February 13, 2009 / 6:59 PM / 10 years ago

Niger to seize phone co. from Chinese-Libyan group

NIAMEY, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Niger will seize a majority stake in the country’s main fixed-line phone company and its former mobile subsidiary from a Sino-Libyan consortium which the government says has reneged on its obligations, a minister said.

The renationalisation of the 51 percent stakes in fixed line firm Sonitel and mobile operator Sahel Com would end a dispute between the West African country and the Dataport consortium, which includes China’s state-owned ZTE Corp (0763.HK).

“The privatisation of Sonitel and its subsidiary Sahel Com is a failure. Therefore, at zero hours on Feb. 19, Dataport will no longer be a shareholder in Sonitel or Sahel Com,” Mohamed Ben Omar, communications minister and government spokesman, told state television late on Thursday.

“Sonitel and Sahel Com will come back into public ownership, and maybe in a few months we will have another buyer,” he said.

Officials at Dataport and ZTE could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Dataport, which also includes Libyan group LAAICO, bought a 51 percent stake in Sonitel and Sahel Com in December 2001 for 17.5 billion CFA francs ($34.5 million at today’s exchange rate).

Each company’s licence was valid for 15 years and Sonitel’s fixed-line monopoly was guaranteed until December 2004, although other companies began operating mobile services, including Celtel and Telecel branded services.

France Telecom FTE.PA entered the market last June, offering its Orange brand Web and mobile services and opening up competition to Sonitel’s fixed-line business for the first time. It paid 48 million euros ($62 million) for its licence.

Ben Omar said Dataport had failed to meet its obligations under the Sonitel privatisation deal, including by failing to meet a target of 45,000 fixed line subscribers.

He also said the consortium had run up debts of 25 billion CFA francs to suppliers and around 11 billion francs in borrowings. Dataport had also failed to pay staff wages and run up a 3 billion CFA franc overdraft, he said. (Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi; Writing by Alistair Thomson; Editing by David Lewis and David Holmes) ($1=507.5 Cfa Franc) ($1=.7742 Euro)

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