VP, 2 ministers intervene in Africell-PURA conflict

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure has confirmed that his ministry and that of finance, plus the vice-president had intervened in an attempt to amicably resolve the conflict between Africell and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA).

Speaking to The Point at his office yesterday, Minister Demba Jawo said the two ministries, plus the vice-president appreciate that regulation “is a very difficult job.”

“However, we hope with the cooperation of all the institutions, PURA would be able to do their job and enforce the PURA Act as much as they could without much hindrance,” the information minister said.

PURA had fined Africell D3 million for non-compliance with the regulations after the GSM operator allowed its agents to be selling their Sim cards without control as demanded by the PURA Act.  Africell, however, went to court seeking injunction against PURA, which had been dragging on for about two months.

“PURA saw this as non-compliance and violation of the terms of the licence of Africell. They wrote to the Minister of Information Communications Infrastructure recommending the suspension of Africell’s licence,” sources told The Point last week.

However, The Point later learned that the issue was resolved after the management of PURA was summoned to a meeting by both the vice-president, ministers of finance, and communications infrastructure.

“The Ministry of the Finance is the line ministry for PURA, while MoICI is the sectoral ministry. So it is natural that when there is a problem involving PURA, the Ministry of Finance will be involved… For the VP, she is the vice-president and should be interested in all matters dealing with government so that was how she got involved when President Barrow travelled and she was in charge of the government,” Minister Jawo said.

Full Interview with Demba Ali Jawo:

Minister of Information and Communications Infrastructure

Sanna In this interview with the Minister of Information and Communications Infrastructure, Honourable Demba Ali Jawo issues revolving around the legal tussle between one of the biggest commercial mobile telecommunications network, Africell and PURA, a telecommunication regulatory body in The Gambia has been highlighted. PURA had fined Africell D3 million for non-compliance with the regulations after the GSM operator allowed its agents to be selling their Sim cards without control as demanded by the PURA Act.  Africell, however, went to court seeking injunction against PURA, which had been dragging on for about two months.

Could you please give us background information about the conflict between Africell and PURA?

PURA is the regulator of the telecoms industry.  It has disputes with Africell regarding compliance. PURA says Africell is not complying with the laws governing their operations. For example, the law on registration of Sim cards was ignored by Africell, resulting in a tussle to the extent that PURA wants to exercise its powers under the PURA Act.

Consequent upon this, they wrote to the ministry, recommending us to suspend the licence of the operator.  PURA does not only have powers to recommend such a suspension, but also revoke operator’s licence when found to be violating the terms of the licence.

However, they cannot suspend or revoke the licence by themselves, as they can only recommend it to the ministry.  Hence, it is the ministry that can take the ultimate decision to suspend or revoke an operator.

They were frustrated with the lack of compliance from Africell which was why they went that far. But when it reached the ministry, we thought probably it has not reached that level yet, that there is a need to talk over the issue.

That’s exactly what we did; we called Africell and PURA to talk over the issue.  Thank God we have reached a consensus and agreed that we are not going to go that far by suspending their licence.  We have talked over it and reached a solution.

What was the cause of the frustration by the regulator?

I don’t know, PURA probably thought Africell, being the biggest GSM operator, might have thought they have a bigger cloud than other GSM operators and that they can use that cloud to maneuver their way within the system.

PURA has been accusing Africell of a lot of violations by refusing to comply with the regulation.  That must have frustrated them and so they decided they must punish Africell for a series of violations alleged to have been committed; hence the recommendations to suspend their licence.

So the recommendation was based on other violations by Africell in the past? 

Probably yes. They have been complaining a lot about problems with Africell. They also had problems with other operators, as well. But because Africell is bigger, we expect the problem with them might have been bigger than the problems they faced with other operators. That should be expected among players in the same sectors; there’s bound to be conflicts in their work. Hence, when that happens, there is a need for intervention from the ministry to solve the issue. This was the basis of calling for the talks that resulted in solving the issue.

What was resolved exactly?

We called them to the table and we all agreed that we are all going to do what is expected of us. We do not anticipate any clash if all the players do what is expected of them…

Meaning Africell has to comply by paying the fine…?

The fine is one aspect of it. But that matter is before the courts and until it is out of the courts we cannot comment on the issue. It is possible that Africell will withdraw the matter and pay the fine imposed on them by PURA, which would end the case. We expect that we will eventually come to an amicable solution to the problem.

The allowing of third parties to sell Africell Sims, which in violation of the law, prompted PURA to act against Africell?  Now, don’t you think that running to two different ministers makes it difficult for the regulator to do its job…?

Of course, we expect PURA to face challenges in carrying out its functions… Regulation is a very difficult job, especially when you are regulating various institutions, with each having its operational ideology. However, we hope with the cooperation of all the institutions, PURA would be able to do their job and enforce the Act as much as they could without much hindrance.

Is it true that the vice-president and the finance minister all intervened in this matter on behalf of Africell?

Yes…As you know that the Ministry of Finance is the line ministry for PURA, while MoICI is the sectoral ministry. So it is natural that when there is a problem involving PURA, the Ministry of Finance will be involved.  I think that’s how they got involved… For the VP, she is the vice-president and should be interested in all matters dealing with the government. So that was how she got involved in it when President Barrow travelled out of the country and she took charge of the government, that’s when the issue happened. So she thought she could also add her voice on the matter. That is how she got involved in it.

Is it true that the said operator is “going around and giving monies” to government officials to intervene on their behalf as sources claim?

Definitely, I am not aware of that… and I do not think that …. I am not aware of this and I have no means of verifying that information….

About the gateway, PURA has been advertising the procurement of some equipment for the monitoring of the gateway. Does this mean that it is going to be finally liberalised?

PURA as the regulator is responsible for monitoring of the gateway. And as you know, we used to have contract with MGI which is now terminated. Gamtel now has been given the powers to manage the gateway which was to run for six months.

The anticipation is for the government to do three things by the end of that duration: allow Gamtel to continue to manage the gateway, invite an independent operator to manage the gateway, like MGI was doing, or to liberalise the gateway so that telecoms operators can be able to terminate calls without going through third parties.

So those were the considerations which will require a policy to be in place before being implemented. So in this case, PURA began advertising for monitoring equipment in anticipation of the liberalisation, which was meant to prepare them for the monitoring of the compliance of various operators. But somehow, they have jumped the gun because instead of going ahead with advertising the procurement of the said equipment, they should have waited for the policy to be in place first.

What is holding that policy right now?

It is an anticipation; the matter has to be decided at cabinet level for government to have a policy in place before it is implemented.

So as the minister, what do you think is the best way out for this gateway?

It depends on what advice we receive from experts. There was some task force in place which was to study the gateway and they have already submitted a preliminary report and they are due to submit their final report. Once they do that, government will look at their final recommendations. Based on that, we will take a decision on whether to liberalise, allow Gamtel or a third party company to terminate calls.

But Gamtel does not seem to have the technical capacity to do the termination by themselves?

The MGI contract was terminated since July and since then; it has been Gamtel that was managing the gateway. And we have not got any major problems so far. I know they have some constraints but things are working quite smoothly so far.

Author: Sanna Camara
Source: Picture: Minister Demba Ali Jawo