Ivory Coast has nationalised three mobile telecommunications operators, saying they owe taxes and license fees, and plans to merge them into a single company before seeking a partner to take a majority stake, it said on Wednesday.
Communications Minister Bruno Kone said the companies, Libya's Green, the local unit of Lebanon-based Comium and Ivorian operator Cafe Mobile, had been given a May 5 deadline to pay around 90 billion CFA francs ($155 million) they owe to the state.
"We decided to fuse the defaulting companies to make a single entity that we will restructure and seek a financial and technical partner ... to take 51 percent of the new company," Kone told journalists.
Speaking after a cabinet meeting in the commercial capital Abidjan, Kone said the plan aimed to reimburse the state for the lost tax revenues while preserving the jobs of the three companies' employees.
"We want to move quickly and I can tell you that we already have offers. But we will discuss it and arrive at a deal beneficial to the state and the future operator," he said.
Two officials from operators being nationalised under the plan said India's Bharti Airtel Limited and Nigeria's Globacom Limited were among those that had shown interest in taking a stake in the new company.
Ivory Coast, French-speaking West Africa's largest economy, has a population of 23 million and an equal number of mobile phone subscribers.
Together, Green and Comium had less than 1.5 million customers, according the most recent data from Ivory Coast's telecommunications regulator. Cafe Mobile suspended services last year.
Kone said the government had also revoked an unused operating license owned by Abu Dhabi-based Warid Telecom.
Ivory Coast's remaining operators are led by France's Orange followed by South Africa's MTN, Etisalat's Moov.