The entire telecommunication industry has been buzzing with talk about the emergence of the hitherto unknown Mafab Communications Limited and which must now pay the $273.6 million fee for the 3.5GHz band licence to deploy a 5G network in Nigeria.
The interest is not because Mafab beats Airtel, a well-known operator with vast experience spanning beyond Nigeria. What those who know the industry are talking about is that there is scanty information about the experience of Mafab in the sector, much less for a project as big as deploying a 5G network.
Mafab Communications Limited, until the day the auction was announced on December 2, 2021, was unknown to many people.
According to the rules of the auction, payment is expected to be made in naira at the prevailing Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) exchange rate.
The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), however, says, according to its Draft Information Memorandum (IM), new entrants were to participate in the bid and if they are successful, the Commission will issue the new entrant an operating licence in line with the extant provision of the Nigerian Communications Act (NCA) 2003 and its licensing regulations.
At the auction, Mafab was represented by Musbahu Muhammad Bashir, the chairman of the Althani Group, an Abuja-based group that oversees a collection of companies. The companies include Eman Homes & Estate, Althani Investment Limited, Salam Takaful Insurance, and Mafab Communications.
Prior to the auction, BusinessDay had noted a lack of information on the Mafab Communications website regarding the leadership of the communication firm.
On Monday, shortly after it was announced a winner, the company’s website experienced glitches. The glitches continued on Tuesday morning.
However, in defense of the company, the NCC said it had previously issued licences to the company. Mafab secured a 20-year International Data Access (IDA) licence and an Interconnect Exchange licence from the NCC on October 1, 2020.
The NCC had noted that only operational telecom providers are eligible for IDA licences in its guidelines on International Gateway Access and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).
The NCC in the guideline noted, “Any licensee of the Commission who does not have a network shall not be eligible for an IDA licence. Specifically, only operational licensees will be eligible for IDA licenses.”
BusinessDay’s search on the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) found that Mafab Communications Limited was registered on July 8, 2020. It, therefore, would suggest that Mafab secured the IDA licence in less than four months of incorporation. Meanwhile, the company has no record of clients on its website.
However, Ike Adinde, director of communications, NCC, told BusinessDay that the IM from the Commission did not preclude any operator from participating in the licensing round. According to Adinde, Mafab Communications was very eligible to take part.
Meanwhile, Transparency Nigeria Group said it had petitioned the Federal Government and all relevant security agencies to immediately launch an investigation into the business practices of Mafab Communications Limited.
“Mafab Communications was incorporated in 2020, has no comprehensive tax history, and appears to have been specifically set up by connected insiders for the purpose of acquiring one of the highly valued 5G licences,” the group said in a statement signed by Umar Dadiyata and shared with BusinessDay.
It happened before
Teniola Olusola, former president, Association for Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ATCON), says the emergence of Mafab has precedent in the industry.
For example, in 2014, following several failed attempts to sell off the government-owned Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL), and its mobile arm, the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) announced the national carrier was acquired by a group known as NATCOM.
NATCOM was a consortium of seven Nigerian companies. They emerged as the new owners of NITEL and MTEL by offering to pay $252 million, which met the BPE’s bid price. NATCOM went on to transform the national carrier into nTel.
Teniola says what should be a priority is to ensure that the company is able to roll out the service in time.
Ajibola Olude, general secretary/chief operating officer of ATCON, told BusinessDay that the auction process was very transparent, saying, “Is there anything I will say, it is to commend the Commission on a world-class auction.”
Meet the chairman of Mafab
Musbahu Muhammad Bashir, chairman of Althani, the parent company of Mafab Communications, also serves as chairman on the board of Cobalt International Services Limited, a company the provides pre-shipment inspection agent services for businesses in the oil and gas sector in Nigeria.
He is also a member of the board of directors at Jaiz Bank, which operates the Islamic banking principles and non-interest loan services.