by Alexander O. Onukwue
It began with zipped green lips, that gradually became unzipped, and was unveiled to us as the Naija Network.
Etisalat, from day one, looked like it was going to be different from the existing mobile telecommunications networks that were in existence in the country.
There was a targeted appeal to the youth, a specific focus on being Nigerian – despite floating in from the Middle East – and a quick move to establish itself as a cultural network, not just a business.
Banky W’s song for the network was arguably among the best the artiste has made in his career. Etisalat started that well.
Where did it begin to go wrong? Only the banks and the C-suite men on the board will be able to tell the true story, but Etisalat apparently found out that the business environment in Nigeria goes beyond identifying as green and for the youth.
With 21 million customers, Etisalat was competing well in the fierce industry of telecommunications in Nigeria, but it was also quietly suffocating. According to reports the debts owed by Etisalat to the different banks are: $262 million and N80 billion to Zenith Bank, $138 million and N42 billion to GTBank, and Access Bank follows with $131 million and N40 billion. Seven other banks were owed, bringing the total to approximately N541bn.
It was a monumental load that ultimately weighed the company down, leading to the Etisalat group from withdrawing its 45% stake from Emerging Markets Telecommunications Services Ltd (EMTS).
But EMTS are not closing down the business. They want to keep on the fight. As Celtel did when Strive Masiyiwa’s Econet Wireless transited – the first to happen in the Mobile Telco industry in Nigeria – what Nigerians formally knew as Etisalat will now be referred to as 9Mobile.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the former deputy managing director of Celtel Nigeria, Boye Olusanya, was appointed to oversee the transition, having been in charge of the transition from Celtel to Airtel, according to The Cable.
It represents a new beginning for the now Nigerian company, albeit a somewhat underwhelming one. The much publicised debt crisis makes it difficult to retain the sense that they are healthy and will be as boisterous as they had been as Etisalat Nigeria. It will be up to them to convince their customers that nothing has changed, and if anything, they will only get better.