Nigeria won't lower MTN $5.2 billion fine, extends deadline

AP News
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Posted: Nov 16, 2015 12:49 PM

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's telecommunications regulator says it is extending its Monday deadline for MTN Nigeria to pay a $5.2 billion fine but indicated it will not lower the amount for a company it accuses of routinely flouting regulations.

It comes as other Nigerian regulators are slapping companies with multimillion-dollar fines, as the government looks for more revenue while pursuing President Muhammadu Buhari's anti-corruption drive.

Spokesman Tony Ojobo of the Nigerian Communications Commission said the fine was the second imposed on MTN in two months over the same infraction: A failure to deactivate unregistered cellphone SIM cards. The issue is one of national security in Nigeria, where law enforcers say cellphones are used to activate bombs and coordinate other attacks by Boko Haram Islamic extremists as well as in kidnappings and armed robberies.

When all four Nigerian cellphone service providers missed an Aug. 11 deadline, they were fined amounts from $19,000, for Airtel, to $511,000 for MTN, Ojobo said in a statement. Only MTN failed to pay, he said.

When an enforcement team audited MTN from Sept. 2-4, the company admitted it still had 5.2 million unregistered SIM cards active on its network, the statement said. Other companies had complied.

"They (MTN) have always been flouting regulations," Ojobo told The Associated Press.

His statement said: "The fine remains but the appeal and other engagements with MTN may affect the payment deadline."

Institutional investors have complained the fine is punitive and warned it could deter investment in Nigeria, but the regulator's statement said "sanctions are the last resort after all overtures fail but this does not in any way undermine industry standards and the interest of investors."

Shares of South Africa-based MTN Group, Africa's biggest telecommunications company, have slumped. CEO Sifiso Dabengwa resigned last week.

Despite the furor, the regulator this month extended MTN Nigeria's operating license until 2021 for $94.2 million. Nigeria is the group's most lucrative subsidiary.

The $5.2 billion equals nearly a quarter Nigeria's 2015 national budget.

Other fines meted out recently include:

— $15 million for United Bank for Africa or failing to transfer government deposits to a single treasury account by Sept. 15.

— $5 million to Stanbic IBCT Holdings, a subsidiary of Standard Bank of South Africa, which is contesting in court allegations that it filed misleading financial statements.

— $5 million to Guinness Nigeria for allegedly re-validating expired products and exposing raw materials to rats. The brewer denies wrongdoing.