The appointment of John Weir as the new head of Smart Mobile in Sierra Leone highlights the new competitive dynamics in the West African country and the shadow that has fallen over the expansion plans of Libya's telecom holding company, Lap Green Network.
Weir was CEO of Lap Green's Sierra Leone subsidiary, Ambitel/GreenNet, until a few month ago. Since it was licensed in 2007, Ambitel/GreenNet has on several occasions -- including during the Libyan civil war in 2011 -- rescheduled the start of operations in Sierra Leone.
Last year, a court slapped an injunction on the operator, preventing it from launching services until further notice. The injunction came after Ambitel's founder, Michael Kenneth Ondaan, charged that Lap Green had not fulfilled contractual obligations related to the sale of the company.
Up until May, when he left the company, Weir had been the known as the face of Ambitel/GreenNet.
"After leaving Ambitel, I was working on a couple of interim projects. I knew the shareholders of Smart Mobile from the past and we established contact, they asked me to come on board and to help invigorate the business," Weir said in an email.
Asked about Ambitel/GreenNet's plans for Sierra Leone, Weir said: "All I know is that the license of Ambitel has been revoked and there have been further redundancies, but I cannot comment on what the plans of another business are."
As of July 2013, Lap Green had invested nearly $18 million in the Sierra Leone operations and constructed 55 cell sites, according to a statement Weir made while still head of Ambitel/GreenNet.
Lap Green declined to comment on its plans for Sierra Leone. Lap Green has had ambitious plans to expand. It has subsidiaries in Cote d'Ivoire and Uganda, and recently launched services though its Gemtel subsidiary in South Sudan.
Meanwhile, since its rollout in March as the fourth GSM operator in Sierra Leone, Smart Mobile has been increasingly seen as a viable mobile alternative in the country. The third major telecom operator in the country, Comium, has faced a financial crisis and many of its subscribers have lost hope that the company will be able to make a comeback.
Smart already has operations in East Africa, including Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda. At Smart Mobile in Sierra Leone, Weir is expected to apply the knowledge he had yearned to put to use at the unrealized Ambitel/GreenNet project.
"I bring almost 30 years of experience to the business, which is one reason the shareholders asked me to take the helm," he said. "I will be creating a more customer-centric business based on giving consumers and business users an experience which is second to none. I will be creating a highly skilled team on the ground, mentored and directed by a first class team of experienced individuals."