A new start
The African Telecommunications Union has been restructured and is now ready to move into a new era.
The Pan African Telecommunications Union (PATU) has been given a new start after its fourth plenipotentiary conference late last year at which past problems were thrashed out by more than 20 ministers of communication from across the continent.

PATU, now renamed African Telecommunications Union (ATU), is a specialised agency of the Organisation of African Unity and was established in December 1979 to focus on telecommunications in Africa. The conference was held to ratify the resurrection of the union that had been under way for the two years prior to the meeting.

The restructured union is designed to provide the institutional basis for forging public and private sector partnerships in telecommunications infrastructure investment, given the trend of more private sector-led investment in the sector.

This trend is already taking place in Africa where 80% of telephone lines are provided by the private sector in sub-Saharan Africa (25% if South Africa is excluded).

The meeting accepted the propasal that the union be reformed into a tripartite structure comprising governments, regulators and service providers as members. The private sector will participate only as associate members and although they will have the right to participate fully and vote in meetings of the union, they will not be allowed to do so at conferences of plenipotentiaries and the Council. Associate members may attend these meetings as observers.

The extent of private sector involvement is also taking place in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). In this forum, African countries in the main , along with other developing regions, have objected to significant private sector involvement saying that it amounts to the privatisation of the union.

South Africa which currently has the chair of the ITU in the form of Lyndall Shope-Mafole, falls somewhere between the two positions in its role as a developing country on one hand and also as a country which welcomes private sector involment on the other.

Another important development at the conference was the setting up of a technical and development conference which will also involve the private sector. Its work will include :

  • Considering the standardisation of specific radio communications and other telecommunications.
  • Establishing work programmes and guidelines for defining telecommunication development issues and priorities .
  • Identifying objectives and strategies for the development of telecommunications on the continent.
  • Serving as a forum for the examination of policy, organisational, operational, regulatory ,technical and financial issues.
  • Dealing with working groups.

    An ITU international radio conference to be held in May to determine radio frequency spectrums among other things will be the technical conference's real test. another issue resolved at the Cape Town conference was that of membership arrears which amount to $7.1 million. According to conference documents, the worst offenders included Algeria, Comores, Chad, Egypt, Equitorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Libya, Morocco, Sierra Leone and Sudan.

    Timeframes for repayment of arrears were established with 30% payable before May this year. The conference also decided that the union would keep its official home as Kinshasa in Democratic Repulic of Congo ,where the union was inaugurated in 1978. It was moved to Nairobi in Kenya in 1997 because of political instability of Congo, a situation which still prevails.And Kenya , through the election of one of its nationals, Jan Mutai, as the new secretary general, will head the union's work.

    Mutai replaces Minemba Mamadou Keita from Mali. Other candidates put forward for the position were Bernard Sakala from Zambia, Samir Fahmy Zion from Egypt and Gideon Mwakatobe from Tanzania. Mutai, who was officially inaugurated last month, is the CEO of the Tosha Learning Centre in Nairobi, a company which he co-founded last year which focuses on computer training, software development and network solutions.

    A trained engineer, Mutai was previously managing director of Kenya Posts & Telecommunications Corporation at which he laid the foundation for the liberalisation and privatisation of the telecommunications sector. Prior to thar he spent 23 years working in the oil industry for international companies Shell and BP Amoco.

    " Africa is the the continet for the new millenium. We must position ourselves to unlock its potential. We must concentrate on policy making and getting the policy framework right for investment. We are going to concentrate on inter-Africa traffic , to focus on getting the costs of talking to each other much lower.

    He called for regulator regimes to be harmonised to make the situation more accessible and attractive for investors. He said the harmonisation should be done in conjuction with the private sector." If different parties adopt different technology, it makes it costly and difficult to do business." Developing capacity in member states is an area that will require attention." We have to create confidence in the way we do business so the subscriptions can go up and enable us to do more.If we demonstrate an open, transparent approach in our work we will generate confidence from members. Once they know the new team is prudent, accountable and transparent, it will also convince those sitting on the fence that they can find value. This way we will get others on board," he said.

    " We need to recognise that funding is limited and reserve our funding for real needs." On the issue of the union being headquatered in Kinshasa, Mutai said he did not feel that this would affect business confidence in the union. "We have to look at when it might be possible for the union to go back there. Wars are a temporary thing. We have problems in every country in our continent. We can't punish them because they have certain internal problems. It is better to have constructive engagement."

    However, he conceded that the Democratic Republic of Congo would have to do alot of work itself in order to justify the relocation of the temporary headquaters.

    Kenya's Information, Transport and Communications Minister, Musalia Mudavadi, said hosting the union over the past few years had not been without its cost, among which was paying 10 years of contribution in advance.

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