MTN pins hopes on resolving its $10bn Nigerian dispute

JOHANNESBURG — Mobile network MTN isn’t walking away from its Nigerian operation anytime soon and if anything, it’s looking to expand its services in that country. This is the message from the company’s Group CEO Rob Shuter who is hoping that authorities in Nigeria will seek an out-of-court settlement regarding a $10.1bn transfer dispute. If MTN manages to get through these choppy waters, a stock market listing in Nigeria, as well as the potential opening up of a new mobile banking unit, is set to be on the cards. – Gareth van Zyl

By Loni Prinsloo

(Bloomberg) – MTN Group Ltd. is making “steady progress” with Nigerian authorities in talks about $10.1 billion in claims, encouraging Africa’s largest wireless carrier that it can settle the long-running dispute out of court.

The South African company is in ongoing discussions with Nigeria’s central bank and other institutions and is “narrowing down what the key issues are,” Chief Executive Officer Rob Shuter said in an interview in Cape Town on Tuesday. MTN’s strategy is twofold: seek legal action while simultaneously looking for an amicable resolution, he said.

MTN CEO Rob Shuter.
MTN Group CEO Rob Shuter speaks during a 2017 earnings news conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

“We would like a resolution out of court and with normal engagements as that would be faster than a court process,” he said.

Shuter’s comments indicate the two sides could be nearing a deal to resolve the dispute, which has been running since the central bank accused MTN in late August of illegally repatriating $8.1 billion from the country. That was followed by a secondary allegation that the Johannesburg-based operator owed $2 billion in back taxes, a matter set for a court hearing early next month.

MTN’s shares rose 1.5 percent to R81.11 after Shuter’s comments, paring the decline since the crisis erupted to 25 percent.

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The impasse has at least temporarily derailed MTN’s plans to sell stock in its Nigeria unit in Lagos, and that’s contributed to the share price drop, according to Shuter. “While we are committed to a listing, this has complicated the process. A resolution will help to get the listing on the way,” he said at a telecommunications conference.

MTN pledged to list in Lagos as part of a settlement of an earlier fine for missing a deadline to disconnect customers without proper registration. The stock is down by more than 50 percent since the start of that first dispute in 2015, which also led to an overhaul of management and Shuter’s arrival from Vodafone Group Plc.

Earlier on Tuesday, Shuter indicated that he had no intention of walking away from Nigeria, announcing plans to seek a mobile-banking license in the country. Africa’s most populous nation is MTN’s biggest market with more than 64 million customers, and the company reported a margin of 43 percent on its Nigerian earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation in the third quarter.