MTN to exit three African countries, continues Iran operations amid US lawsuit

MTN to exit three African countries, continues Iran operations amid US lawsuit. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

MTN to exit three African countries, continues Iran operations amid US lawsuit. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

Published Nov 16, 2023


In an unexpected shift, the MTN Group, a telecoms giant, has announced its intent to withdraw from select markets, yet remains invested in Iran. With a presence in 19 countries, MTN is orchestrating an “orderly exit” from Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, and Liberia, according to the TechCentral report.

The exit will see MTN’s operations in the West and Central Africa (Weca) region reduced to five countries. Concurrently, MTN is driving for the completion of its Afghan market exit by the year’s end, aligning with the timeline laid out in their latest quarterly update.

Amid these withdrawals, MTN’s decision to maintain its Iranian investments remains puzzling, especially because the group is under the shadow of a significant US District Court ruling.

The court has allowed a crucial Anti-Terrorism Act lawsuit to progress to discovery. This suit involves allegations that MTN, among other companies, engaged with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), consequently supporting terrorism in Iraq and resulting in American casualties from 2011 to 2016.

The court battle remains heated in the US with both the plaintiffs and MTN submitting the required legal documents in preparation of the discovery phase of the case. More worrying is the fact that the multifaceted ruling dealt with counts of aiding-and-abetting liability under the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), civil conspiracy liability, and aiding and abetting terrorist acts in Afghanistan.

While MTN managed to fend off two of the three counts, the court determined that the plaintiffs had sufficiently stated a claim for aiding-and-abetting liability against MTN in Iraq.

The judgment highlighted that even after the IRGC was officially designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 2019, MTN retained its commercial ties. In a 2020 statement, MTN said that the close collaboration between MTN Group and MTN Irancell – in which the group has a minority 49% investment shareholding – will continue as it is, and business will be run as usual. The recent announcement has again cemented MTN Group’s position that MTN will not exit Iran.

The court has also taken into account the “decades of media coverage”, which it suggests should have made MTN aware of the potential misuse of mobile technology by Hezbollah, an organisation with IRGC connections. With Hezbollah’s active engagement in the Israel conflict, the implication for MTN’s operations is significant. MTN CEO Ralph Mupita’s response to queries about the IRGC dealings remains forthcoming.

The plaintiff’s legal team from Sparacino PLLC has stated that their case is grounded in an “exhaustive investigation”. MTN, on its part, has staunchly refuted any misconduct, challenging the US jurisdiction in this matter under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

MTN’s resolve to uphold relations with the IRGC, even as the US maintains the corporations on the FTO list, presents a conundrum of ethical proportions for the group and its CEO, Mupita. The outcome of this court case could set a precedent for future legal actions and has implications that extend beyond the courtroom, potentially reshaping MTN’s moral and operational landscape.

The Star

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