Since assuming power in 2017, Angolan President Joao Lourenco has repeatedly vowed to steer sub-Saharan Africa’s second-biggest oil producer into a new era of transparency. Last week, he missed a golden opportunity to deliver on that promise.
The sale of the country’s fourth telecommunications license could have been another step to increase competition and shake up the business environment Lourenco inherited from his predecessor, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who left his family and allies in control of swathes of the economy when he stepped down.
Instead, the government awarded the permit to Telstar Telecomunicacoes, a little known company that beat 26 local and international firms. Telecommunications Minister Jose Carvalho da Rocha declined to identify Telstar’s owners beyond saying they’re Angolan when announcing the winner on April 12.
“The president missed a chance to show that he is seriously committed to increasing transparency,” Antonio Estote, an independent economist and professor at the Universidade Lusiada de Angola, said in a text message. “Telstar doesn’t have a record, which was one of the main conditions for winning the telecommunications license.”
Telstar was established in January last year, at least a month after bids opened, according to TeleGeography, a telecommunications market research and consulting firm based in Carlsbad, California. According to the Government Gazette, army General Manuel Joao Carneiro owns 90% and Antonio Mateus, a local businessperson, holds the rest.
“What happened is absurd,” Augusto Bafuabafua, a political analyst based in the capital, Luanda, said by phone. “Two unknown owners of an unknown company won an international public tender.”
MTN Group, Africa’s largest carrier by sales, pulled out of the auction, Angolan newspaper Expansao reported on November 23. A company spokespersonn declined to comment when contacted by phone.
Telstar’s successful bid means that Angola’s three private mobile operators are partly owned by military officers. The biggest, Unitel SA, is 25% held by Dos Santos’s daughter, Isabel, who is also Africa’s richest woman. The remaining 75% is split equally among army General Leopoldino do Nascimento, state oil company Sonangol and Brazilian telecommunications company Oi SA.
Unitel’s smaller rival, Telecomunicacoes, was spun off from State-owned Angola Telecom in 2010. A 40% stake went to closely held Portmill Investmentos e Telecomunicacoes, which is also run by army generals, according to Portuguese newspaper Publico.
What perhaps says most about the size of Telstar’s task to match its bigger rivals and their ubiquitous prepaid SIM cards is its location. The downtown address is a peeling, brown, four-storey building, a stark contrast to the tall metal-and-glass offices of Unitel and Movicel across the city.
The office was locked when Bloomberg visited at 11 a.m. on Monday, April 15.
“I know nothing about Telstar,” said Augusto Francisco, who lives in the building. “I only heard of them in the news.”