MTNBarring any immediate political solution, a diplomatic row may be brewing between Nigeria and South Africa, as telecommunications giant, MTN has hired a former top US law enforcement official to help challenge a $3.9 billion fine imposed by the Nigeria Communications Commission, NCC, for failing to disconnect its unregistered users.
The mobile phone company was handed a $ 5.2billion penalty in October last year, prompting weeks of lobbying, which led to a 25% reduction to $3.9 billion, but Financial Times yesterday reported that the South Africa-owned company is desperate to fight on, to avoid payment of the fine.
Citing people familiar with the situation, the medium said a former US Attorney General, Eric Holder, pleaded with Nigerian officials last month on behalf of the telecoms company, expressing the unwillingness of MTN to pay the fine and launched a court challenge in December, saying the Nigerian telecoms regulator, NCC had no legal grounds to order the penalty in the first place.
However, a judge in Lagos last month gave MTN till March 18 to try to reach a settlement over the fine, which equates to more than twice MTN’s annual average capital spending over the past five years.
Holder, who led the US Justice Department from 2009 to2015 and was one of President Barack Obama’s longest-serving cabinet members, returned to law firm, Covington & Burling, where he was previously a partner from 2001 to 2009.
Recall that Nigerian Pilot exclusively reported that powerful people in the country with major stakes in the giant communications company, MTN Nigeria, have resolved not to comply with payment of the N1.4trillion fine imposed on it by the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC over breach of its operation guidelines.
The NCC had sanctioned MTN for refusing to remove over 5.1 million unregistered telephone subscribers from its network and imposed the N1.04 trillion on the operator but later reduced it by 25 per cent after the intervention of President Muhammadu Buhari, amid pressure and negotiations from the company’s parent body in South Africa.
An impeccable source told Nigerian Pilot then that MTN has decided to flex muscles over the fine and opted for protracted legal battle, ostensibly to buy time, because of the interest of the top government functionaries who are major share holders in the telecommunications giant.
South African Vice President, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former chairman of MTN was among major investors whose diplomatic engagements with the Nigerian government shifted the NCC’s ground from the initial fine to the present N780billion.
The source added that, besides a top serving politician in the All Progressives Congress, APC government, a former president with equally huge investment in MTN are seeking a political solution to the fine umbrage, saying the company is not sincere in its dealings with the NCC in regard to the payment of the fine.
This medium also gathered that MTN has been in several secret talks with powerful APC chieftains to find a way of being let off the hook.
Nigeria’s Attorney General, Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN, had asked a Lagos court to freeze MTN’s bank accounts in the country in order to forestall hurried and massive depletion of the accounts by transferring the funds to off shore accounts. The AG believed that the court processes were a delay tactics for MTN to buy time. The court, however, refused the prayer.
In a press statement in South Africa, MTN had stated that Nigeria has no right to impose such fine on it and boldly stressed that Nigeria should negotiate with it or face a legal fight of her life in court.