TR: What happened next?
AC: Well, I knew zero about telecommunications. I asked my secretary, “Mrs. Baba, do you know anybody in telecom?” She said she did. This man, Gilbert Nkuli, who became our first employee, went to the minister of communications and filled out the forms. I called another friend and asked him, “Do you know any telecom vendors?” He said he knew a single vendor, Nortel. We phoned Nortel in Paris. A Nortel executive said, “Send me a letter of invitation; otherwise I can’t get a visa.” I did. A week later, he was there.
TR: He was keen.
AC: It seemed so. Well, the three of us, we all went to see the minister. We explain how we’re going to provide cell coverage for Congo’s main cities. Four months later, the minister calls me into his office and tells me that the government has approved the license, but before they can issue it, I must pay $100,000.
TR: For an exclusive license?
AC: To tell you the truth, I didn’t know. I’d never seen a telecommunications license before. But the government wanted $100,000 in American dollars to be paid to the central bank. I found the money. Three months later, the minister calls me again. Now he says, “Conteh, you have to pay another $100,000.” So I paid $200,000, but I still did not have the license.
TR: It was a shakedown.
AC: Wait! It gets funnier. In January of 1998, all the big government ministers went to a conference in Uganda on pan-African concerns. When they got back, the minister of communications phoned me and said, “The Ugandan government sold their GSM license for $8 million, and Uganda is a small country. So our license is $8 million”! I kept my cool. I said, “Okay. Give me a few days.” A week later I went to the minister and said, “Your honorable minister … $8 million for Congo? In the future, maybe. Today, no.” He asked, “Why?” I said, “The war is why. Everything is broken. Everybody is leaving the country.” Finally, he listens to me. He asks, “Well, Conteh, how much can you pay? What do you think the license is really worth?” I have to be fair. I say $2 million. He called me that evening at 10 o’clock to tell me I’d got a 20-year license to operate a GSM network in Congo.
TR: And then?
AC: Well, of course, that was just the beginning. We asked Nortel to do a study about the costs of creating the network. We talked to GTE. We hoped one of them would be our partner and invest in this idea of a Congolese GSM network. But eventually I had to be honest with myself; I had to accept that no vendor was going to put money in Congo. I went home; I asked my wife. The only savings I had was $1.5 million. She said I should follow my heart. That was so dear, so dear to me and painful. In the end, I went with Nortel. I went to Paris. I carried my checkbook with me.