The Nigerian government has once again opened bids for international and regional telecom operators interested in buying the assets of Nigeria Telecommunications (Nitel) and its mobile arm, Mobile Telecommunications (Mtel), but debt may scare off investors.
The country's Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE) said it was looking for bidders with at least five years of telecom experience and a net worth of at least $200 million. The BPE said in an advertorial that bids must be submitted by the end of this month and that "assets would be handed over to a successful bidder by December this year."
The Nigerian government wants to liquidate Nitel and Mtel after a series of unsuccessful efforts to sell the company over the past 12 years.
Nigeria is Africa's largest telecom market by investment and subscriptions. Last year, Nigerian lawmakers halted the process of selling the company and called for the creation of a public-private partnership, claiming Nitel was still viable and able to compete with private operators. The Nigerian government, however, has used its authority to overrule the lawmakers and is moving to liquidate the company.
In 2011, Omen International Consortium failed to pay $105 million in bid security to BPE for the company. Omen was the second bidder in less than four months to back out of the bid after another consortium, the New Generation Consortium, led by China Unicom, failed to pay the bid price of $2.5 billion for a 75 percent stake in Nitel.
In 2003, Pentascope of Netherlands was appointed as management contractor, charged with revamping the company for privatization. But complaints were raised that bribes were offered to BPE officials to manipulate the outcome.
The liquidation of Nitel means that the SAT-3 submarine cable as well as various exchanges, transmission stations and cabling networks are up for grabs.
The BPE has said it has opted for a sale method it calls "guided liquidation" because it wants to protect the Nigerian government from future claims and liabilities, since proceeds of the sale may be less than the value of the debt.
The debt for Nitel and Mtel has steadily been increasing and now stands at 400 billion nairas (over US$2 billion). The region's telecom analysts claim the Nigerian government has failed to sell the company because of the debt.
"With the high levels of debt, it is difficult to find a buyer because you also have to look at the cost of revamping such a company to be able to operate profitably. Also the Nigerians themselves have been fighting among themselves over the company, thereby scaring potential buyers," said Amos Kalunga, telecom analyst at Computer Society of Zambia.
Nitel's problems have been compounded by stiff competition from Africa's largest operator, MTN, and the region's second largest operator, Airtel. MTN and Airtel have invested heavily in their operations. As a result, Nitel and Mtel have lost and continue to lose customers.
Last month, MTN said it was planning to invest $3 billion to improve its network infrastructure in Nigeria while Airtel said last year it has invested over $3.5 billion in two years to upgrade and expand its network in the country.