Wangusi: The day I defied an ‘order from above’ to fund 2017 polls

Outgoing Communication Authority of Kenya Director General Francis Wangusi.
A few months to the 2017 General Election, a strange call was placed from a senior government official to the Communications Authority of Kenya.

Campaigns were in high gear and the caller, a Permanent Secretary, wanted the CA to contribute funds to the State campaign machinery.

This was one of the dozens of similar requests that landed on the desk of outgoing CA Director General Francis Wangusi throughout 2017, including one to fund the swearing-in ceremony of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto.

Wangusi denied the request and a few months later, he was out of office on a three-week compulsory leave as the board of directors allegedly conducted investigations into some of the hiring decisions he had made.

The case was settled out of court allowing him to serve the remainder of his term. To Wangusi, whose eight-year reign at the telco regulator came to an end last week, the incident was just one of the many that he had confronted while serving his duties.

Wangusi sat down with Weekend Business for an interview about his tumultuous reign, and revealed how the regulator is under siege, why it has been difficult to implement a policy on dominance in the telecommunication sector and the uphill task facing the incoming Director-General.

“It has been an eventful 8 years for me and I have worked in the telecommunications industry for 37 years, so I have seen it from infancy to where it is today,” he said.

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Wangusi was appointed in 2011 on an acting capacity in the wake of a court case filed by Consumer Federation of Kenya Secretary-General Stephen Mutoro, who has ironically filed the case that has made Wagusi’s retirement a nightmare.

“I was getting tired because the activities of the industry are too many and entail a lot of work,” explained Wangusi as we sat on the sprawling front lawn of his Lavington home to the sound of birds and free-range chicken.

“This has been a high-pressure job and I thought maybe this time I would be having a good quiet Christmas,” he chuckled. “But now the courts say I should stay on until the matter is resolved and the other team says ‘no you have retired’ so I find myself in the middle of a crisis that I did not need.”

According to Mr Wangusi, the problems stem from changes made through the Miscellaneous Amendments Bill 2018 that expunged clauses mandating the authority to replace the board chairman and Director General through a selection panel.

“One of the key considerations of the amendments to the KICA Act 2013 was how the regulator can be made independent of government, licensees and any other interested parties,” he explained.

“The board of directors is the organ that determines the independence of the authority and if the board can be hired and fired at will, the institution will be unstable and that is how we settled on the selection panel.”

The selection panel was drawn from several representatives including the Media Council of Kenya, Kenya Private Sector Alliance, Law Society of Kenya, Institute of Engineers of Kenya and Consumer Federation of Kenya.

The Miscellaneous Amendments Act 2018 removed the selection panel instead conferred the appointing authority on the ICT Cabinet Secretary.

Wangusi says the law change risks rolling back gains made in the regulator and the ICT sector in recent years.

He gave the example of the Universal Service Fund (USF) that receives close to Sh1 billion each year from the country’s service providers.

President Uhuru Kenyatta last year directed Wangusi to give Sh1 billion to the Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI), a move he resisted on grounds that the DCI has its own budget.

“The issue of the USF is simply about money and politicians, particularly Parliament and the Senate are always quizzing us and asking us why the money is lying idle in the account,” he explained.

“Looking from the outside, someone could think this money is idle but we committed Sh3 billion out of the Sh9 billion to Phase One that has since seen 883 secondary schools across 47 counties connected with broadband internet.”

Wangusi is proud of several developments he oversaw during his time at the authority even as he made enemies among stakeholders, including media owners.

During the digital migration process in 2015, the government through the CA and then ICT CS Fred Matiangi switched off three main broadcasters in a bid to force them to transfer their signals from analogue to digital.

Hardline stance

The stand-off cost media owners millions of shillings in lost revenue. The Kenya Broadcasting Corporation’s Signet and Chinese company Pan African Network Group PANG were the only signal distributors left transmitting.

Wangusi says he has no regrets over the hardline stance the government adopted during the three-week shutdown and says the industry is today better.

“A number of players believed that the government was looking to gag the media through digital migration and this caused the big fight,” he explained.

“Post digital migration, we have moved from a media space of 11 television stations to 75 and from a handful of radio stations to over 170 now and even those who resisted ended up saying we did the right thing and they are now enjoying the liberalised space.”

Infrastructure rollout

However, Wangusi is not without his regrets and a major kink in his long eventful tenure is the inability to implement a full review of the competitive framework.

“The competitive space has been very elusive, partly because some of these players get protection from somewhere and it becomes very difficult for you to rein them in,” he said.

“When we were liberalising, it seemed we were set to have a lucrative market and infrastructure roll-out was one of the sectors that each and every player was eying.”

He is of the opinion that today the market is getting more saturated and there is less interest in investing in infrastructure roll-out.

“Most of the players now are shying away from infrastructure rollout and want to do content or application services and this puts the future of the sector at risk,” Wangusi said.

He says the merger between Telkom and Airtel Kenya could be one of the means through which to re-structure the market and stimulate more investment in infrastructure. 

“We need a strong competitor in the infrastructure rollout market and that is why the merger of Telkom and Airtel could be one way to achieve this.”

The merger, alongside other key industry decisions, has, however, been scuttled by the legal challenge against the CA Board of Directors that is scheduled for hearing for Tuesday 10th September.

Wagusi says he has left the matter to the courts and all he wants is to leave office in peace.

“I do not lack things to do,” he explained. “One of the options was to go quietly to do some farming or some consulting. I am not worried and the quicker this matter is concluded the better for me because then I will manage to settle down and do my work as I had earlier planned.”

And for the incoming director-general, Mr Wangusi has a few words of advice: “The incoming DG should be firm, fair and be aware that there are going to be challenges coming from left right and centre because of the many interests at the Authority.

“As long as they are firm and fair then they can push the industry forward. It is also important to constantly train workers on emerging technology otherwise the industry will outpace the CA.”

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2017 General ElectionCommunications Authority of KenyaFrancis Wangusi