Several leading international operators are among the 13 potential investors that have expressed interest in acquiring Nitel, the struggling state-controlled Nigerian operator. Reuters reports that Nigeria’s Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) is evaluating interest from the local arms of South Africa’s MTN and Etisalat of the UAE, India’s MTNL and a consortium involving Spain’s Telefonica and local firm, Globacom. Last month, the Nigerian government set a 60-day deadline to privatise at least 75 percent of the struggling national operator, which includes a fixed-line operation and a mobile unit, Mtel. The BPE said preference would be given to bidders seeking to acquire the entire company, noting that those bidding just for Mtel would need to fund the restructuring costs to detach the mobile unit.

Nitel has suffered an array of problems in recent years, including industrial action, equipment loss and vandalism, a chronic lack of investment and allegations of corruption, but it still provides a route for potential investors into Africa’s most populous nation. Local conglomerate Transcorp had earlier bought a majority stake in the operator but the government took back control in June, citing a lack of investment and unpaid debts in the three years that Transcorp had ran the firm. The saga over ownership has meant that subscriber growth at the operator has been in freefall in recent years. According to a recent edition of Wireless Intelligence’s Snapshot, mobile connections at Mtel have dropped from a high of around 1 million five years ago to just 256,000 by 2Q09.