Columnist: Dowuona, Samue
Over the past one week this country has witnessed what can best be described as a roller coaster over the legitimacy or otherwise of the interconnect clearinghouse (ICH) provisional license awarded to Afriwave Telecom Ghana in June 2015.
But this is not out of the norm because the ICH policy itself came under heavy opposition from various stakeholders since the idea was mooted. During public consultations toward the issuance of the ICH license, several entities, including the telecom operators, pressure groups like IMANI Ghana, OccupyGhana and others, and some individuals openly stood vehemently against the whole idea of a monopolistic ICH, raising questions of potential single point of failure, breach of citizens privacy, negative impact on quality of service and high cost of communication among other things.
Telecoms industry regulator National Communications Authority (NCA) provided some answers to those questions and eventually the license went to tender and Afriwave won with 78.2 out of 100 maximum points, beating Subah Infosolutions (72.7), Prodigy International Limited (44), TCMS-GVG Consortium Limited (40) and Channel IT Limited (18) in that order. By the way it is important to note that both Subah and TCMS-GVG are from the same group.
The scope of the license means Afriwave is to operate the sole clearinghouse for interconnect traffic between all telecom operators in the country and also between them and Value Added Service providers. It will also monitor international traffic for revenue assurance, fight SIMBOX fraud and do a number of other things in phases. In all there are 14 main services to be provided by the ICH licensee.
The law suit
But before Afriwave could lay hands on its provisional license, Obuasi West Member of Parliament, Kwaku Kwarteng and two others sued Afriwave, telecom industry regulator National Communications Authority (NCA), and the telecom operators, challenging the constitutionality and necessity of the ICH. That suit is still in court and yet to be determined.
The strength of that suit was and still is largely in the non-existence of a specific law that allows the operations of an ICH. Government has now tabled a Bill in Parliament seeking to get the ICH Law to back the establishment and operations of the ICH in Ghana.
That Bill is already causing some nervousness in the public as some claim it will allow government to tap and listen into people’s private communication. But by reason of the absence of the law, the plaintiffs in the suit have argued that until the law takes effect, the suit means the ICH, in its totality, cannot take off until the court case is determined. But NCA maintains that the suit is in respect of the interconnect role of ICH, so the other aspects of the ICH, particularly the monitoring of international traffic coming into the country for revenue assurance can take off. So NCA took steps to ensure that the licensed ICH operator starts work on monitoring international traffic.
But there was a challenge because Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA) had contracted Subah Infosolutions, under very controversial circumstances in which the state parted with some GHC74millions for reasons still not clear. While Ghanaians were struggling to swallow what became infamously known as the “Subah rot”, GRA took advantage of the law suit filed against the ICH and renewed Subah’s contract for one more year with total disregard for the intervention of the Communications Minister, Dr. Edward Omane Boamah, who sought to prevent a renewal of the Subah contract.
Months later, it emerged that in renewing the Subah contract, the GRA also stabbed Ghanaians even further in the back by inserting a termination clause, which meant the state will even lose more money to Subah if the contract was terminated before May 2016. As a result, attempts by NCA to get Subah off the contract for the licensed ICH operator, Afriwave to takeover before May 2016 failed, in spite of the fact that the Attorney-General advised the termination.
The matter went to the presidency and all the parties were asked to allow Subah to complete their contract and leave in May this year. Subah is still working but the NCA asked Afriwave to connect their equipment to the telcos’ networks and run tests from now till May to ensure a smooth takeover from Subah, such that the country will not risk losing revenue when Subah finally disconnects. Even that test was described by Kwaku Kwarteng as duplication of work and “criminal” double payment, which the NCA and Afriwave debunked and explained away.
One would have thought that the coast was now clear for Subah to complete its contract peacefully for Afriwave to takeover seamlessly, but no. Just a week ago, reputable think tank IMANI Ghana bounced back on its fight against a monopolistic ICH with what came across as a huge expose of alleged fraud in the awarding of the ICH license. But that banger by IMANI Ghana has not been left unchallenged by government, industry regulator and main actors in the award of the license.
In essence, IMANI claims to have received a signed copy of the final report based on which Afriwave was declared winner of the ICH license. They claimed the report came from one of the eight-member Applications Evaluation Panel (AEP). According to IMANI, the document they have shows that the process leading to the award of the ICH license to Afriwave was fraudulent because it was skewed in favor of Afriwave. Their evidence in-chief was that on one of the items under the technical section, Afriwave was awarded five marks even though the highest point attainable was one.
IMANI also raised a few other issues about the process including what the document they have said about Afriwave’s financial capabilities, and consequently called for the license to be annulled to allow the whole process to be restarted for the proper thing to be done.
One can perfectly understand where IMANI was coming from. They obtained a document that indicated some foul play in the award of the license to Afriwave. Any well meaning Ghanaian would have either done what IMANI did; expose the fraud, once it is documented and signed, or go to the NCA and confirm if indeed the document they have is exactly what the NCA used to determine the winner. IMANI chose option one.
Now it is fast emerging that IMANI may have been misled by whoever they got that document from. They have said that their source was one of the eight AEP members, but they cannot name the person, arguably for ethical reasons. Meanwhile, six of the AEP members were at a press conference, where one of them read out exactly what they submitted to the NCA via email and in Excel format. In that report, they scored 39.5 points out of 40 for Afriwave under the Technical section, and recommend that Afriwave should be awarded the license. The AEP’s report named none other than Afriwave as the winner of the license. And so even if the NCA changed figures after the AEP submitted their report, the result from the independent AEP was that Afriwave won fair and square.
The AEP members indeed pointed out that they were never given hard copies of the signed Word document because they signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), so it was “impossible” for any of them to have given out the document that IMANI Ghana is brandishing around as the one which formed the basis of the award of the license to Afriwave. That casts a gargantuan doubt on whether IMANI indeed got their document from a panel member.
NCA has also published the full report, which showed that indeed, at some stage there were errors after the transposition of figures from the Excel sheets to the Word Document, but those errors were completely different from what is contained in the document IMANI holds. Indeed the NCA document shows the errors were rather in Subah’s column and they were corrected.
The Deputy Minister or Communications, Felix Kwakye Ofosu has called the IMANI document a concocted and fake document, and challenged IMANI to name the AEP member who gave them the document so that, that person would be given the chance to defend him or herself.
What pundits think is more plausible is that a staff of the NCA who may have been in support of another applicant, inserted a page containing errors in Afriwave’s column in a grand plan to concoct a document to do damage to Afriwave, NCA and the AEP. But it would appear that person may have succeeded in doing more damage to the hard-earned reputation of IMANI Ghana instead.
Another possibility is that, could it be that former NCA bigwigs, who are now consultants for Subah, but still have boys/girls inside the NCA, may have put up their henchmen in the NCA to this wicked move just to delay the Afriwave takeover and keep Subah still in contract?
What is strange, however, is that even though Afriwave got the license in June 2015, IMANI is only dropping this bombshell-turned-Christmas-knockout at a time when a certain very significant thing is alleged to have happened regarding Subah’s contract with GRA, and that makes IMANI Ghana’s move look way more than a mere coincidence.
Whereas there is no evidence to draw a clear link, the IMANI bombshell dropped not long after unconfirmed information came out that GRA has finally written to Subah informing them that their contract would not be renewed after May this year, in accordance with the decision at the presidency. Coincidence?
Earlier, the law suit filed against Afriwave, NCA and the telcos gave way for the Subah contract to be extended with even more potential damage to the state, curtsy a certain termination clause. Coincidence?
Suspicious SIMBOX bust story
Meanwhile, on Monday, February 8, 2016 there was a publication in sections of the media about Subah leading a SIMBOX bust on Friday, February 5, 2016 at Gbawe, where over 8,000 sim cards were found.
The media houses which published the story may have gotten the dates wrong; if not, then that story is suspect because way back in November, 2015, when the NCA tried to kick Subah out of its premises, a top official of Subah invited this writer to the Police Headquarters to witness a SIMBOX bust from Gbawe. That bust was supposed to have gone public then but the Subah official said they were waiting for the right time.
Apparently, because the NCA’s attempt to kick Subah out was suspended, they also postponed the intended publication about the a SIMBOX bust. So it is a bit strange to read in the news that the Gbawe bust was done this month, just after Subah had allegedly been given a letter by the GRA, informing them that their contract will not be renewed after May. Coincidence?
Again, on the same day IMANI went public with their document, this same Subah official, who had for more than a year avoided an interview with this writer and actually called me names and sworn never to meet with me, called me out of the blue and willingly offered to meet and show some documents. We agreed to meet at Holiday Inn Hotel but the Subah official later sent a text message to ask if I had seen the IMANI document and what I thought of it. Subsequently, he said there was no need to meet if I had seen the IMANI document. Coincidence?
Subah was part of the applicants who lost to Afriwave, and no applicant got a copy of the final report. So the question is, where did the Subah official get a copy of the report he sought to show me; how come only Subah, out of the five applicants, has a copy; did they also get it from the mystery AEP member, from IMANI or from whom – is it possible that the Subah official was rather the one who leaked it to IMANI, since that Subah official frequents the premises of the NCA due to the nature of his work?
It is surprising that a man who claims he cannot share information because he is under an NDA, all of a sudden finds reason to call and wanted to speak because he allegedly has some damning information about a competitor. Coincidence?
So the events leading to and just after IMANI Ghana’s bombshell makes it look more than mere coincidence. It looks more like part of a carefully planned strategy to deny a legitimate licensee in favor of a sore loser. But it is not fair to judge IMANI yet since one cannot prove whether they were indeed part of the ” fraudulent process” that put up this document described by the main actors as “fake” and “concocted”. IMANI may have just been used, we don’t know that yet. But these are early days yet.
When this whole ICH thing started, I personally wished Subah should have somehow gotten involved in the delivery of the ICH mandate for two reasons; one because we had paid them GHC74million for allegedly “no work done”, and secondly because they have some equipment and some experience in monitoring traffic for revenue assurance. My information from Subah is that they have so far helped to save Ghana some US$71million (GHS262.7million) plus since they actually started work. When Afriwave won the bid, I was therefore hoping Afriwave and Subah will go above the political charade and propaganda, and meet at their level and discuss a collaboration, but it seems other considerations, which may have included the Subah “integrity” baggage, was just too much for Afriwave to take on. So this is where we are now.
This whole battle against the take off of the ICH has so far manifested in a four-fold attack, which look related but not quite proven: 1. Opposition from industry players combined with the unleashing of pressure groups to kill the ICH at conception. 2. Legal suit to delay the take off to allow Subah’s contract to be extended, 3. Threatening of telcos with sanctions as a way of preventing them from cooperating with Afriwave and this fourth one is to tarnish the image of the NCA and AEP just to discredit the entire licensing process and legitimacy of the license itself.
My hunch is that from what has gone on so far, the woes of the ICH licensee and those who awarded the license are not yet over. The people and institutions with vested interest are definitely planning their next move. But one can be sure that the NCA and everyone interested in seeing the ICH policy take off are well prepared for them.
Until then, the question still remains unanswered: who leaked the “fake” ICH license document to IMANI?