Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), has explained the role of his office in the controversial payment of N50 billion by MTN Nigeria to the Federal Government.
The telecommunications giant had made the down payment last week as a sign of “good faith” towards the settlement of the N780 billion fine imposed on it by the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC.
The telecoms regulatory agency had imposed the fine on MTN in October last year for its failure to deactivate 5.1 million unregistered Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards as directed by the authorities, thereby contravening the provisions of the regulation on SIM card registration.
The minister, who made the clarification in an exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES in Abuja on Monday, said contrary to any misgivings, his office did not take any illegal decision.
“The matter is what the office of Attorney-General, as the chief law officer of the federation, is constitutionally vested with the powers to do, as the matter is pending in court”, Mr. Malami said.
“We have not even gotten to the point of negotiation, talk less of entertaining any request for consideration or not.
It’s too early in the day for anyone to raise concerns that it is not carried along, because there isn’t any engagement with anyone, as the point of that engagement is still being considered”.
The minister, who made the clarification in response to separate claims by the NCC and Minister of Communications, Adebayo Shittu that they were not involved in the negotiation that led to the N50 billion down payment by MTN Nigeria, stressed that there was no cause for concern about any agency being left behind in the discussions with the telecoms firm, as no concrete terms had been negotiated or agreed upon.
According to Malami, “The position of things is that MTN, through their foreign solicitors, made specific overtures to the office of Attorney General of the Federation seeking audience to discuss things that bordered on the pending case in court.
“The reaction of the office of Attorney-General was that the Federal Government was not open for any negotiation, not even an audience, until certain good faith gestures were demonstrated.
“That is how the N50 billion ‘good faith’ payment came about, and the terms of audience in court in respect of the discontinuance or withdrawal of the pending case in court”, he explained. “These were terms they agreed upon, and if they do so, then the possibility of an audience would be granted”.
Mr. Malami, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, said eventually when MTN agreed to discontinue with its case in court and made the “good faith” payment in return for an audience, it was made clear that it was not in any way intended to create any obligation on the part of NCC, Federal Government or the office of Attorney General concerning the fine.
“The N50 billion payment was just a demonstration of good faith if they (MTN) wanted to engage in a discussion with government. Despite the withdrawal of the case in court, it was still agreed that there was no formal audience until they commit whatever request they had into writing for consideration”, the Attorney-General noted.
He said MTN had since made a formal presentation by writing conveying what they wanted to discuss when the audience would eventually be granted, pointing out that the formal request was without an opportunity for MTN to discuss or negotiate anything.
“The request in writing has been circulated to all stakeholders, namely NCC, ministries of Communications and Finance. Their comments and technical inputs would be required to determine whether there is any room for further negotiation or deliberation on those terms. Even if they were to be given audience, what should they expect”, the minister said.
On whether the N50 billion would be considered as part of the fine to be paid by MTN, Mr. Malami said it was “only equitable or logical, whether there is agreement or not, for the N50 billion to be factored into whatever final payment is made as penalty at the end of negotiation”.