Anybody who was following the news in Somaliland during the last month must have noticed the dispute that was brewing between the minister of posts and telecommunications in Somaliland and the private telecommunications companies in Somaliland. The dispute related to an alleged contract that the minister gave to an American telecommunication company known as Transcom Digital Inc (TDI). As per the contract, TDI was supposed to set up a center for interconnecting the several private telecommunication companies operating in Somaliland and for providing Somaliland with a ‘country code’.
The contract given to TDI by the ministry follows in the footsteps of a spate of worrying shoddy deals starting with Total Red Sea Oil Company to foreign fishing companies to the latest investments agreement with MIDROC Company, owned by the Saudi tycoon Al Amoudi. The individuals who negotiated these deals sub rosa only know their contents and the general public were kept in the dark about them.
Obviously, the minister gave the contract to TDI behind the back of the private telecoms. In the first meeting on the issue held in Maansoor hotel in Hargeisa, the minister presented a kind of a fait accompli with the private telecoms. No wonder then that the private telecom representatives rejected the whole scheme outright and immediately stormed out of the meeting.
The minister did not consider a bit about the millions of dollars that the private telecoms invested in setting up these businesses, the business relationships that they have developed over the years with foreign telecom companies and the numerous business contracts they signed to become operational. The telecoms achieved all these without much support to speak of from the government. In fact, while milking thousands of tax dollars from the private telecoms, the government failed time and again to pay her telephone bills.
In his latest press conference in his office on Monday 20/12/2005, the minister, Mr. Hassan Abdi Khayre, spoke at length about the dispute with the telecom companies in Somaliland. The minister accused the telecom companies of obstructing the contract that the ministry awarded to TDI. The minister said that ‘it is the decision of the ministry that private telecoms link up to the center, use the new ‘country code’ and work with us and support us’. The minister, who was a custodial corps officer during the military regime, behaved like he was still in charge of some kind of a prison populated now by private telecom companies, rather than by common criminals.
The minister said that they established contacts with TDI, told them that they have a separate country and flag but that they lack the necessary finances. in order to be independent, therefore, they requested TDI to build them a center for interconnecting their private telecoms and to provide with Somaliland a separate country code.
The minister has got to do some convincing here if the ‘ministers’ does that at all! You do not just show up at the door of international private company and tell them that you have a separate country and a flag, but nonetheless, penniless at the moment and then request them to build you a center and give you a country code so as to be an ‘independent’ country…. The company that accepts this must be very strange company indeed. One cannot be far from the truth in claiming that TDI was specially created for this eventuality two or three years ago i.e. to help rob the private telecom companies in Somaliland by fraudsters who have good local connections with some individuals in positions of power in Somaliland.
The minister also mentioned in the press conference that they ‘were helped to contact TDI by some Somalilanders in the Diaspora’. As observed by keen Somali observers, individuals from the Somali Diaspora coming back home with dubious business projects have been new a phenomenon throughout Somalia. These individuals try their luck to deceive businesses and local authorities, thinking that people back home are so ignorant and gullible.
When asked the minister about the reason they did not award the contract to TDI through a public tender as required by law, the minister said that ‘ public tenders are used by those who have money’. This means that if you do not have money, you do not need to abide by the laws of the land.
Another interesting question in which the minister was asked related to the legality of the deal with TDI since it was not supposedly passed by the parliament. The minister replied by saying that he asked TDI to build the center for them and that he did not give them a single shilling; therefore there is no need to talk about the legality of the deal.
When further asked about how TDI will benefit from investing in Somaliland, the minister said that TDI ‘will benefit from all the money that will come from our golden air… I shall give them [TDI] some of the money that will come from the incoming calls when the system is put in place’. The minister is hopping here to tap into one of the major sources of income for the private telecoms in Somaliland, at no cost to himself. In my opinion, the chance of this succeeding is next to nothing. However, if the minister manages to achieve his musings, this will negatively impact on the economic development country and people will think twice before investing in the country.
The private telecoms companies were very reluctant in the past to interconnect and people and business suffered as a result. However, the private telecoms managed few months ago to interconnect on their own, and people can now communicate across the lines of the private telecoms with small additional costs. The private telecom companies are also willing to use a new county code if is given to Somaliland by International Telecommunications Union as told me by one of the chief executive officers of the private telecom companies. However, as rightly argued by the executive officer, country codes are not assigned to countries by private international companies as assumed by the minister of post and telecommunications but by the specialized UN agency of International Telecommunications Union.
The telecommunications dispute arose at a time when a new parliament led by the opposition parties was elected in and the people were hoping that the elected parliament would stimulate changes in the political governance of the country. In fact several powerful ministers, including the minister of interior, keep a very low profile nowadays to avoid losing their portfolios in the expected ministerial reshuffle by president Riyalle. In these times of uncertainty for unwieldy cabinet, the ministers’ clash and public exchanges with the private telecoms is politically incorrect at best.
The newly elected parliament would do well to conduct, as one of its first tasks, a thorough review of the foreign business deals that the successive governments of Somaliland struck. The parliament should also examine how the general public benefits from these deals.
Yussuf Abdillahi Mohamed,
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