MTN Nigeria future 'uncertain' amid $5.2bn fine

MTN is determined to take on Vodacom. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)
MTN is determined to take on Vodacom. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Johannesburg - A decision by Nigerian authorities to impose a fine on MTN of more than 20% of its market value risks foreign investment in an economy struggling to cope with sliding oil prices, currency restrictions and no finance minister.

“The brazenness of Nigerian authorities to levy such a penalty is attracting attention,” Gareth Brickman, an Africa analyst at ETM Analytics NA LLC in Stamford, Connecticut, said in an e-mailed note to clients . “Investor perceptions of Nigeria have been strained to say the least by policy makers’ management of the naira and the new administrations’ lack of progress on economic reform.”

Nigeria’s telecommunications regulator this week fined Johannesburg-based MTN, Africa’s biggest mobile-phone operator, $5.2bn for failing to disconnect customers with unregistered SIM cards and having incomplete data, causing the shares to post their biggest three-day plunge in Johannesburg since 2008. Nigeria is MTN’s biggest market, where it had 62 million customers by September.

Slowing Economy

Investors are losing faith in President Muhammadu Buhari, who has yet to name his cabinet five months after taking office. He has backed foreign-currency controls imposed by the central bank that have led to an overvalued naira, lower imports and weaker economic growth in Africa’s biggest oil producer. The economy grew 2.4% in the second quarter from a year ago, its slowest pace this decade.

“These kinds of incidents will only add to the checklist of reasons for investors to stay away for the foreseeable future,” said Brickman.

Nigeria’s telecommunications regulator said companies doing business in the country must comply with rules.

“Are investors not supposed to respect the laws of the land where they are operating?” Tony Ojobo, spokesman for the Nigerian Communications Commission, said by phone from Abuja, the capital. “It is in accordance with our regulations and guidelines that if service providers don’t comply they’ll face a penalty.”

Security Concerns

MTN said on October 26 that the penalty relates to the timing of the disconnection of 5.1 million MTN Nigeria subscribers in August and September and is based on a fine of 200 000 naira ($1 005) for each unregistered subscriber.

Falling oil revenue has put Buhari’s government under pressure as it curbs spending and struggles to pay workers’ salaries. Oil accounts for about two-thirds of government spending and 90% of export income. Foreign-exchange reserves have dropped 30% since the beginning of last year to $30bn.

Yinka David-West, a senior fellow in Information Systems at Lagos Business School, said the stricter rules on registration were aimed at improving security in a country where kidnapping for ransom is rife and the government is struggling to end an insurgency by Boko Haram militants in the northeast.

“This registration exercise started because of a security issue,” she said by phone on Wednesday. “It’s not just about having a database of names and numbers. It’s a tool that is supposed to help fight terrorism, kidnapping, money laundering and all sorts of issues.”

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