Washington-based mobile holding company Western Wireless is to launch legal proceedings against the government of the Ivory Coast for failing to protect its investment in mobile operator Cora de Comstar. Together with investment fund Modern Africa, Western Wireless acquired Cora de Comstar at the start of 2000, and over the next three and a half years poured more than USD40 million into increasing the operator’s share of the Ivory Coast’s mobile market, where it competes with two operators – France Télecom-backed Société Ivoiriene de Mobiles, and Telecel, owned by Egypt’s Orascom Telecom. However, since 2001 a legal dispute has rumbled on concerning the rightful ownership of Cora de Comstar, with local businessman Alexander Galley claiming to have purchased the operator from its previous owners at the end of 1999, prior to Western Wireless’s appearance on the scene. Despite the apparent lack of evidence to substantiate the claim, earlier this year an Ivorian judge backed Mr Galley’s case and on 9 October he entered Cora de Comstar’s offices with 25 policemen and forcibly evicted the operator’s management and staff. Shortly afterwards the offices were looted and all services to Cora de Comstar’s estimated 50,000 subscribers were stopped.
The Ivorian Supreme Court has since overturned the decision and rebuffed claims of state-sponsored thuggery after it came to light that Mr Galley, whose real name is thought to be Raphael Dago Gnadre, is wanted in France following a conviction for counterfeiting. Galley is also said to have ties with former Liberian president Charles Taylor, and appears on the United Nations list of ‘Persons Subject to Travel Restrictions Pursuant To Resolution 1342 (2001) on Liberia’, for alleged involvement in illegal arms trading with rebel groups in west Africa. Last week the Ivory Coast government said that although it was unable to locate Mr Galley, it would be ‘taking all the necessary measures to deal appropriately and definitely with the issue’. Western Wireless has now shelved any future plans for investment in the African telecoms arena. At the end of last week the Bush administration added its diplomatic weight behind the US firms, with Assistant Secretary of Commerce William Lash delivering what he termed ‘a very harsh demarche’ to an official of the Ivorian embassy in Washington.