By Emma Okonji

TThe race to acquire 9mobile, Nigeria’s fourth largest telecoms network operator, is taking a new dimension, as Dangote Group and Helios Towers are already emerging as the top two contenders among the 16 local and international companies bidding to acquire it.

A source from Barclays, which is the official institution assigned to receive and evaluate bids from companies that have expressed their interest to acquire and invest in 9mobile, told THISDAY that contrary to the expectations of industry stakeholders, that the big multinationals may likely win the bid process, there is a new dimension, which clearly shows that Dangote and Helios Towers are taking the early lead in the ongoing bid exercise, which is expected to be concluded by early next week, and result announced. 

According to THISDAY’s investigation, the two top contenders are not new to telecoms business, as they both have vested interests in promoting telecoms business in Nigeria.

Dangote Group that is bidding with the brand name, Blackstone, had in the past, acquired a 3G licence, through its subsidiary, Alheri Engineering Company Limited, but later sold it out at a time it did have need for it. Alheri Engineering alongside MTN, Globacom and Celtel, which has since transformed to Airtel, won the 3G licence, among the 17 firms that expressed interest in the bid. 

Helios Towers, one of the bidders, owned and operated the largest telecoms towers in Nigeria and in other countries, before it sold its Nigerian infrastructure to IHS. Aside selling its Nigerian towers infrastructure to IHS, Helios has business in the telecoms, banking, and other sectors of the Nigerian economy.

Analysts who are happy that a Nigerian company like Dangote Group is among the two top bidders, said its interest to invest in 9mobile would further strengthen the brand perspective, should Dangote eventually emerge winner. 

According to analysts views, Dangote is coming from a portfolio of strength, using the vehicle of one of the strongest private equity company in the world, the Blackstone Group, which has investment valued at $378 billion and has a Nigerian subsidiary called the Black Rhino Group that has significant investment in fibre optic cable, which is a critical infrastructure in the Nigerian telecoms space. “Dangote has strong international and financial muscle to play in the telecoms space and compete with big operators to give 9mobile an edge over other operators, since it will be operating as the second fully indigenous telecoms company in the country, after Globacom, if it eventually emerged the winner,” the telecoms analysts said. 

Although they were of the view that 9mobile already had the advantage of brand appeal among the youths, especially in the area of data bundle services, they however said that the presence of Dangote would further increase the brand visibility of 9mobile. 

THISDAY had last month authoritatively reported that 16 firms have submitted expressions of interest (EoIs) to Barclays to bid for 9mobile.

The companies 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. Barclays, it was gathered, has commenced the process of selection based on the criteria for assessment, and Dangote Group and Helios Towers are currently showing early lead in the bid process. 

The bid has confirmed the earlier statement by the Chief Executive of 9mobile, Mr. Boye Olusanya, who said the company, was focused on getting the telecoms company back on track to profitability and that the company was open to investors.

9mobile, under the old brand name, Etisalat, had in 2013 approached a consortium of 13 local banks for a loan of $1.2 billion for network upgrade and expansion.

However, citing the economic downturn of 2015-2016 and naira devaluation, which negatively impacted on the dollar-denominated component of the loan, the telecoms company wrote its creditors informing them of its intention to halt the repayment of the loan in instalments, until such a time that it was able to raise more money.

Unsatisfied with the excuse, the banks threatened to take over the operations of the telecoms company, which eventually led to the dissolution of its old board and the reconstitution of a new board and the eventual name change to 9mobile.