By Emma Okonji
The scramble to acquire 9mobile, Nigeria’s fourth largest network operator, promises to be very competitive, as 16 firms have submitted expressions of interest (EoIs) to Barclays to bid for 9mobile, THISDAY has learnt.
Companies that have expressed interest in 9mobile, which until recently was Etisalat Nigeria Limited, until a debt default forced its former owner to relinquish its stake in the firm and exit Nigeria, include Africa’s biggest telecoms operator, MTN; India’s Bharti Airtel, operating as Airtel in Nigeria; and ntel, which in 2015 acquired the assets of the defunct NITEL and MTel through the federal government’s privatisation programme.
Also in the race are Bua Group, the privately held conglomerate promoted by Alhaji Abdulsamad Rabiu; Morning Side Capital Partners, promoted by the former Managing Director of Diamond Bank Plc, Mr. Alex Otti; and Africell, a subsidiary of the Lebanon-based Lintel Group of Companies, with cellular communications operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), The Gambia, Sierra Leone and Uganda.
Other firms that submitted EoIs are Obot Etiebet & Co, belonging to a former petroleum minister, Mr. Don Etiebet; Blackstone Private Equity; Tel-ology Holdings Limited, a special purpose vehicle led by a former chief executive of MTN Nigeria, Mr. Adian Wood, and Ericsson; De-elim Services Limited; Veittel, a firm owned by the investment arm of the Vietnamese military which has telecoms assets in Africa; AB-Bro Limited, a Nigerian venture company; Hamilton and George International Limited; and two other firms.
Industry sources confirmed to THISDAY that the 16 companies had complied with the deadline for the submission of EoIs at Barclays’ office in Ikoyi, Lagos, and are preparing to access the data room to conduct their due diligence on 9mobile, preparatory for the bid submission stage.
Etisalat Nigeria had taken out a $1.2 billion syndicated loan from a group of 13 banks but struggled to make repayments this year due to a currency crisis and recession in Nigeria.
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) was forced to intervene to save the company from collapse and prevent creditors from putting it into receivership, leading to a change in its board and management, as well as the new name 9mobile.
The crisis forced the telecoms company’s one-time parent Etisalat to terminate its management agreement with its Nigerian business and surrender its 45 per cent stake to a trustee following the central bank intervention.
9mobile CEO Boye Olusanya has said he is focused on getting the telecoms company back on track to make a profit, while working on the paperwork to eventually raise new capital, adding the company was open to new investors.
The 13 banks have put a freeze on collecting the principal and interest payments on the syndicated loan pending new investors, in order to help the company survive, the sources told Reuters.
They have also held back on taking provisions for the syndicated loan and agreed to extend it after the regulatory intervention in July.
The sources said the central bank had asked the lenders to take a five percent provision on the loan as part of their third quarter results due this month. Some lenders, such as Zenith Bank, UBA, and Access Bank have already made 30 per cent provisions to cover direct lending to 9mobile outside the syndicated loan.
9mobile has over 20 million subscribers with a 14 per cent share of the Nigerian market.
South Africa’s MTN is the market leader with 47 per cent, Globacom has 20 per cent while Airtel has 19 per cent.
The Nigerian lenders with exposure to the telecoms firm had given Barclays the mandate to handle the sale of 9mobile, after Citigroup and Standard Bank, previously in the running for the role, were dropped.
According to Reuters, the lenders decided against Citigroup and Standard Bank due to their previous ties to 9mobile.
Standard Bank’s Nigerian subsidiary, Stanbic IBTC Bank is among the group of lenders to 9mobile while Citi has advised the telecoms company in the past, said banking sources.