Bharti Airtel says purchase of Tanzania unit stake had government approval

NAIROBI, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Indian telecoms carrier Bharti Airtel said on Thursday that there were no irregularities in deals that made it the majority shareholder in a Tanzanian unit, a day after the country’s president claimed the company belonged to the state.

President John Magufuli said on Wednesday he had received a report that the state-run Tanzania Telecommunications Company Limited (TTCL) owned the local subsidiary of Bharti Airtel outright but had been cheated out of shares. Magufuli made the comments in a speech broadcast on television. He did not give further details, but ordered the finance minister to investigate. The Tanzanian government owns a 40 percent stake in Airtel Tanzania, with the remaining 60 percent owned by Bharti Airtel.

Bharti Airtel said it had not received any notice or communication from the government, but would work closely with the government to resolve doubts to the satisfaction of all shareholders.

“Our acquisition of the said 60 percent shareholding in June 2010 was in full compliance with and following all approvals from the Govt. of Tanzania,” the company said in a statement.

Magufuli’s state ownership claim on Bharti Airtel’s local business will likely further unnerve foreign investors in the country after his government launched a crackdown on mining firms in the country this year.

Last year, Magufuli ordered telecoms companies to list at least a quarter of their units on the local stock exchange to increase domestic ownership.

Like other African countries, mobile phone use has surged in Tanzania over the past decade on the back of cheaper smartphones, recording a 0.9 percent annual increase in the number of mobile phone subscribers in 2016 to 40.17 million.

Mobile phone operators in Tanzania include Vodacom Tanzania , part of South Africa’s Vodacom, Tigo Tanzania, which is part of Sweden’s Millicom, Bharti Airtel Tanzania, and Halotel, owned by Vietnam-based telecoms operator Viettel.

Reporting By Maggie Fick and Fumbuka Ng’wanakilala in Dar es Salaam. Editing by Jane Merriman