Adebayo Shittu, minister of communications, wants Nigerians to encourage MTN, a telecommunications company, and not scare it away from the country.
Shittu said MTN is important to Nigeria and the presumption is that they are innocent of the latest allegations levelled against the company.
After being fined N330 billion for failing to deactivate more than 5 million unregistered sim cards, MTN faces another potential hefty fine if the senate finds evidence that the company illegally transferred $13.9 billion out of Nigeria between 2006 and 2016.
“Nobody will say that MTN is not important to Nigeria — we must encourage them, we must not scare them away from Nigeria,” Shittu told Reuters in an interview.
“The presumption is that they are innocent and we pray they remain innocent. They must stay.”
MTN has said it did not break Nigeria’s currency transfer rules.
Shittu’s comments are similar to those he made when MTN was initially fined $5.2 billion in 2015 — equal to more than two years of its Nigerian profits — for failing to cut off unregistered SIM cards. The fine was reduced last June to 330 billion naira ($1.1 billion).
Nigeria accounts for a third of MTN’s revenue.
The crux of the allegation into illegal money transfers is that MTN did not obtain certificates declaring it had invested foreign currency in Nigeria within a 24-hour deadline stipulated in a 1995 law, and so the repatriation of returns on those investments was illegal.
“They have a right to repatriate their profits as long as it is legitimately done,” said Shittu, adding that any time MTN is suspected of breaking the law, it will be investigated, though the “facts against them must be established beyond reasonable doubt”.
“Everyone who is in business will have ups and downs. You don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater.”
Shittu said the investigation was an issue for financial regulators and did not fall within his “constitutional responsibility”.
The government, however, can influence the size of the penalty, as in the case of the SIM card issue.