Business Hilights
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Space for settlement abounds as Court adjourns forfeiture order in MTN Vs. FG sine die

Whereas Phutuma Nhleko, MTN group chairman, had said last week that accusations that the group moved funds illegally out of Nigeria had no basis, signals are emerging that serious discussion on the possible use of out of court settlement or diplomatic means are being applied in the handling of the matter following the indefinite adjournment (sine die) of the suit on fund forfeiture order given by a Lagos High Court since January this year.

During the January seating, the court adjourned the matter without a date.

In an interview with a Lagos lawyer who pleaded anonymity, he noted that “When a case is in a competent court of jurisdiction and no hearing date is given on the last appearance, it may mean that parties are beginning to explore other smarter means of settlement upon which they will come back to the court to address it if there is any successful deal after all”.

A clear pointer to a possible ongoing settlement drive can be seen from the recent courtesy visit of MTN Nigeria management to the telecoms regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) in Abuja.

MTN had during the visit, expressed clear confidence on the Nigerian economy, meaning that it will continue to do business in Nigeria.

Analysts say the visit remains one too many as it has among other things, rested the raging speculations that the South African telecoms giant is planning exit.

Business Hilights recalls that on January this year, Justice Abdulaziz Anka of the Federal High Court in Lagos has ordered the temporary forfeiture of the sum of N8 billion allegedly belonging to MTN Communications Limited to the Federal Government.

The judge gave the order that the sum, suspected to be proceeds of unlawful activity, which are stashed in account number 0012005379 domiciled in Ecobank, be temporarily forfeited following an ex-parte application to that effect filed before the court by the federal government.

Also affected by the order of the court is another account number 1013607079 containing billions of Naira domicile in Skye Bank Plc, whose owner has not file any application before the court to contest ownership.

Besides, Justice Anka further gave an order directing the publication of a notice in two National Daily newspapers inviting any person(s) who may have interest in the subject funds to, within 14 days of the publication of the order, show cause why a final order should not be made forfeiting the said funds to the government of Nigeria.

He further directed that the order should be served on the respective branch managers of the respondents banks and to stop forthwith all outward payments from the subject accounts and to immediately deliver to the court the respective statements of account with certificate of authentication and other relevant documents as at the date and time of service of the court order on them.

Before then, the government obtained the order, was marked FHC/L/CS/1676/2016 and filed by an Abuja based lawyer, Barrister John Opeyemi, on behalf of Attorney- General of the Federation (AGF), and an asset recovery agent of the federal government, Algaita Group Nigeria Limited.

In an affidavit sworn to by the Managing Director of Algaita Group Limited, Abdullahi Mohammed Maiturare, he averred that the AGF appointed his company as an Asset Recovery Agent of the Federal Government of Nigeria to track, freeze and recover funds and ensure it is remitted to the designated bank account of the Federal Government of Nigeria through legally permissible means as may be directed by the Attorney General of the Federation.

Maiturare, a former operative of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), also claimed that his company has credible information at its disposal which reveals that funds which are strongly believed to be Federal Government of Nigeria’s funds stolen, diverted and laundered are hidden in some coded accounts in the two banks Ecobank and Skye bank.

Government further maintained that credible information at his disposal, from reliable sources, indicates that there is an account maintained at Ecobank Nigeria Limited in the name of MTN Nigeria Communications operating account number 0012005379 that has a credit balance of N8 billion.

Maiturare also alleged that “from the totality of the credible information at our disposal, the applicants reasonably believe and satisfied that the funds in the possession of the two banks are unclaimed properties or proceeds of unlawful activity of stealing, diversion and money laundering of some public officials and their cronies in the private sector.

He insisted that “Consequently if urgent steps are not taken to obtain certified documents of the accounts and statements thereof as well as stop outward transactions on the accounts, the funds may be dissipated and the account documentation or statements may be tampered with”.

However, in a preliminary objection, MTN Communications Limited urged the court to discharge and set aside the orders made on it, as it relates to its account held with Ecobank Limited.

In an affidavit sworn to by a legal practitioner, Mrs. Ibukunoluwa Owa on behalf of MTN communication and filed before the court by Adeniyi Adegbonmire (SAN), the deponent averred that from information delivered to him by Babatunde Adewumi, the Manager, Banking and Treasury in the employment of MTN communication limited, the applicants did not comply with the order of the court.

He specifically pointed out that the order of the court directing the applicant to publish the ex-parte order was not obeyed, therefore the respondent was not aware of the order of the court until, Ecobank wrote a letter to the company to intimate it of the said order.

Responding, Mrs Owa also averred that the subject account was opened by Ecobank Nigeria upon instructions given by MTN on October 9, 2007 and that MTN has operated the account since then till date in accordance with banking practice applicable to current account held by corporate bodies in Nigeria.

She also claimed that the order has adversely affected the smooth running of the business of MTN as it finds it difficult to utilize the funds held in the account in pursuit of its lawful business, maintaining that the funds are not suspected proceeds of unlawful activity; therefore urge the court to discharge the order.

MTN’s application to discharge the order was accompanied with affidavit of urgency and application urging the court to hear the case during Christmas vacation, consequently no further date has been fixed for hearing.

Apart from this, MTN is facing an investigation by Nigerian lawmakers for allegedly illegally repatriating $14 billion between 2006 and 2016.

Last year, Dino Melaye, Kogi West Senator, alleged that MTN illegally repatriated $13.9 billion, in connivance with four commercial banks and a serving minister.

Shortly after, the Senate began series of investigative public hearing to get to the root of the matter which observers say is becoming endlessly silent.

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