MTN Faces Mounting Pressure From Nigeria on $8 Billion Claim

(Bloomberg) -- MTN Group Ltd. is facing mounting pressure to return $8.1 billion to Nigeria after the country’s central bank argued that the South African wireless carrier should pay interest on dividends it said were repatriated illegally. The stock dropped the most in a month.

MTN should pay an annualized 15 percent interest until courts rule on the conflict, and then 10 percent until the whole sum is paid, the Central Bank of Nigeria said in documents filed with the Federal High Court in Lagos in the past week, seen by Bloomberg News. The central bank asked the court to deny MTN’s request for an injunction that would stop it having to transfer the money.

The central bank is still “aggressively engaging” with MTN and its banks separately to the court process and hopes that “an amicable resolution will soon be achieved,” Isaac Okorafor, a spokesman for the Abuja-based lender, said in a text message.

MTN fell as much as 11 percent in Johannesburg on Friday before paring losses to trade 4.5 percent lower at 83.38 rand by 4:06 p.m., still the steepest decline since Sept. 4.

MTN Faces Mounting Pressure From Nigeria on $8 Billion Claim

The central bank alleged in late August that MTN and four banks -- Standard Chartered Plc, Citigroup Inc., Stanbic IBTC Plc and Diamond Bank Plc -- illegally repatriated the money from Nigeria. MTN sought the injunction in early September to buy itself time and fight the claim in its biggest market, which wiped as much as 36 percent off its market value within two weeks.

Central bank Governor Godwin Emefiele last week said that the dispute would be resolved soon and that “everyone will be happy.”

The court filing “is contradicting what the CBN governor said recently,” said Peter Takaendesa, a portfolio manager at Mergence Investment Managers in Cape Town. “Any aggressive language from Nigeria will obviously put pressure on the share price again.”

MTN declined to comment.

The transfers “may have been premeditated and contrived as a scam to make and maximize profits, defraud the Federal Republic of Nigeria and to enjoy unlimited foreign-exchange income perpetually from a single investment without complying with the foreign-exchange laws and regulations of Nigeria,” the central bank said in the documents.

To back its case, the central bank will rely on a 2009 admission by Standard Chartered that it transferred money from Nigeria for MTN without obtaining final approval from regulators, according to the documents.

A spokeswoman for Standard Chartered in Lagos, Dayo Aderugbo, didn’t answer calls to her mobile.

The accusations against MTN -- including disputed allegations by the attorney general’s office that it owes $2 billion of back taxes -- come as President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration faces criticism of its economic management in the run-up to the elections scheduled for February.

Two years ago, MTN negotiated a $5.2 billion fine down to about $1 billion plus a commitment to list its local business in Lagos. That penalty was related to subscribers that weren’t properly registered in the country.

MTN Chief Financial Officer Ralph Mupita said the spat in Nigeria may cause the carrier to reconsider raising cash through an initial public offering of its local unit in Lagos. Instead, MTN may list the business by way of introduction, which places existing securities on the exchange.

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