Togo: Moov subscribers go on to the streets in Lome to protest at closure of Moov

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Demonstrators took to the streets this week in Lome to protest at the Government’s recent closure of the country’s second cellular operator, Etisalat-owned Moov. Togo is one of Africa’s leading laggards in the liberalisation process and the closure of Moov highlights how little is changing in this small West African country compared to some of its neighbours. Russell Southwood looks at why frustrations have spilled out on to the streets.

Around 2000 demonstrators representing Moov’s 600,000 subscribers went out on to the streets of the capital Lome to protest at the closure of their service, according to a report in Ghana’s Daily Guide. Interestingly there appears to have been no media coverage of the event in Togo.

The protesters were angry that the Government were taking them for a ride by closing down Moov’s operations. They chanted slogans and carried placards, some of which read “MOOV Forever And Ever” and “Prez. Faure Get Our Phone Connections Back”.

Organizers of the protest march blamed the Togo government for the abrupt suspension of the operational license of Atlantique Telecommunications, without taking into consideration, the larger interests of its over 600,000 Togolese subscribers.

“The damage of this suspension caused to the people is too much. So the government and MOOV have to repair the damage. The suffering of the 600,000 subscribers is too much,” said the spokesman of the organizers, Guillaume Koko, who is President of Asociation pur le Bien-Etre Juvenile, the NGO which led the demonstrations.

The protesters also warned that they will continue with their protest if the government does not react favourably to their demands as one angry protester indicated, “We want our lines to be re-established, if they refuse, it will be the responsibility of the government to bear the consequences,” Adja Kodjo said.

The demonstrators ended their protests with a sit-down in protest front of the headquarters of Atlantique Telecommunications in Lome but threatened to continue with the protest next week if there is no reaction from the government and Atlantique Telecommunications to resolve the crisis.

Togo is one of the least liberalised countries on the continent with only 4 significant players in the market, two of whom are Government-owned. Incumbent Togo Telecom has a monopoly over the international gateway. Togo Cellulaire, its mobile subsidiary, was for many years the sole player in the market, and has an estimated 70% market share based on an estimated 65% population coverage.

Moov has a 30% market share based on a 70% population coverage and has been steadily eroding Togo Cellulaire’s position. It is understood that Moov has been refusing to pay for a new licence before it gets its own international gateway licence. Currently it is in the hands of the owner of its main competitor Togo Telecom, both in terms of price and quality of service. The latter is believed to have had a constant impact upon the effectiveness of its international service.

In an interview in 2007, Director of the country’s slow-moving and largely ineffectual regulator ARTP, Massima Palouki said:Togolese people’s lifestyles should improve before the state approves a contract with another telecoms operator. If the authorities, however, ask for another operator, we will call for tenders.” The entry of Moov into the market saw a 50% increase in the number of subscribers in the country. Current penetration levels are only around 15%. Evidence from elsewhere on the continent shows that further growth would be possible with more operators.

The fourth of the main players in this beleaguered country is Café Informatique. It got an international gateway licence and permission to do VoIP calling as part of a call centre project. Despite attempts by the regulator to take its licence away, it has hung on to the licence. However, it has no interconnection agreement with Togo Telecom so its share of the market is relatively small and it relies on its own infrastructure. Locally owned, it does not have financial muscle to challenge the incumbent.

There is no sign that Togo Telecom or Togo Cellulaire will be privatised, although there has been international pressure on the Government to do so as part of overall structural reforms. The problem goes right to the top. Current President Faure Gnassingbe replaced his lifetime-President father in a form of family dynasty that looks like becoming popular in francophone Africa: Bongo Pere recently having been replaced by Bongo Fils is the latest example.

Inside sources tell us that Togo Telecom is seen as a cash cow by the Government and therefore something that needs its protection. EU sanctions were imposed on Togo in part because of widespread corruption and not much appears to have changed since then.

Correction: Issue 467 - Zain vs Vodacom row in Zambia hits a raw nerve over Africa’s 3G anxieties: The Vodacom Zambia company mentioned in the Top Story last week has nothing to do with the pan-continental operator Vodacom and is not yet operating in Zambia.