•Confirms telco in talks with FG on N780bn fine
•Zuma: Our countries working to sort out $9m arms money trapped in S’Africa
Tobi Soniyi, Omololu Ogunmade and Damilola Oyedele in Abuja
Speaking publicly for the first time yesterday since the fine on MTN Communications Nigeria Limited was imposed last October, President Muhammadu Buhari blamed the tardiness of the telecoms giant in complying with the directive by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) on the registration of all subscribers on its network for aiding Boko Haram in carrying out its attacks which have led to the death of about 10,000 Nigerians.
Buhari made the remark when he responded to questions from journalists yesterday at a joint press briefing held by Buhari and visiting South African President, Mr. Jacob Zuma, at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
Buhari, however, admitted that MTN’s decision to go to court to challenge the N780 billion fine slammed on it by the industry regulator disarmed the government from intervening in the matter.
He pointed out that what was important to the country was not particularly the fine but the security implications of MTN’s action on the country.
He said: “The concern of the federal government was basically in the area of security and not the fine imposed on MTN. You know how the unregistered SIMs are used by terrorists and between 2009 and today, at least 10,000 Nigerians were killed by Boko Haram, at least 10,000.
“That was why the NCC asked MTN, Glo and the rest of them to register all subscribers. Unfortunately, MTN was very, very slow and contributed to the casualties. And NCC looked at its regulations and imposed the fine.
“(Un)fortunately for MTN, they went to court and once you go to court, you virtually disarm the government because if the federal government refuses to listen to the judiciary, it’s going against its own constitution. Therefore, the government has to wait. But I think MTN has seen that and decided to withdraw the case and go back and negotiate with government agencies on what they consider a very steep fine to be reduced and maybe give time to pay gradually.”
Buhari added that Nigeria has moved to strengthen her relationship with South Africa by identifying agriculture and solid minerals as investment opportunities in Nigeria in order to create jobs and diversify the economy.
In his remarks, Zuma said Nigeria and his country were working together to sort out the controversy over the $9 million cash impounded by the South African authorities from an aircraft belonging to Ayo Oritsejafor, President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).
At the peak of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2014, the former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration illicitly flew in $9 million to South Africa to procure arms from the black market, but the cash was impounded by the authorities in that country.
Two weeks after the first fiasco, another $6 million, which was wired to a company in South Africa, was also impounded by the country’s authorities. Ever since, Nigeria has not been able to recover the $15 million from South Africa.
The South African president, who is on a two-day state visit to Nigeria, said: “With regard to the things that were either confiscated or went to South Africa, the two governments are working on those matters, the relevant structures are working on it, but there are some that the necessary departments are doing the investigations.
“We will appreciate if we succeed in recovering all other things in South Africa so that they will be returned.”
Commenting on economic activities between Nigeria and South Africa, Zuma said: “We have a commitment to increase our economic activities. We discussed across all areas of the economy to grow the economy faster.
“Part of the reason we agreed to elevate the Bi-national Commission is to monitor on a yearly basis how the economy is doing between the two countries.”
He said Nigeria and South Africa signed over 30 bilateral agreements and Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) under the Bi-national Commission.
“These agreements cover a wide range of cooperation areas including trade and industry, transport, energy, defence and security and immigration, among others.
“We have directed the relevant ministers to move with speed in implementing all signed agreements.
“We have also directed our ministers to identify joint projects in the key high impact strategic development areas, which will have socio-economic benefits such as employment creation to our peoples,” Zuma explained.
He said South Africa welcomed the increased economic cooperation and trade relations between the two countries over the past decade, referring to Nigeria as South Africa’s key trading partner on the continent.
“Prior to 1999, there were only four South African companies in Nigeria. Since 1999, the situation has changed dramatically.
“Over 120 companies are currently doing business in Nigeria in various sectors, mainly telecommunications, banking, retail, property, entertainment and hospitality. We welcome this significant development.
“We also see great potential in boosting tourism between the two countries. According to Statistics available in South Africa, an average of 4,000 Nigerians travelled to South Africa on a monthly basis in 2015.
“In order to promote South Africa as a tourist destination in both the vast Nigerian market and in the West African region as a whole, a Tourism Office was opened in Lagos in January 2014 by Ministers of Tourism of both countries,” he said.
Asked what the South African government was doing to address the issue of xenophobia, Zuma said it was unfortunate for Africans not to see themselves as one people having been demarcated by their colonial masters.
He added that his government had embarked on enlightenment programmes to sensitise the people on the need to see Africans as one people and tolerate themselves.
Zuma also yesterday addressed a joint session of the National Assembly in Abuja where he disclosed that Nigeria has been a fertile ground and investment destination for South Africa.
Zuma, who was accompanied by Buhari to the session presided over by Senate President Bukola Saraki and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, restated that South African companies in Nigeria which were just four in number in 1999, had risen to as many as 120.
While expressing satisfaction that South Africa’s bilateral economic relations with Nigeria had yielded bountiful harvest since 1999, Zuma advocated the need for the two countries to strike a more rewarding business partnership by diversifying their economies to notable sectors such as agriculture, electricity, infrastructure development and manufacturing, among others.
According to him, diversifying the economies was necessary to create job opportunities for their citizens, improve their living standards and grow both economies through domestic resources, a move he said would have fruitful effects on the entire African continent.
“We are happy that the bilateral economic relations between the two countries have significantly improved in the last 16 years as evidenced by the growing bilateral trade figures and investments. More than 120 South African companies operate in Nigeria currently, a huge growth from a mere four companies in 1999.
“Nonetheless, there is room for greater business-to-business engagements particularly in the areas Nigeria has identified as potential growth sectors.
“These include the diversification of the economy, namely, electricity generation and supply, agriculture and agro-processing, tourism development. Others are the hospitality sector, mining, banking, infrastructure development, aviation, manufacturing and the automotive sector.
“We must strive for the diversification of our economies, so as to cast the net wide enough to create more job opportunities for our people to improve their living conditions and grow our economies through domestic resources in the first instance,” he said.
Zuma said Nigeria and South Africa, as the two largest economies on the continent, must complement each other and forge strong and strategic partnerships to facilitate accelerated economic growth and prosperity among Africans with a view to achieving continental integration.
He said the two countries could not afford to lag behind on the global stage particularly in the area of technological development which he said was vital to harness their economic potential.
He emphasised the need to promote economic bilateral relations between both countries with the aim of enhancing intra-African trade, which he described as one of the key objectives of the African Union (AU) where both countries sit at the Peace and Security Council.
He said the solid minerals sector was key to the South African economy with the exploration of diamonds and precious metals, adding that it provides the two countries with the opportunity for exploration, even as he observed the volatility of the international economy at the moment.
He said Nigeria could tap from South Africa’s electricity boom and expressed hope that the abducted Chibok girls would be rescued.
“We remain hopeful that your efforts would result in them being found,” he said.
He went down memory lane, recalling the enormous roles of Nigeria and South Africa including the anti-apartheid struggle, and paid tribute to the late military Head of State, Gen. Murtala Muhammadu, whose address, he said, gingered continental support and resistance to apartheid in the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1976.
He added: “In 2015, Nigerians rose and peacefully facilitated a democratic change of government.
You have charted the way the entire continent needs to follow.”
In his opening remarks, Saraki described Zuma’s visit as unique, saying it was similar to US President Bill Clinton’s visit to Nigeria in 2000.
“Your visit today is symbolic. This will be the first time in the life of this Eighth National Assembly that we will be honouring a visiting president in a joint session of the National Assembly. It is therefore befitting that this honour goes to you Mr. President and by extension the people of South Africa.
“This is a rare gesture, last invested on the former President of the United States of America, President Bill Clinton, in August 2000. It is another demonstration of our friendship, solidarity and deep affection for the people of South Africa.
“Your visit today speaks volumes on how much your government and the great people of South Africa value and cherish the fledging bilateral relationship Nigeria has with South Africa. It is a testament to our collective aspiration and recognition that we must come together, act together, and grow together to forge a new African reawakening, built on our people, democracy and the rule of law,” he said.
In the closing speech, Dogara tactically drew Zuma’s attention to South Africans’ xenophobia and their disdain for Nigerians, saying if Nigeria had been beneficial to the country, it should also translate to a good relationship among citizens of the two countries.
“South Africa has a large population of Nigerians living and contributing their quota to its development. We, as representatives of the people, seek that this brotherhood between our leaders translates to good relations between citizens of both countries and it is only then that both countries can speak of true integration of our peoples in the interest of our continent,” he said.