There are too many accusations of bribery and other forms of impropriety coming at MTN for us to remain unfazed, says the writer. Photo: Temilade Adelaja/Reuters
There are too many accusations of bribery and other forms of impropriety coming at MTN for us to remain unfazed, says the writer. Photo: Temilade Adelaja/Reuters

The smoke around MTN is far too frequent for there to be no fire

By Victor Kgmoeswana Time of article published Jan 5, 2020

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In my first column of 2020, my vision is yet again blurred by smoke.

Despite the denials, the smoke is far too frequent for there to be none of the proverbial fire behind it.

MTN is a textbook case of how success can be one’s undoing under the weight of complacency, if not downright hubris. Moving from being “the better connection” in the early 1990s - behind Vodacom in South Africa - the company has become our overwhelming pride.

Afro-optimists, like myself, cite its success to demonstrate how every African problem can have an African solution. Unsurprisingly, when Thebe Ikalafeng took to the stage at the JSE in May to announce his seventh annual Brand Africa 100: Africa’s Best Brands, MTN was the only African icon among the top 10 - at number 8. The rest were foreigners like Nike and Samsung.

Maybe this is merely the tallest tree catching the wind, but there are too many accusations of bribery and other forms of impropriety coming at MTN for us to remain unfazed.

What’s worse, the share price is going to take a pounding in response.

For the benefit of those snorkelling or living it up in the serene billabong on some exotic beaches or islands: about 100 families of US soldiers and contractors who were killed in Afghanistan approached a Washington DC court, contending that MTN paid protection fees to the al-Qaeda-allied Taliban in Afghanistan to safeguard its network infrastructure. Some of the money thus paid, the families say, was sourced in loans from a subsidiary of the World Bank in the US. This shows how complex the world of global terrorism has become.

MTN, alongside its peers, is in the throes of #DataMustFall alongside its peers. The Competition Commission wants data prices slashed to bring it in line with countries like Kenya, Rwanda and Nigeria.

Not so long ago, it was the Nigerian blues. After being hit with a billion-dollar fine for failing to - in South African parlance - “Rica” many SIM cards there, the corporation denied paying a bribe to officials in Abuja to have the fine reduced. Not so long ago, it was defending itself from accusations of paying former ambassador Yusuf Saloojee money to facilitate its acquisition of its operating licence in Iran.

On the latest US case, the stock exchange news statement, MTN said it was “consulting its advisers but remains of the view that it conducts its business in a responsible and compliant manner in all its territories and so intends to defend its position where necessary”.

Mobile telephony affords many Africans access to high speed connectivity; with it, better education, health care and a major edge in the internet of things. As a pioneer in this field, MTN would have had to carve a path where there had been none to be able to operate.

It helped plenty African countries shape their mobile telephony policies and built network infrastructure where none existed. This can easily lead one to believe too much in their own PR; and subsequently dropping the ball on governance.

If successful multinationals frequently re-engineer their processes and systems to remain relevant and afloat, MTN (and any multinational) must lead the way by rejigging its business philosophy and ethics or it will not survive, let alone thrive.

Happy 2020; to MTN shareholders: good luck!

* Kgomoeswana is author of Africa is Open for Business, media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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