South Africa’s MTN Group this morning in Lagos asked for an out-of-court settlement in a suit filed by the mobile phone company against the Nigerian government’s N1.04 trillion fine imposed on its Nigerian subsidiary, MTN Nigeria, for alleged breach of subscriber registration rules.
It was a major volte face by MTN, the biggest mobile phone company in Nigeria, at the Federal High Court, Ikoyi when it opted to settle out of court in the suit filed against the telecoms industry regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).
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Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), who led a powerful team of MTN lawyers including 10 Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) to the court, told the Presiding judge, Justice Mohammed Idris, that MTN has opted to settle out of court.
MTN’s request turns out to be a dramatic anticlimax to the major legal challenge initiated by the South African mobile phone company when it decided to challenge the decision of the Nigerian regulator to impose the fine, based on its claim that NCC lacked the powers to impose the punishment under its establishing laws.
Opinion were divided from the other parties to the suit in the wake of MTN’s decision to settle out of court in the legal tussle against the Nigeria government, which fined the company for not deactivating over 5.1 million unregistered mobile phone lines on its network.
Following the request by MTN, the Presiding Judge subsequently adjourned the matter till March 18, this year, when the two parties are expected to come back with their mutually-agreed decision on the matter.
At the resumed hearing of the suit filed to challenge the N1.04tn fine, MTN’s lawyer, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), pleaded with the presiding judge, Justice Mohammed Idris, to give the parties 60 days to to settle out of court.
On his part, NCC’s lawyer, Yusuf Alli, (SAN), argues that the court’s discretion was limited to the rules of court which allows for just 21 days to file and serve written addresses.
”This is a commercial dispute involving money and in that light the plaintiff should make an undertaking that its action is not a plot to hold us down”, Alli told the court.
According to the NCC lawyer, “while I agree with my learned colleague that we are enjoined by law to support parties’ movement towards settlement at all times, there must be something flowing from persons proposing such settlement in good faith, especially in a commercial dispute like this where money is involved. We are all aware that Naira is losing value.”
Counsel to the Attorney General of the Federation, AGF, Oladipo Opeseyi (SAN), in his response to Olanipekun’s 60-day request, expressed his reservations, disclosing that MTN has not been consistent on the fine matter.
“We are craving the indulgence of the court to breach the time stated by the plaintiff, the reason being that this is a matter of national interest and it now within the domain of the world press and so, the institution of the judiciary is now on world press”, Opeseyi adds.
The AGF’s lawyer adds thus: ”We are not by any means against settlement; it must be based in good faith.”
“As it is my lord, we can’t see good faith. There was a proposed settlement in which the fine was brought down from N1.04 trillion to N780 billion”, Opeseyi argues.