*Says AGF usurping powers of NCC
The House of Representatives Committee on Telecommunications is insisting that the initial N1.04 trillion fine imposed on MTN Communications Nigeria Limited for failing to disconnect 5.2 million unregistered subscribers on its network must be paid in full, instead of the reduced penalty of N780 billion.
The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) slapped the N1.04 trillion fine on MTN last October, but later reduced it to N780 billion and gave the network provider till December 31, 2015 to pay up after the company had pleaded for leniency.
But before the deadline, MTN sued the federal government challenging the power of the federal government and NCC to impose the fine.
Less than three weeks ago, it withdrew its case and paid N50 billion as a gesture of good faith towards the settlement of the fine.
The penitence exhibited by MTN paved the way for negotiations with the federal government led by the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN) and the South African-owned firm led by former US Attorney General, Mr. Eric Holder.
On Tuesday, President Muhammadu Buhari at a joint briefing with his South African counterpart, Mr. Jacob Zuma, who was on a two-day state visit to Nigeria, confirmed that negotiations were ongoing
He blamed MTN’s tardiness in disconnecting the unregistered SIMs on its network for fuelling the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast, which according to him, resulted in the deaths of 10,000 persons.
Wading into the issue Wednesday, the House committee insisted that the telecoms firm should be made to pay N1.04 trillion fine, instead of the reduced fine.
It also accused Malami of usurping the powers of the NCC by leading the negotiations on the fine with MTN.
The chairman of the committee, Hon. Sajeed Fijabi, at a meeting with the Minister of Communications, Mr. Adebayo Shittu and officials of NCC, said any negotiation on the fine must be spearheaded by the NCC and not the AGF, adding that there should be no room for a reduction of the fine, as it would set a bad precedent.
“There is nowhere in the law that says there is room for reduction. If you are reducing this now, what will happen to Glo and others? I see MTN going to court every time as a way to circumvent the law. In the US, British Petroleum paid the full fine for the oil spill (in the Gulf of Mexico).
“Somebody is not allowing you to handle this matter the way you should. After you had imposed the fine, somebody is negotiating and reducing it. You imposed the fine, you should take the lead in negotiations, but now you are being sidelined.
“You imposed the N1.04 trillion fine, and we at the National Assembly have already projected that amount as part of federal government’s revenue,” Fijabi added.
Hon. Ehiozuwa Agbonayinma (Edo PDP) said while the government was interested in attracting foreign investments, MTN should not be allowed to get away with flouting regulations.
He also emphasised that the MTN should not be allowed to determine how it would pay the fine, following reports that the company has offered to N150 billion in cash and the balance in “complimentary services”.
“When a crime is committed and the offender has been sentenced by the court to 20 years, he now goes back to the government and say he wants to serve only one year, is that not what MTN is doing?
“They have committed a crime which they admitted to, and are deciding how they will go about paying for the crime,” Agbonayinma said.
Agbonayinma said the company decided to go to court to buy itself time after it received a letter from the House over the fine. “Now they are discussing with the AGF and the chief of staff,” he added.
Hon. Michael Eyong (Akwa Ibom) said if the matter was in court, the AGF would be representing the NCC.
In his remarks, the executive secretary of the NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta said the commission received a proposal for negotiations from the MTN on the fine, adding that there was no indication in it that the N50 billion had been paid.
The commission, he disclosed, however received a letter from the office of the AGF informing it that the money was paid into the Federation Account.
Danbatta further noted that the money ought to have been paid into NCC’s account, and not the Federation Account, as it imposed the fine.
Shittu, who made a brief appearance at the meeting, said the former executive vice-chairman of the NCC looked the other way at the infractions committed by MTN in the past, but said he played no role in the decision to withdraw the MTN suit and the payment of N50 billion.
“I have not played any role whatsoever. When the out-of-court settlement came up, I had no role. When they wanted more relief, they discussed with the attorney general. The AGF gave them two conditions, that they pay N50 billion as down payment and withdraw the case from court. But I had no role, so the AGF will be the most appropriate person to speak on this.
“We should be the ones handling it but it has been been taken over by the Ministry of Justice,” Shittu added.
The committee subsequently pledged its support for NCC spearheading the negotiations on payment of the fine.