The South African government may have known about MTN’s staggering R72 billion fine by Nigeria before it became public.
City Press has been informed by a senior government official that the government had at least been aware of the possibility of a penalty on MTN – because it had intervened to negotiate on behalf of what government views as the country’s “flagship” company.
MTN, however, said it was unaware of any interventions on its behalf by the South African government to lower the fine it got hit with a week ago.
The fine was imposed by the Nigerian Communications Commission after MTN failed to meet a deadline for disconnecting all SIM cards on its network that had not been registered in the country’s equivalent of South Africa’s Rica.
MTN spokesperson Chris Maroleng said: “We as MTN are not aware of such engagements.”
A government official, however, said that South Africa had helped MTN in other ways as well.
“Because of the sensitivity of investors to government intervention, and not wanting to look like intervening in a private matter that should be handled outside of government, we cannot speak publicly about our engagements.
“We also negotiated on the licence extension for MTN, but we believe that this fine is hefty, despite the manner in which MTN handled this matter,” a source with intimate knowledge of the discussions told City Press.
Despite the cloud hanging over it in Africa’s largest economy – and its largest market – MTN could still announce some good news this week.
The Nigerian Communications Commission renewed its licence in the country until 2021 – a key signal that there is no imminent plan to boot the massively dominant company out of Nigeria.
However, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe this week said that there had been no discussions at a “ministerial” level between the two countries.
Maroleng said MTN was engaging with authorities in Nigeria, and “cannot be drawn into speculation of what government business is or isn’t because an explanation, interpretation or a response to what government does can only be best found from government”.
There has been talk of MTN being forced to imminently cough up the fine, but Maroleng said the only deadline MTN was aware of was the payment of more than $94 million (R1.3 billion) before December 31 for the operating licence.
Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for the department of international relations and cooperation, said: “This is a matter regarding a private company and how it conducts its business, but we’re certainly watching the developments with keen interest, the principle being that international trade laws have to be respected everywhere.”
MTN is trying to reduce the fine and sort out payment terms.