A brush with President Charles Taylor of Liberia.
When you’re setting up a cell phone network, one of the most critical facilities you have to build is what is known as the Switch Center. This is where we house the huge complex of computers that process calls coming in and out. The equipment is housed in highly secure buildings that cost millions. It takes months to prepare such a facility before you can even install the equipment.
In 2001 after we got the license in Nigeria, we set about trying to find a building big enough to house the Switch facilities in Lagos. It was not an easy task to find the right type of building, and time was running out. We had paid $285m for the license, and had been given six months to set up our operations. Failure to meet the deadline would have resulted in a loss of the license.
Then one day our estate agent came and told me they had found the perfect building. It was actually the Liberian Embassy building in Lagos. The government of Liberia, then ruled by Charles Taylor, wanted to sell the building and move to the political capital, Abuja.
It took only a few days for our people to reach agreement over the price. Sale and purchase documents were drawn up and payment terms prescribed. It was a lot of money, which meant I would have to personally sign off on the payment. As I sat there in my office in Lagos, looking at the documents, I noticed that payment had to go to an account in Switzerland…
“Why is the money not going to Liberia?” I quizzed my staff. Initially, it seemed to be a detail no one had picked up.
___”Is it really our business where they want the money sent?” someone asked.
I refused to sign.
The ambassador came to see me at my office, with an entourage of officials. There was a sense of urgency on their part.
I explained to the ambassador that I wanted a Government of Liberia bank account number, and I also wanted a Cabinet Minute authorising the sale. (A Cabinet Minute usually covers essential matters for consideration by a government cabinet minister, such as purpose, recommendation, background and options. It records the outcome of Cabinet’s consideration of the previous week’s Cabinet committee decisions).
He seemed to agree that my request was reasonable and promised to cooperate.
The following day he called me and said the President’s brother had been dispatched to “sort out the misunderstanding over the account details.”
“Ambassador, there is no misunderstanding. This is government property, and all I want is the necessary documentation to show that the sale has been formally approved by all relevant authorities, and I want an account in Liberia.”
He was now getting quite desperate and agitated, even suggesting they had another buyer in the wings.
I would not budge.
On another occasion, he invited me to travel to Liberia as a guest of the President. He thought it would impress me. Sometimes (not always), corrupters try to dangle the “flattery” of high-level meetings with top leaders or their close family members to reel you into their illegal activities.
“Sorry Ambassador,” I replied politely but firmly, “I have a network to launch. We have paid $285m for the license and have a tight deadline. Please give me the documents I need.”
Of course, by this time I had long worked out what was happening and was already looking for an alternative building. I let them stew for a few days, then told him I was no longer interested and moved on.
We ordered specialised containers to store our equipment and airfreighted them to Lagos. It was a more costly solution than if we had bought the Liberian Embassy building.
Many years later, Charles Taylor was forced to hand over power to his vice president after a civil war in which tens of thousands of people were killed. He was eventually sentenced to a total of 50 years in prison by the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone near The Hague, in the Netherlands for his leading role in war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of international humanitarian law.
To be continued.
Author: Strive Masiyiwa