Predictably, Nigeria softens stance on $8bn MTN dispute

JOHANNESBURG — Just like the ridiculous $5.2bn SIM card fine issued to MTN in 2015 (which was subsequently reduced to around $1bn), Nigerian authorities, once again, are living up to their reputation of backing down on threats. There’s talk now that officials in that country could tone down the latest $8.1bn claim against MTN. It’s become an all-too-predictable pattern and one has to question why Nigerian authorities are so intent on making business in that country difficult. – Gareth van Zyl

By Yinka Ibukun, Paul Wallace and Dulue Mbachu

(Bloomberg) – Nigeria wants to end a dispute with MTN Group Ltd. over a claim that Africa’s biggest wireless carrier illegally transferred $8.1 billion out of the country, an indication relations between the two parties have started to thaw.

The Central Bank of Nigeria made the accusation late last month, plunging the South African company into a crisis that’s wiped almost a third off its share price. MTN has since provided additional information that may lead to an “equitable resolution,” a spokesman for the authority, Isaac Okorafor, said in an emailed statement late Wednesday.

MTN Group, Lagos, Nigeria
A pedestrian passes by an MTN Group Ltd. bus stop advertisement and roadside kiosk in Lagos, Nigeria. Photographer: Tom Saater/Bloomberg

Four banks – Standard Chartered Plc, Citigroup Inc., Stanbic IBTC Plc and Diamond Bank Plc – have also provided further detail on the transactions that will be reviewed by the central bank, Okorafor said. The quartet were fined about $16 million between them for enabling the allegedly improper transactions.

The latest development suggests there may be a way for Johannesburg-based MTN to make a deal with Nigeria, just as the company did two years ago when it negotiated a $5.2 billion fine down to about $1 billion plus a commitment to list its local business in Lagos. However, that penalty – related to subscribers that weren’t properly registered in the country – also weighed heavily on the share price, which has yet to recover.

The central bank’s statement didn’t refer to $2 billion of back taxes MTN is also accused of owing – a claim that comes from the attorney general’s office.

“While this is a step in the right direction, continued dialogue to reach an amicable resolution is a minimum standard expected by the investment community,” Olusola Teniola, president of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria, said. “We look forward to the central bank disclosing the exact reasons for their actions.”

MTN Nigeria said it couldn’t immediately comment.

MTN shares traded at 73.38 rand at the close in Johannesburg Wednesday. They’ve fallen 32 percent since the shock $8.1 billion claim was made on Aug. 29, wiping out almost $5 billion of market value.

MTN’s response to the double accusation was to go to court, saying allegations by both the Nigerian central bank and attorney general are unfounded, malicious and illegal. Chief Executive Officer Rob Shuter flew to the country to reassure employees of the company’s commitment to the market, MTN’s biggest with about 66 million customers.

The impasse comes five months before Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari seeks re-election for a second four-year term. He’s pledged to crack down on graft in Africa’s most populous country, including that perpetrated by companies.