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(Opinion) MTN’s belated penitence By Bolanle Bolawole


President Muhammadu Buhari
President Muhammadu Buhari
I have an MTN line (0803 251 0193); therefore, I appreciate MTN’s contributions to the development of the telecoms sector. I, however, take serious exceptions to MTN raising its heels against Nigerian authorities, acting arrogantly, and treating our people contemptuously. I speak in respect of the fine imposed on MTN by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) for infractions which border on the country’s national security, with particular reference to the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency, and the safety and well-being of Nigerians as a whole. The facts of the case are these: The MTN is a company licensed by Nigerian laws to transact telecoms business in the country. The relevant laws require the company to be law-abiding. One such laws, enacted in the wake of the Boko Haram insurgency, is that all sim cards be registered by telecoms operators, failing which appropriate sanctions were stipulated. The reason for the law was basically security, and this is the standard procedure all over the world, more so in countries grappling with the scourge of terrorism. For reasons best known to it, MTN failed to register a whopping 5.1 sim cards. The penalty for failure to register a sim was US $1.008 (N200,000 equivalent); bringing the total fine payable by MTN to US $5.2 billion. By curious, even suspicious circumstances, NCC gave a “discount” to the offender, asking it to pay only US $3.9billion; meaning that a “dash” of US $1.3billion (by current official exchange rates, well over N250 billion) was offered to MTN. Rather than show appreciation and pay up, MTN chose to act smart and play hard. It eventually approached the courts, claiming NCC lacked the powers to penalise it for infractions as clear as daylight and which it could not, anyway, deny. Mid-way into that misadventure, however, it retraced its steps, claiming it now wanted out-of-court settlement.
It should be offered none! Since it resorted to court action in its own wisdom, MTN should pursue its cause there to its logical conclusion and get all the reliefs it can possibly get; like William Shakespeare’s Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”, no more, no less. And the illegal discount hitherto offered it must be withdrawn. MTN must now pay the full penalty of US$5.2billion; not a kobo less. I offer my reasons. One: It is the law, and it should be applied. After all, South Africa, the home country of MTN, had itself shoved its laws down the throats of our country and people severally in the past. Two: MTN has the ability to pay and should pay. The telecoms company has repatriated billions of dollars out of the country. Three: Times are hard for Nigeria and Nigerians; this, therefore, is not the right time to allow money duly earned by the scrupulous and meticulous application of the law to slip through our hands. Four: Treating MTN with kid gloves will set a very bad precedent not only in the telecoms sector but industry-wide. Five: The discount or dash offered MTN smells of corruption. This is Nigeria and we are well too aware of how government officials negotiate to undermine what goes into the Treasury while helping themselves to the bargain. Six: The Minister of Justice and Federal Attorney General has said this government will not tolerate plea bargaining which allows common felons to get away with a slap on the wrist. In like manner, no out-of-court settlement, plea bargaining or IBB-style “settlement” must be tolerated in this case, especially by a CHANGE-peddling administration, which is also assiduously pursuing an anti-graft crusade. Seven: No known Nigerian law empowers any government official, not even the president or parliament, to wilfully give out the country’s common patrimony whimsically as a dash or discount. Once the penalty was declared and inflicted on MTN, the money (US$ 5.2billion) was as good as earned by Nigeria and must go wholesale, according to law, into the Federation Account. It cannot therefore be spent, discounted or dashed away without appropriation by the National Assembly. Eight: NCC already had demonstrated weakness by extending the original two-week deadline to pay the fine from November 15 to December 31, 2015. That grace, together with the dash or discount, sent the signal that NCC was weak and or that, in the typical Nigerian fashion, the system could be exploited to truncate the penalty altogether. Nine: MTN was not the only operator caught napping by the law. Others accepted their guilt and paid the penalty without fuss. Pampering a recalcitrant offender would, thus, be aiding and abetting indiscipline. If this becomes wild fire and spreads, the economy as a whole will be the worse for it.
Come to think of it, if not for corruption; impunity and profligacy; the blind arrogance, crass selfishness, and monumental fickle-mindedness of our leaders, what is the justification for frittering our common patrimony like some may have done or may be planning to do with the MTN largesse, if we may call it that? Was that not how we frittered the US$2.8biilion Gulf War oil windfall? And is that not how we have, again and again, frittered the resources of this country to the point that we are now in a quandary? Ask Senator Oluremi Tinubu, the discount or dash offered MTN (over N250billion), which it spurned, is 62.5 times more than the N4billion allocated to the Ministry of Women Affairs in the 2016 budget. Tell me, what kind of a country is this and what specie of human beings are we? What mindless Father Christmas are these people with no mind for rational thought, that even in these austere times when every Naira and Kobo should count, that hundreds of billions of Naira will be thrown away without batting an eyelid? It is reasonable to suspect foul play.
It would have been a different kettle of fish if MTN were a Nigerian company; it is not. Worse still, its home country has been anything but friendly to Nigeria and Nigerians. Yet, the fulcrum of diplomacy is reciprocity. Nigeria’s contribution to South Africa is awesome; this is a clear instance of Nigeria working like an elephant (for the emancipation of South Africa from the stranglehold of apartheid colonialism) but eating like an ant in the reward that has come our way. A brief recap of history will do: The Sharpeville massacre took place in South Africa in March 1960; 69 black people were killed. Nigeria got its independence from 160 years of British colonialism on October 1,1960. Six months after, the Nigerian government of Tafawa Balewa assumed the driver’s seat in the battle to free South Africa. In a letter dated April 4, 1961 to the African National Congress, Balewa said, “the battle against apartheid has just begun”. Same year, Balewa lobbied for the South African racist regime to be expelled from the Commonwealth. Balewa was also the first leader to provide direct financial assistance to the ANC. In the 1970s, Nigeria provided US$5million subvention annually to the two South African freedom fighters, ANC and the Pan-African Congress (PAC).In 1976, Nigeria set up the South African Relief Fund; Government and people of Nigeria made generous contributions. The Federal Military Government of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, $3.7million; Obasanjo personally contributed $3000; each member of his Cabinet, $1, 500; civil servants and public officers made 2% donation from their salaries monthly; students skipped lunch to make donations etc. As an undergraduate and later as a reporter, I made several financial contributions to the South African cause; not to talk of the countless demonstrations we participated in to support as well as draw attention to the plight of blacks in South Africa. As a reporter I interviewed ANC President Oliver Thambo, ANC spokesperson Alfred Nzo, among many others. Through the Fund, hundreds of South African students and leaders received education and safe haven in Nigeria, with Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s second black president, being one of such, enjoying our hospitality between 1977 and 1984. We also offered our international passport to South Africans to enable them travel abroad. Between 1973 and 1978, Nigeria contributed $39.040million to the UN Educational and Training Programme for Southern Africa; we placed an embargo on the racist South African regime, refusing to sell our crude oil to it and losing revenue of over $41 billion in the process. We were the only country to set up the National Committee against Apartheid (NACAP) as early as 1960. During this period, the West was firmly in support of apartheid, but we refused to be intimidated or blackmailed by them to abandon our robust support for South Africa. Although we were far away geographically from the theatre, we nonetheless regarded ourselves as one of the “frontline states” confronting apartheid head-on, with all the negative repercussions. Then, we must never forget the 1976 letter of the late Head of State, Gen. Muritala Muhammed to the US president warning him to steer clear of dictating to African leaders on their principled stand on South Africa. “Africa has come of age”, Muritala declared and proceeded to galvanise the support of African leaders at the Addis Ababa OAU meeting for the fight against apartheid. According to the South African Institute of International Affairs, Nigeria between 1960 and 1995 spent over $61 million in support of the anti-apartheid struggle, the highest by any other country. In addition, we boycotted the Commonwealth and Olympic Games to which the racists were invited and the Obasanjo military regime nationalised British Petroleum in 1979.
For our efforts: In 2013 during the funeral of Nelson Mandela, Nigeria’s late president, Umaru Yar’Adua, was shabbily treated while the friends of apartheid, the US and Britain, had their leaders given the spotlight. Nigerians need visa to travel to South Africa and are also shabbily treated; but not so the citizens of Western countries that supported apartheid and prolonged the suffering of blacks. In our fight against insurgency, ex-president Jonathan Goodluck was thoroughly embarrassed by South Africa; his efforts to buy arms from that country ended up a fiasco. Have they returned our money that they seized? I hate to preach hate but some fellows should spare us a re-living of bad memories.

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