzira said.
“President Emmerson Mnangagwa is very clear when dealing with government assets, he is serious when it comes to issues of corruption, so if they are dreaming that it will happen they must stop dreaming.”