By Agather Atuhaire
Uganda’s biggest telecom company, MTN Uganda, a subsidiary of South Africa’s MTN Group has come under intense criticism over the manner it handles customer complaints.
Makerere Law lecturer Dr Busingye Kabumba sparked the public outrage when on May 26 he expressed concerns that MTN customer care service was “dismissive”after he mistakenly sent money to a wrong recipient using MTN’s Mobile Money, also Uganda’s premier mobile money transfer platform.
“Initially all I wanted was a reversal of an accidental money transfer,” Kabumba says, “When that became impossible after the customer care became dismissive. I went on twitter to express my dissatisfaction. It is after the twitter complaints that I got my money back 46 hours later,” he says.
But by the time the transaction was reversed, Kabumba says, so many other people had shared so many stories of mistreatment at the hands of MTN in a Twitter campaign dubbed MTN Mweddeko.
The campaign has been so effective, the telecom regulator, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), currently in the midst of reviewing MTN’s application for renewal of its license ahead of its expiry this October, has announced it will investigate the company’s Mobile Money operations.
“We are soon putting place a special committee to look into this particular issue and to look at their billing systems and the way they manage the whole issue of mobile money and then we shall take action accordingly,” UCC boss Godfrey Mutabazi told the Nile Post, “We have made it absolutely clear that the license will not be renewed unless there is a commitment that those matters have been addressed and there is a permanent solution.”
Many Ugandans depend on mobile money because very few are banked—only 16 percent of Uganda’s adult population, own a bank account according to the World Bank.
So Telecoms that can’t explain the use of data ,that can’t return money sent to wrong numbers will be the ones to collect the social media tax and will declare the right amounts collected ? I think I’m sleepy
— Sabiti Joseph (@sabitijoseph) June 2, 2018
On the other hand, MTN Uganda has 11.5 million subscribers, about 10 million of which use mobile money making it the dominant player with about 55 percent market share.
As such, the telecom giant has attracted this intense public outrage because for majority of the users, mobile money is the only option to send or receive money, which, sometimes is a matter of life and death.
“There were various accounts like someone sending money for medical treatment for her sister to a wrong account and she needs it back urgently and was told to keep calling the person to negotiate,” Kabumba said.
Like Kabumba, many on twitter wondered why the company leaves a victim of a mistaken transaction at the mercy of the wrong recipient. Many revealed they never get their money back.
For instance, Nona C Tamale, revealed on Twitter that her mother sent money to a wrong number in 2013 and was advised by MTN to call the wrong recipient and negotiate. The wrong recipient refused to pick her calls and eventually switched his phone off and MTN offered zero assistance, Tamale said.
Initially, MTN ignored the backlash but as it intensified company Chief Executive Officer, WimVanhelleputte was forced to respond.
“There was response, previously from what appears to be influencers from MTN who were basically abusing us but when they realized we were serious the MTN CEO reached out asking for a meeting.” Kabumbasaid.
#MTNMweddeko seeks to ensure that you don’t have to contact the @PoliceUg or the MTN CEO to obtain a reversal. It should be instant, since it is YOUR money. @mtnug @PeterTwesigye @UCC_Official @BOU_Official @JenifaOchwo @Ishekatazi511 @KakandeAlex @bwesigye @amgodiva @Salima_SN https://t.co/89v8kxCicY
— Dr Busingye Kabumba (@bkabumba) June 1, 2018
Vanhelleputte referred Kabumba to the mobile money regulations, which he claimed barred MTN from instant reversals of accidental money transfers. When Kabumba asked him what regulation in the 2013 Mobile Money regulations bars reversals, he suggested a meeting to talk about the issues raised.
“I have read the regulations and I can’t find any such regulation that bars instant reversals,” Kabumba said, “On the contrary regulation 14 acknowledges that the guidelines are an interim measure for enabling the operations of mobile money and envisages a formulation of a comprehensive regulatory frame work over time.”
Kabumba also added that the meeting suggested by Vanhelleputte is not “a satisfactory forum to resolve the critical and deep issues raised by the Mweddeko campaign”. He says it must be a structured dialogue of all the stakeholders.
When contacted, the company’s manager of corporate communications Val Okecho declined to respond to these issues saying they (MTN) would give a conclusive statement on Wednesday June 6.
Complaints against the telecom company are not new. There have been complaints ranging from unsolicited messages, to dubious data and voice charges and suspicious disappearance of data. Critics say MTN has largely ignored these.
For instance, three years ago, there was a campaign dubbed “occupy MTN to try and get MTN Uganda’s attention”because of the company’s refusal to resolve or even acknowledge customers’plight.
In 2017, the complaints were about the increase in data charges and call charges and the mysterious disappearance of data before one could use it but they were still ignored until the regulator, the UCC intervened.
An evaluation report on MTN’s performance released in March 2018 by UCC reveals that between 30thJune and 17 Nov 2014,the company’s data customers recorded more than 360,000 incidents of erroneous billing.
“Bundle loading would fail but MTN would charge these purchases,” notes the report.
Although MTN refused to respond to these complaints from its customers, the report says the regulator ordered it to make reimbursements of up to Shs.770 million.
The #MTNMweddeko campaign seeks corporate introspection and a commitment to real policy review by @mtnug The (extended) June 4th deadline for a structured dialogue in this regard stands. After that date, we shall pursue a range of avenues to effect the change we want to see.
— Dr Busingye Kabumba (@bkabumba) June 1, 2018
Complaints by customers against MTN have become so incessant, some complainants, who are frustrated that even the regulator seems too weak to deal with the telecom giant, have sought legal redress.
Peter Magelah Gwayaka, a lawyer, who was forced to drag MTN to court over unsolicited messages, says MTN does not care about consumers’ complaints.
“They (MTN) think they have made too much money to care about grievances of an individual or a group of individuals,” says Magelah, “MTN submitted at the public hearing that they last sent unsolicited messages in 2017 but I just received an unsolicited message less than an hour back.”
Although UCC executive director Godfrey Mutabazi says Magelah’s case is an isolated incident, the evaluation report recognized that MTN continues to send out unsolicited messages without an opt out option contrary to the Commission’s directives issued in August 2014.
UCC’s own report also reveals that MTN has responded to 76% of the consumers’ complaints out of the 90% threshold required by the regulator.
I get charged 500/- daily yet i haven’t subscribed for anything. Gimme my racks!#MTNMweddeko
— the jērk (@waswa_adam) June 3, 2018
Magelah says he would give them a negative score in this aspect if he was the one awarding marks.He blames UCC for the problems Ugandans are facing with telecom companies and in particular MTN.
“Our first demand should be for UCC to be put in order because I think it is biased,” Magelah says.
But Mutabazi disputes these claims. He acknowledges the endless complaints against MTN but says the regulator has done everything it has to do to hold MTN and other telecom companies accountable.
“We have investigated quite a number of them,” he says. “We have written to MTN, they have corrected some and there are some that they have not addressed.”
However, Mutabazi is quick to add that consumers are unfair to MTN, which he says has done a lot of good service for the country. “It has covered 90% of Uganda and that cannot be achieved without some glitches, ”Mutabazi noted.
Unfortunately, he adds, the public is selectively treating MTN unfairly because they think they have made lots of money and because of that one alone they think they should be heavily criticized.
But Mutabazi maintains the regulator takes customers complaints seriously and that the required action will be taken.
“We are handling all the complaints and I don’t think MTN is too big to be brought to order,” he says, “We are the licensingauthority and I don’t think they (MTN) have any intention of being disobedient or not responsive to our directives.”
However, the mweddeko crusaders do not seem bothered by the acting or not acting for that matter, of the regulator. Kabumba says they are giving UCC the benefit of the doubt but have a comprehensive plan to call MTN to account if it does not comply.
He says they have given the company a deadline of June 4 to accept their calls for a dialogue after which they will take another course of action.
“The MTNmweddeko campaign seeks corporate introspection and a commitment to real policy review by MTNUganda,” he said, “The June 4th deadline for a structured dialogue in this regard stands. After that date, we shall pursue a range of avenues to effect the change we want to see.”
I wish I would help too, alas, I left mtn for greener pastures because the abuse was too much. Wake up and your airtime is gone or you’ve been subscribed to something unawares. Your data lasts a few minutes even when inactive. The spam ad messages
and calls. I chose peace https://t.co/2wS1kqzBBH
— She Wolf (@Shewolfmo) June 2, 2018
— Franck Kiwa (@arckiwa) June 2, 2018