The confirmation by the Ministry of Communications on Friday that it was paid N50 billion by troubled MTN Nigeria on behalf of the Nigerian government may have unwittingly exposed the Buhari administration to charges of lacking in transparency and predisposed to abuse of the country’s law. Only the NCC, not the supervising ministry, may by law, regulate the country’s telecom sector.
The Nigerian Communications Act, 2003 makes the NCC a truly independent regulatory agency with the necessary powers to independently regulate the telecommunications industry in Nigeria. Under previous governments – Obasanjo, Yar Adua, and Goodluck, the regulator has not had to contend with interference from the ruling government. Now, stakeholders fear there is a deliberate attempt to weaken public institutions and make them subservient to the whims of political appointees.
The N50 billion is part payment for the N780 billion fine imposed by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and is expected to seal a mutual arbitration by the erring telco and the Nigerian government, a statement by the Communications Minister’s special assistant on media, Mr. Victor Oluwadamilare has said.
Coming after the NCC through its spokesman, Mr. Tony Ojobo publicly denied it had any knowledge of the payment or the withdrawal of the case against it from the court after MTN made an official statement that it had paid the Nigerian government, concerned stakeholders said the entire episode signposts an end to the independence of the regulator.
On Wednesday, MTN Nigeria’s Chief Executive Officer, Ferdi Moolman, announced in a statement that the company was withdrawing the case and making a “good faith” payment of N50 billion to the Nigerian government. ,” Mr. Moolman added: “This is a most encouraging development. It demonstrates a willingness and sincerity by both parties to work together towards a positive outcome.”
A shocked Nigeria’s telecom regulator would later express that its management was unaware of the deal, even though it is a principal party to the case both as the country’s regulator and the defendant in the court case instituted by MTN.
“This is both unhealthy and a dangerous sign that laws can be discarded whimsically by this government and that the regulator can easily be shamed by a powerful operator. The independence of the regulator is gone. The ministry now holds court on regulatory matters and not the NCC. We are losing the direction and the independence for which the NCC has earned this country global respect, ” said a worried stakeholder in Lagos who desired not to be named.
Fined over a trillion naira last year for actions that bordered on non-compliance, the MTN was given reprieved with the fine reduced to N780 billion. It took the regulator to court seeking legal recourse for its problems. Its decision to withdraw the court case against the regulator and also to secretly pay the government N50 billion by sidelining the regulator “has opened a dangerous chapter in our country’s telecom sector,” warned another stakeholder in Lagos who leads a trade association within the industry.