A man enters a customer’s mobile cellphone sim card details on an MTN Group Ltd. registration machine at a roadside kiosk in Lagos last week.   Picture: BLOOMBERG/GEORGE OSODI
A man enters a customer’s mobile cellphone sim card details on an MTN Group Ltd. registration machine at a roadside kiosk in Lagos in November last year. Picture: BLOOMBERG/GEORGE OSODI

ABUJA — Nigeria will start new talks with South African mobile phone operator MTN "very soon" to settle a dispute over a $3.9bn fine but the final decision rests with President Muhammadu Buhari, the communications minister said.

Last week, MTN said it had withdrawn a lawsuit against Nigeria over the fine, which originally stood at $5.2bn, and aimed for a settlement. MTN was fined for failing to disconnect unregistered SIM users and has paid $250m towards a settlement.

"It is (now) for government to meet with them and conclude negotiations," telecommunications minister Adebayo Shittu said late on Tuesday, the first reaction from the ministry.

MTN shares, which had been down 2.8% on Wednesday, trimmed losses after the comments although they were still down 1.8% by 10.45am GMT.

Mr Shittu said President Muhammadu Buhari would make the final decision on any settlement over the penalty. "It is within his power and jurisdiction to do that if he feels that it would be in the interests of Nigeria to so do," he said.

The issue could come up when President Jacob Zuma visits Nigeria next week for talks with Mr Buhari.

Nigeria has been trying to halt the widespread use of unregistered SIM cards, fearing they are being used for criminal activity, including by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram.

Last week MTN, which makes 37% of its sales in Nigeria, said it would withdraw its court challenge in an effort to reach an amicable settlement and make a "good faith payment".

A judge in Lagos last month gave both parties until March 18 to reach a settlement, after MTN had asked the court to arbitrate over the dispute, saying the Nigerian telecoms regulator had no legal grounds to order the fine.

The fine came months after Mr Buhari took office last May, following an election campaign in which he pledged to impose tougher regulations and fight the corruption that had stunted development in Nigeria.

Mr Shittu also said Nigeria was in advanced talks with an Indian firm to lay fibre-optic cables from Kogi state to the capital Abuja. He declined to name the firm.

He said he would also travel to China and South Korea within two weeks in a bid to encourage foreign firms to invest in broadband service in the West African nation.

Reuters