Justice Idris Mohammed of a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos State, on Tuesday, declined an application of seeking to prevent MTN Nigeria Communications Limited from emptying its accounts in 21 commercial banks in Nigeria.
The application was filed by the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), over fears that MTN would boycott the payment of the N1.04 trillion fine imposed on it by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) for its alleged failure to deactivate its unregistered subscribers.
He, therefore, sought an order directing all the 21 banks to open a special interest-yielding account in the name of the Chief Registrar of the Federal High Court and move N1.04tn out of whatever funds that was standing to MTN’s credit in their possession.
Counsel for the AGF, Mr. Dipo Okpeseyi (SAN), in a 14-paragraph affidavit deposed to by his junior, Steve Nwabueze, had argued that MTN was in the habit of regularly repatriating its funds out of Nigeria.
He noted that between October 2007 and May 2009, a period of 19 months, MTN moved over $7.7 billion of the money made in Nigeria to a foreign account.
He further called the court’s attention to an instance when in one day, specifically on February 8, 2008, MTN transferred over $936 million out of Nigeria to accounts in Mauritius, Cayman Island and British Virgin Island.
“Unless this honourable court urgently entertains this application, the plaintiff/respondent would move its funds out of Nigeria, being the jurisdiction of this honourable court, and thereby frustrate the enforcement of the fine in the likely event that this honourable court sanctions the imposition of the fine,” the AGF’s counsel added.
Okpeseyi maintained that MTN was under an obligation to pay the fine because it was NCC’s administrative decision, which remained final unless it was reviewed by the commission or nullified by the court.
He said though NCC had earlier given MTN a concession on the fine and reduced it to N780bn, but since MTN had neglected or failed to pay on or before December 31, 2015, the fine remained N1.04tn.
He alleged that instead of taking advantage of the concession, MTN resorted to filing a suit in order to buy time, with the hope that it could move all its funds out of Nigeria before the case would be decided.
Okpseyi urged the court to grant the application in the interest of justice to prevent the court’s decision from being rendered nugatory if it went in the favour of NCC and AGF.
Justice Mohammed, however, turned down the application as he said the AGF had not shown enough facts to prove that MTN was about to empty its bank accounts and move its funds out of the country.
Idris, who noted that the case was sensitive and of public interest, said he would rather urgently hear the case filed by MTN to challenge the fine and give a judgment within a short time.
He, however, made an order for the parties to maintain status quo pending the determination of the suit and adjourned till January 22 for hearing.