The Nigerian government has come under a barrage of criticisms after its communications ministry confirmed Friday it had cut a secret N50 billion out-of-court settlement with MTN Nigeria in respect of a N780 billion fine imposed on the telecommunications company.
MTN Nigeria’s Chief Executive Officer, Ferdi Moolman, announced Wednesday that the company had withdrawn its lawsuit against the government over the hefty fine.
He said the company paid N50 billion to the government, as a step towards an amicable settlement of the matter.
The fine was imposed by the NCC in October 2015 after MTN failed to disconnect 5.1 million unregistered subscribers.
But, shortly after Mr. Moolman’s announcement, the Director of Communications, NCC, Tony Ojobo, told PREMIUM TIMES that the management of the Commission was unaware of MTN’s decision to withdraw its court case, and the payment of N50 billion to the Nigerian government.
“We (NCC) are not privy to it (agreement to withdraw a case from court and pay N50 billion by MTN). We do not have any evidence of payment of any money to the Nigerian government.
“There is no invoice to that effect. We have also not gotten any official information or confirmation that they have withdrawn their case in court,” Mr. Ojobo said.
The spokesperson to the Minister of Communications, Victor Oluwadamilare, confirmed on Friday that the N50 billion was actually received by the ministry on behalf of the government as part of the fine MTN was paying.
“I can confirm to you that MTN Nigeria has paid the sum of N50 billion to the federal government as part payment for the fine,” Mr. Oluwadamilare said.
“I am sure during the coming week, further negotiations would hold on the matter. MTN wants to negotiate with the federal government,” he added.
The government’s handling of case against MTN has drawn flak from Nigerians.
The general secretary, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Peter Ozo-Eson, described the development as “awkward, sad and abnormal.”
“Its abnormal for government to bypass an agency charged by law with the responsibility of regulating the communications industry to deal directly with an operator. This is indeed awkward and sad,” Mr. Oso-Ezon said.
“It will definitely erode the authority and independence of the regulatory agency,” he added.
The Lead director, Centre for Social Justice (CENSOJ), Eze Onyekpere, said “going behind to negotiate with MTN and even collect N50 billion on behalf of the Federal government, whether for good faith or not, without consulting NCC is absolutely wrong”.
“The whole transaction was NCC’s business as an autonomous institution that should work in accordance with the law, rules, regulations and procedures. Without a doubt, this is going to hinder the capacity of NCC to regulate the industry in future.
“Now, operators like MTN would know it is possible to break the law and get away with the consequence, since there is someone in the Ministry that they would always run to, to intervene on their behalf.”
The manager, governance, ActionAid Nigeria, Obo Effanga, said the whole transaction wreaks of laxity and lack of seriousness.
“It shows the Nigerian government is not organised enough to coordinate a simple matter of enforcing it rules. It is wrong for the ministry to do anything without carrying the NCC all along.”
Mr. Effanga said it was curious that it was MTN that issued the statement about its withdrawal of the case in court and payment of N50 billion to government.
“Maybe that was an attempt to arm-twist and put government on the spot,” he noted.
A UK-based engineer and public affairs commentator, Emeka Enechi, told PREMIUM TIMES that the conduct of the ministry left much to be desired.
“Why should the ministry ride over the powers of an agency empowered by the constitution to regulate the industry and take a decision on behalf of the people?” Mr. Enechi asked angrily.
“Its the height of desperation by the ministry perhaps to cover up something
“The presidency should probe not only the latest questionable agreement, by also the circumstances that led to the initial 25 per cent reduction in the fine,” he added.
An Abuja-based lawyer and managing partner, Ukaegbu Ukaegbu & Co., George Ukaegbu, said the ministry over-reached itself by interfering and usurping NCC’s powers under the law.
“The law that sets up NCC made it an autonomous agency with a Board. While the ministry may be a parent, its role is limited to supervisory. The running of the Commission is that of the Board.
“The ministry can make policy statements for the entire industry, but the implementation of those policies and enforcement of rules and regulation is that of the agencies,” Mr. Ukaegbu explained.
Also, the manager, policy, ActionAid Nigeria, Tunde Aremu, said the Ministry overstepped its oversight function.
“What the Ministry has done is to encourage companies that come into the Nigerian environment to do business to abuse the law with impunity.
“MTN has been accused of not paying appropriate taxes to the Nigerian government, and even take away illegally to other economies huge profits it makes from the country.
“Yet, it will not obey regulations. And the ministry is treating such unpatriotic behaviours with kid gloves. What the ministry has done is despicable and unpatriotic.”