Even the most loyal friends of the telecommunication giant, MTN, are hard put raising a voice of sympathy as it falls under the sledgehammer, this time, of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). The apex bank was not amused when it discovered that the company, with headquarters in South Africa but with heavy Nigerian investment, in connivance with some banks, illegally siphoned out of Nigeria a whopping $8.1 billion to its parent company in the former apartheid enclave.
The CBN did not spare the banks that were caught aiding and abetting this illicit business that, on all parameters, contravened laid down rules regarding the use of the Certificate of Capital Importation (CCIs). But the focus of attention was on the network provider because this is not the first time it got itself into this kind of tight bend. Three years ago, at the height of the fight against insurgency, when the security agencies were worried that the Global System of Mobile Telecommunication (GSM) was complicating the fight against terrorists, it responded by insisting that all lines must be registered and all subscribers captured or disconnected. MTN, for reasons best known to it, failed to disconnect 5.1 million lines from its network after the registration deadline elapsed. It was an error that the authorities felt was serious enough to attract maximum sanctions. To demonstrate its displeasure with what was seen, then, as the network provider’s insensitivity to the security situation in the country at the time, the government imposed a fine of $5.2 billion on it, though MTN was able to renegotiate the fine and it came down to $1.7 billion.
As the heat generated by the $8.1billion illegal transfer was raging, the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation came out with yet another malfeasance on the part of the telecommunications company. The reaction from most people was, MTN again? It was alleged to have run foul of the nation’s tax laws to the tune of $2 billion. This, in our opinion, is totally unacceptable. It is more convenient and less heart-rending to mention these monies in dollars. Imagine converting these dollars to naira, the average Nigerian not versed in foreign currency transaction will definitely call for their head in a platter.
It is an incontrovertible fact that MTN and other so-called foreign investors will not have the courage to do the dirty deals they do in Nigeria without the active connivance of their local collaborators. What is happening in MTN can be found in other businesses with foreign connections. It is a reflection of the absurdities in Nigeria’s business environment. These financial irregularities that this company, and many others like it, are perpetrating could not have been possible without the active involvement of insiders, Nigerians who know all the tricks about how to manipulate the system to their own advantage, even if Nigeria bleeds to death in the process.
On the board of MTN are very powerful Nigerians who have the right connections politically and otherwise, and who can easily get away with murder. They insistently claim that MTN is a Nigerian company just because they have substantial investment in its operations. There is no denying the fact that the company is making its own fair contribution to the employment generation effort in the country. It is also executing laudable corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects through its foundation that are adding value to the lives of some Nigerians. But are these enough for it to brazenly indulge in flagrant abuse of the country’s code of doing business and ride roughshod on her economic interests?
MTN cannot deny that its coming to Nigeria is the best business move it ever made. Before they came to this country, who knew them outside the confines of their offices in South Africa. They cannot also deny that they are funding their international operations with proceeds from their investments in Nigeria. From the very beginning, they gave the impression that they are here to take advantage of Nigerians starved of communication facilities. We recall that they claimed that per second billing was not possible until Globacom proved them wrong. In spite of complaints by Nigerian subscribers, their services have remained the worst in the country.
And they are not bothered because they have many Abrahams as godfathers. They also get away with unwholesome practices because the regulatory apparatus is lax. The country seem beggarly in her approach to the quest for foreign investors who give the erroneous impression that they are doing Nigeria a favour. MTN cannot make that claim. That is why we urge the policy makers to whip it and others in its mould into line. They must be made to play by the rules or shown the exit door. We need investments, but not at the detriment of the nation’s best interests.