The House of Representatives and the Senate recently dabbled into the issue of N1.04 trillion fine imposed by the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) on the South African telecommunications giant, MTN. It would be recalled that the NCC last October slammed a fine of N1.04 trillion against MTN for continuing to retain 5.2 million unregistered subscribers on its network after the expiration of a warning grace period. The NCC said it arrived at the figure by multiplying 5.2 million by N200, which is the fine for retaining each unregistered subscriber on the network. The fine was reduced to N780 billion after series of pleas for leniency, while the network provider was given up to December 31, 2015 to pay up the fine. The reduction of the fine was arrived at by an inter-agency committee set up by President Muhammadu Buhari, following a public apology by MTN. But to the utter surprise of many Nigerians, despite the reduction of the fine, before the expiration of the December 31, 2015 deadline, MTN took the Federal Government to court, challenging government and NCC’s powers to impose the fine in the first place.
However, before the trial of the matter could proceed further and as part of the new conditions to pave the way for an out-of-court settlement of the matter, MTN withdrew the suit last month and paid N50 billion into Government coffers. The payment was seen, supposedly, as a sign of good gesture towards the settlement of the fine. The National Assembly’s involvement is to know how the issue of the fine which was imposed late last year has been footdragging. It was gathered that the two houses of the National Assembly were not happy with the way they were sidelined in the negotiation, manoeuvering and scheming that are trailing the payment of the fine by MTN. Penultimate week, the Senate committee on Communications organized a public hearing to review the progress made by the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) regarding the implementation of the N1.04 trillion fine originally imposed on MTN for the violation of the commission’s rules regarding SIM card registration.
From the sitting which had in attendance, the Minister of Communications, Mr. Adebayo Shittu; Executive Vice-Chairman of NCC, Professor Umaru Dambatta; Chief Executive Officer of MTN Nigeria, Ferdinand Moolman; Mr. Dayo Apata, representative of the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Danladi Malami; Acting Director of Banking and Payment Systems Department of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and Accountant-General of the Federation, Ahmed Idris came startling revelations. It was discovered that MTN has been trying to influence officials of the Nigerian government in order to circumvent the payment of the fine. It was also gathered that they are almost succeeding in the effort. It was on the basis of that that MTN and the Federal Government began a negotiation for the settlement of the matter. At the Senate public hearing, details of what had happened regarding the effort to implement the fine came to the open.
While speaking at the hearing, Vice- Chairman of Senate Committee on Communications, Senator Adeola Olamilekan (Lagos West) came with a document from the Office of the Solicitor- General of the Federation which detailed the commitment of MTN towards the settlement of the fine. According to the document , MTN committed that it will pay only N300 billion. A breakdown of the payment showed that, apart from the N50 billion already paid by the network provider into a recovery account of the CBN, MTN committed that it would pay another N100 via electronic transfers between December 31, 2016 and December 31, 2020. The proposal also includes another N80 billion proposed payment by MTN as a demonstration of its commitment to and confidence in the Nigerian economy, which would be subject to necessary regulatory approvals.
This would come by the way if MTN Nigeria is committing to purchase N80 billion of Nigeria’s sovereign debt issued on the international market in 2016 – 2017. Finally, MTN proposed to pay N70 billion through the provision of broadband access to the Federal Government of Nigeria (subject to excess capacity on MTN’s fibre network) for the purchase of Government’s e-initiatives (e. g. visa processing, public service, connecting schools, registration etc.). Olamilekan said that with such a document, it was clear that the Attorney- General and Minister of Justice, Malami was deceiving Nigerians into believing that negotiation with MTN on the issue of the fine was still on-going, knowing that the minister had concluded a criminal settlement terms that favours MTN to pay only N300 billion and clearly mortgaged the interest of Nigerians in the entire deal. Even though Apata who represented the AGF at the event argued that the document was just a proposal, which was still undergoing negotiations, Olamilekan insisted that Government had already concluded the deal with the network providers and was only deceiving Nigerians.
He questioned the basis for the payment of the N50 billion by MTN to government if negotiation was still open. Another development that was revealed was that both the NCC and the Communications minister were kept out of the deal by the Presidency. Even, the process that led to the reduction of the initial fine of N1.04 trillion to N708 billion did not in real terms involve the two public officers, it was gathered . Also, at the public hearing, both the minister and Dambatta distanced themselves from the negotiation which led to the payment of N50 billion by the MTN. They were emphatic when they revealed that the deal was done between Malami and MTN, including the decision to pay the said sum into a CBN recovery account on February 24. According to the two public officers, since MTN took government to court over the fine, both the minister and NCC were kept in the dark on the issue, insisting that it was only Malami who singlehandedly proposed the out-of-court settlement terms.
Another shocking revelation in the entire deal was the decision to open a recovery account with the CBN. When the Senators asked why MTN was asked to pay the said N50 billion into a CBN account and not the NCC account, Apata who represented Malami at the parley denied knowledge of the directive. The lawmakers, it was gathered, did not fail to show their displeasure at the action of the AGF who, all through the negotiations with MTN on the issue of the fine, failed to take other critical stakeholders like the NCC and the Communications minister along. Also, the House of Representatives last Tuesday condemned the non-appearance of the Chief Executive Officer of MTN, Mr. Ferdinand Moolman and walked out the representative of MTN, Mr. Austin Iyasere . The Telecommunications Committee had been mandated by the House to look into the N1.04 trillion settlement negotiations between MTN and the Federal Government. Hon. Saheed Akinade-Fijabi (Oyo APC), chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Telecommunications, decried the MTN’s letter that referred the committee to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).
He added that MTN’s letter also referred the committee to the Central Bank of Nigeria and others to get the information it was seeking. The letter reads, ‘ …in this regard, we wish to refer you to the appropriate government agencies, specifically the NCC, Ministers of Communication and Justice and Central Bank of Nigeria. ‘These agencies are in a position to furnish your committee with relevant information on this issue.’ A member of the committee, Hon. Ossai Ossai (PDP Delta) expressed his anger when he quoted sections 87 and 88 of the Standing Orders of the House. It states that the parliament could summon anyone before it and demand for information. Hon. Johnson Agbonayinma (Edo PDP) said that due to MTN’s negligence, a lot of Nigerians had been killed because it failed to disconnect unregistered SIM cards which the insurgents used.
He added that as much as Nigeria wanted investors, its law must be respected. He recalled President Muhammadu Buhari’s comment saying that government was interested more in security rather than the fine imposed on it by the NCC. “MTN is treading on a tiger’s back, we are here to represent our constituencies and we are talking about people’s lives, this is no joke,” he added. The chairman of the committee said MTN’s CEO deliberately did not want to appear before the committee and summoned the CEO again to appear before it at a later date. Political analysts and watchers of political events in the country wondered why the National Assembly was not involved in the implementation of the fine and why the Presidency, through the attorney- general shrouded the negotiation of the fine in secrecy. They also wondered why the MTN has refused to pay the fine which was imposed on it due to its negligence and wondered why the Presidency would soft-pedal on the loan after the visit of the South African President, Jacob Zuma .