Two years after eCitizen went live, Safaricom received a letter from the National Treasury instructing it to lock Goldrock Capital, the firm that had been handling cash collection from the portal, from the official paybill number 206206.
The letter dated July 26, 2016, from then-Treasury Principal Secretary Kamau Thugge justified the instructions by stating that the ministry had not authorised Goldrock to collect funds on behalf of the government as required by law
Treasury had tasked Webmasters Kenya, eCitizen’s developer, to register mobile money wallets with 206206 as the universal account number across all telcos, a 206 USSD short code and a 22206 text message shortcode.
Webmasters Kenya collaborated with its sister company, Webmasters Africa, to sub-contract the registration and funds management to Goldrock, which registered the paybill numbers on November 14, 2014.
Caught in a difficult position, Safaricom sought to get clarity from State House, which was the main player behind the eCitizen project, on the paybill number.
Kenya Pipeline Company’s board chairperson Rita Okuthe was at the time Safaricom’s business Enterprise Unit director and she was tasked with getting directions from State House. She wrote to the Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua on November 10, 2016.
On November 29, 2016, Mr Kinyua responded through Mr Harry Mwangi, the director of government payments, stating that the government-owned the paybill number but had partnered with KCB Bank, Webmasters Kenya and Goldrock to ensure that the eCitizen portal and its mobile money wallets were working seamlessly.
“Notwithstanding Gazette Notice No. 3299 of 13th May 2015, Webmasters Kenya by dint of the above mandate is working with different partners to provide an end-to-end payments solution and hence is partnering with duly regulated service providers for banking and premium rate service provision, these being Kenya Commercial Bank and Goldrock Capital respectively,” the letter read in part.
The government was speaking from both sides of its mouth, and placing Safaricom in a difficult position.
Treasury’s orders had stemmed from an audit it started conducting on December 16, 2015. It had tasked its chief internal auditor, Mr Willis Odhiambo Okwacho, with investigating whether the eCitizen portal was working efficiently, economically and in line with Kenya’s laws.
Mr Okwacho’s findings were interesting, to say the least because they determined that eCitizen was partly operating outside the law.
Auditors could not find any contracts between the government and Goldrock relating to the collection or management of funds paid by eCitizen users, which to them meant a private firm was illegally collecting money on behalf of the government.
The team also concluded that Safaricom irregularly allowed Goldrock to register the 206206 paybill number in its own name, without any supporting authorisation from Treasury as required by law.
Further, it found that Goldrock had registered a second paybill number, 903550, which had become a backdoor to access the official virtual wallet that was receiving billions from eCitizen users. The 903550 paybill had been named Mkwanja during registration.
While the audit insinuated that there may have been some irregular behaviour on Safaricom’s part, the telco indicates in court papers that Goldrock duped it into linking the two paybill numbers.
Safaricom says in an affidavit that Goldrock first registered the 903550 paybill in March 2013, and listed it as an account for a digital lender. On November 3, 2015, Goldrock successfully applied to Safaricom to have the two paybill numbers linked to allow flow of funds to and from both accounts.
After the linking of the accounts, Goldrock would separate the Sh50 convenience fee paid by eCitizen users from the amounts charged for each service by transferring funds from the 206206 paybill to its Mkwanja paybill 903550.
The tug of war pitting the Head of Public Service against Treasury over Goldrock seemed to continue until April 29, 2017, when Safaricom locked the private firm out of the eCitizen paybill account. Safaricom also terminated Goldrock’s 903550 paybill number, and Treasury had seemingly won the tug of war.
At the time of Treasury’s instructions, there was Sh127.8 million that had been collected through the 206206 paybill number and Goldrock was laying claim to it. The firm sued the Treasury, Attorney-General, Webmasters Kenya and Webmasters Africa seeking Sh127.8 million, and compensation for illegal contract termination if it was not to get back control of the paybill number.
Goldrock, in court papers, says it was to help account for all funds paid. The convenience fee would then be paid to Webmasters Africa. Goldrock was entitled to 20 per cent of the convenience fee. In total, Goldrock collected Sh376.018 million in convenience fees, meaning it was entitled to Sh75.2 million. Webmasters Africa pocketed the remaining Sh300.814 million.
Webmasters Africa CEO James Ayugi holds that there is still Sh29,024,525 that Goldrock failed to remit, hence it has no further claim against any of the parties before the court.
While Goldrock and Webmasters are on opposite sides of the fence in the court case, they both argue that the convenience fee is not part of government revenue. They differ on which of them is entitled to the Sh127.8 million convenience fee that had been collected when the government instructed Safaricom to lock Goldrock out.
Mr Ayugi argues that there were several other companies involved in the payment aggregation process and they were to be paid from convenience fees charged to eCitizen users.
The Webmasters companies are owned by Mr Ayugi, Goldrock owner and CEO Sidney Ngunyi Wachira, James Kiarie Gachiu, Joash Samwel Gomba, Deric Ogare Onyango, Thomas Isaac Juma, Robert Obel, Charles Karuri, Kennedy Oduor Oketch and Lexco Seven Ltd.
Mr Wachira and Mr Gachiu also co-own Lexco Seven Ltd, which means he has a significant stake in Webmasters Africa directly and by proxy.
And by extension, Mr Wachira has his feet in both the plaintiff and one of the respondents at the same time.
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