February 24, 2010 14:02 telliott
|My late husband, the President of Nigeria, left me a large telecommunications company. I need someone of your skills and reputation to help privatize it. Please send me your bank information …
Well, it probably didn’t happen like that, but the flap about China Unicom’s alleged participation in a bid for Nigerian Telecommunications Ltd. (Nitel), Nigeria’s national telecoms carrier, does make you wonder if they should tune their spam filters a bit.
The story, in brief:
On Tuesday, 16 February a consortium called New Generation Ltd., which allegedly included China Unicom, was reported to have won an auction for Nitel, with a bid of US$ 2.5 billion. This was $1.5 billion more than the next highest bid. Bloggers muttered darkly about inside deals.
Wait, it gets better.
Entertainment value aside, what can we get from this mess? It would be tempting, but unwise, to decide that Nigeria should be avoided until it starts acting more like Switzerland. That could be a long time, and meanwhile Africa’s largest mobile market presents some real opportunities – along with equally real challenges. The fact that China Unicom – generally speaking, no dummies – would consider an equity position ought to suggest that serious players are weighing the risks and rewards.
But don’t bring your checkbook to the first meeting.
- Tom Elliott
Update, 10 March 2010. In a development that should surprise no one, it has been reported today that the head of the Bureau of Public Enterprises, the agency supervising the sale, has been sacked. Well, technically "suspended," but I suspect it amounts to the same thing.
- On Wednesday, China Unicom denied being part of the consortium. It had only offered to serve as technical advisor, although it might eventually be interested in an equity stake. (Original reports cited a figure of at least 20% ownership, though China Unicom’s subsequent official statement confirming their interest did not quantify it.)
- Interested parties then started trying to contact another consortium partner, referred to in the first press releases as “Dubai-based Minerva Group.”
- I emailed the Dubai office of Minerva Financial Services, based in the Channel Islands. They were not the Minerva in question, did not know who was, and – reading between the lines – rather wished people would stop asking.
- The Lagos Daily Champion got similar denials from two other Minervas in Dubai, including Minerva FZ, a wireless VAD, which is at least halfway plausible.
- Reuters reports that calls to Minerva General Trading were not returned.
- In case New Generation disappears, the second bidder, at $956 million, is scarcely a household word in telecommunications, either: Omen International, registered in the British Virgin Islands. Go ahead, Google them and see if you find more than I did.