How Nigeria hung up on MTN

Just when it seemed as though the worst was over for MTN, the group’s most important market came back to bite it.

After months of trauma, the mobile operator was finally recovering from a 2016 fine in Nigeria for not disconnecting SIM cards, and had just doused regulatory fires in some of its smaller markets, when the Central Bank of Nigeria came knocking.

In late August, the bank told the company that no less than $8.1bn (R115.81bn) worth of dividends that MTN had moved from Nigeria between 2007 and 2015 had to be returned.

The next day, August 30, the stock lost a fifth of its value.

Shortly after, and just for good measure, Nigeria’s attorney-general demanded that the company pay $2bn (R28.60bn) in back taxes.

Since then MTN’s shares have been capped at levels last seen a decade ago, around R85, far below the R246 of August 2014. Over the past five years, MTN’s share price has fallen 55%.

CEO Rob Shuter has spent much of his time flying to and from Lagos in an effort to broker a deal, but it hasn’t yet made a difference to the share price.

There’s much at stake. The claims from Nigeria, while laughable to some market commentators, are worth nearly the entire value of the company itself.

But if MTN manages to prove its innocence and convince authorities to drop their demands, or meaningfully reduce them, the operator could be set for a recovery in 2019. If it doesn’t, expect more pain ahead.

JPMorgan says that if the central bank’s claim is withdrawn, and no restrictions or penalties are imposed on the operator, the share would quickly climb towards R100.

But the US brokerage reckons the most likely scenario is a $500m (R7149.03bn) settlement for both claims — by no means an inconsequential sum.

Still, some analysts still say MTN is a "buy", which is a positive sign that there is some confidence.

Nigeria, which will hold elections in February, is trying to squeeze funds from other companies too. In mid-December, the government said it would sue Shell and Eni for $1.1bn (R15.73bn) as part of a case that dates back to 2011.

It has created a degree of trepidation that isn’t great for the West African nation. To many analysts (and MTN) the apparent hostility towards big foreign investors could deter others.

As it is, SA companies, including Woolworths and Tiger Brands, have already been burnt in Nigeria, so MTN’s woes in that market will hardly resuscitate confidence.

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