By Judith Gicobi
“I am not going in August, that is, unless I die of course.” These are the words Bob Collymore said during an interview with a local media on May 3, 2019.
He was responding to a Reuters report from earlier in the week that claimed a conflict existed between the government and Safaricom about who would be chosen to succeed him as chief executive officer of Safaricom.
Bob was likely more upset with the specific mention of the month than the fact that he would be leaving the company, since he had known going into the interview that it was a matter of when, not if.
In an interview he gave to the Africa Report (www.theafricareport.com) in March 2019, Bob Collymore hinted subtly that he would actually be leaving Safaricom.
This was the first indication that he was preparing for his departure and trying to shape the narrative surrounding it. The topic of conversation at the time was more on Bob’s increased use of his saxophone, which he had acquired during his time of recuperation in London, than the fact that he would be departing the telecom.
He was aware, even then, that the business required a successor with abilities different from his own. Although he acknowledged his lack of expertise in mergers and acquisitions, he saw that Safaricom need “someone who can spot a deal and grab it.”
A few months later, he and Equity CEO James Mwangi signed a broad agreement that would allow Equity to, among other things, bring the MPesa platform to other African nations like Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zambia, where it was rapidly expanding its presence through acquisitions.
Therefore, it is evident that by the time Safaricom released its full-year results in March 2019, the scene had already been set, and Bob Collymore was preparing the market for both his exit and a seamless transfer.
The only issue seemed to be that State House in Nairobi and the leaders of Vodafone could not agree on the nationality of the person who would assume control.
There were questions regarding his capacity and competence to fill Michael Joseph’s enormous shoes when he was announced in 2009 as the person who would succeed him as Safaricom’s founding CEO in 2010.
On July 1, 2019, Kenya and the business world learned that Bob had passed away. However, just a few weeks previously, Safaricom had granted him a one-year extension, which would have allowed him to continue working until 2020 to make up for the time he had taken off for medical reasons in 2017.
Bob’s friend, TV journalist Jeff Koinange, disclosed later in the day that his doctors had indeed predicted that he wouldn’t survive past July. Naturally, Bob knew this even on the day in May when he made his final announcement regarding the Safaricom results.
It’s probable that during Bob’s final weeks at Safaricom, he was irate because Reuters said there was a power struggle over his replacement. That was obviously not how he had envisioned it. The truth, together with business realpolitik, stood in the way of his success narrative.
At the time, it was reported on the wire that a Greek citizen named Haris Broumidis was expected to succeed Bob. State House in Nairobi, however, rejected the third consecutive choice of a foreigner to lead Kenya’s largest and most successful corporation.
There was also mention of a deal that gave Kenya’s government, which is also a shareholder through the National Treasury, complete discretion over who would succeed Bob.
That person has to be a Kenyan, according to the authorities. That meant that despite Vodacom’s support, Broumidis, the CEO of Vodafone Greece at the time, was not assured the position.
Then something unexpected occurred. The board was aware that a succession plan needed to be in place when word of Bob’s passing spread, according to a press release from board chairman Nicholas Nganga.
The board was essentially buying time in the hopes that State House and Vodacom would settle on a decisive or temporary approach to maintain continuity in the C-Suite.
This was to be done, though, in a way that would not suggest that the individual chosen to fill the interim position was a front-runner or a contender awaiting confirmation after his or her acting term.
Within a week, the Safaricom board decided to reconfirm Michael Joseph as temporary CEO, stating that doing so would allow the business time to recruit a permanent replacement.
Philip Kisia, a former chairman of the Nairobi Central Business District Association (NCBDA), a corporate lobby group that worked with the then-City Council to foster a business-friendly environment prior to the introduction of devolution, sent a protest note to the Business Daily eleven days after Bob’s passing. In it, he warned that Safaricom would face backlash if it chose a non-Kenyan as CEO.