South Sudan recently faced a legal blow when the Swiss Federal Supreme Court rejected their appeal against a partial award in a major ICC dispute with a Lebanese-owned mobile operator. This contentious issue is tied to a telecom license issued even before South Sudan achieved its independence status.
The historical context of the license agreement traces back to the 2000s. It was forged between Vivacell, a telecom company, and a ministry within the then Government of Southern Sudan, which was an autonomous region within Sudan at the time. This license granted Vivacell the authority to initiate a telecom network within a segment of that territory. It also incorporated an arbitration clause stipulating ICC proceedings, held in English and based in Geneva.
Fast forward to the present, the dispute escalated when the telecom regulator of South Sudan suspended Vivacell’s license. They also reportedly demanded a hefty sum of US$66 million in license fees and taxes. According to recent updates from the Swiss court judgment, the companies involved are pursuing nearly US$2.7 billion in the ongoing ICC case.
The Swiss court’s decision holds weight, especially given that the matter was so crucial it required deliberation by a bench of five judges, in contrast to the conventional three.
From the perspective of the companies representing Vivacell, this win is significant. Their legal team from Lenz & Staehelin has conveyed their appreciation for the court’s “remarkable efficiency”.
The repercussions of this legal decision extend beyond just this case. South Sudan is also entangled in another ICSID claim from a commercial bank, which has links to Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. This bank allegedly extended hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to the country during its civil war phase.
It remains to be seen how South Sudan will navigate these complex legal waters in the future.