Will suspended Wangusi ride out fresh storm?

CA director-general Francis Wangusi. FILE PHOTO | NMG
CA director-general Francis Wangusi. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Last Friday, Francis Wangusi had hoped to enjoy his weekend break after days of gruelling office work.

He was wrong. He instead found himself on suspension as director-general of the Communications Authority (CA).

Although the board of the CA based its action on the need to conduct an independent audit of the regulator’s employment policies, Mr Wangusi has not publicly commented on his three-month suspension and his side of the story remains unknown.

The suspension however adds to Mr Wangusi’s long list of woes since he got into office in 2012. His tenure has been a turbulent one — battling almost everyone, from telecom players and broadcasters, to mobile phone users and fellow technocrats.

He has weathered these fights with a characteristic stubbornness, holding his own even when often bully parliamentarians stepped into the fray. Time will tell whether he will win the latest battle but his character of obduracy stands.

Perhaps Mr Wangusi’s character best played out during the controversial migration of Kenya’s broadcasts to digital platforms. It was a battle that would drag out well into 2015 and one in which he found himself going against his superiors.

“He stood by his guns. He can be a bit stubborn when he believes in something, I ate humble pie,” Bitange Ndemo, a former Information Permanent Secretary recalls the numerous tiffs he had with Mr Wangusi on whether to grant broadcasters their own signal distribution platform.

Although he did not comment on the CA boss’ suspension, he says Mr Wangusi never shied from stepping on the raw nerves of Kenya’s most powerful individuals as he executed his duty. Those who’ve sometimes found themselves on the opposite side of an argument say that Mr Wangusi is the type to agree to disagree.

“I think he tries to listen. He is not someone who is not listening. Whether he acts on (what you say) or not, is a different question,” said Telkom Kenya chief executive Aldo Mareuse.

An industry insider who spoke to Business Daily on condition of anonymity says that Mr Wangusi is a technocrat at heart who had to learn, but never quite mastered, the game of politics.

In 2015, months after his term was renewed, CA was hit by a scandal that was perhaps an omen for the current crisis. A leaked audit report showed that the authority’s executives had pocketed Sh307.2 million in tax-free travelling allowances in the year to June 2015. Some of these trips, auditors said, were unnecessary.

However, it is battles over Kenya’s telecoms sector that have truly defined his second term. Earlier, in 2014, he had refereed a transaction in which Essar (YuMobile) exited the local market, selling its interests to Safaricom and Airtel.

The exit of YuMobile from Kenya has been seen by many industry analysts as the clearest sign of the troubles bedevilling telecommunication in Kenya, an industry where only one operator has managed to be profitable in the last few years.

Although the telecommunication sector has become relatively more vibrant with the entry of mobile virtual network operators, competition, and Safaricom’s perceived dominance, remains a sticking point.

A study on the matter generated controversy as it proposed splitting Safaricom into two independent units. Last year, CA promised stakeholder reviews and workshops on the report, events that have been repeatedly postponed, drawing the ire of the smaller operators and creating speculation that perhaps all was not well at the regulator’s Waiyaki Way headquarters.

Mr Wangusi also generated controversy last year when it came to light that the authority had granted Jamii Telecommunication use of a newly freed band of telecom spectrum. CA defended its position and when Jamii launched its Faiba 4G in December, Mr Wangusi said that the entry of the new player was a sign that the industry was moving from the traditional position of “fearing competition”.

But even as new battles draw fresh blood, the ghosts of old ones continued to haunt him. Last year, he found himself navigating his second presidential elections as a regulator, a process that left him more than a little bruised and proved that he still had more to learn about politics.

An attempt to install a device monitoring system onto the telecommunications network, six months before the elections, created concern that this was part of a grander government plan to surveil citizens during a sensitive political season. In November, Mr Wangusi found himself going up against broadcasters once more after he ordered them not to air live the confrontations between police and supporters of Mr Raila Odinga. The broadcasters called his bluff.

Mr Wangusi, a trained engineer with a degree in space sciences, is a veteran of the telecommunications sector having been inherited by the then Communications Commission of Kenya from the now-defunct Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation.

He was promoted to Director-General in 2012 at a time of transition from the analogue to digital, figuratively in politics and literally in the broadcasting sector.