A Cameroon court has ordered banks used by South Africa’s MTN Group to transfer its funds into escrow over a dispute the telecommunications operator says it has nothing to do with, marking an escalation of a conflict that had already frozen MTN’s access to local accounts.
The order, dated 9 June, relates to a dispute between South Africa’s First National Bank and Cameroonian businessman Ahmadou Baba Danpullo, MTN said in an e-mailed response to questions.
“It is utterly astounding that MTN is being brought into this issue,” MTN’s chief of sustainability and corporate affairs, Nompilo Morafo, said. “We have pursued all legal channels to resolve this bizarre situation in which we find ourselves caught up, but to no avail.”
African telecoms carriers have been hit with an increasing number of legal, regulatory and tax disputes, curbing investor appetite on the continent at a time when major capital outlays are needed to keep up with growing demand. MTN in January got a US$722-million tax bill from Ghana that was later scrapped, while the Democratic Republic of Congo last year seized the passports of executives at carriers including Orange and Vodacom Group over a controversial tax law.
MTN Cameroon said moving the money to an escrow account is unnecessary as it has already been frozen for 10 months due to the dispute, adding the issue “poses a serious risk to the continuation of our business”.
MTN is Africa’s largest mobile operator and has about 12 million clients in Cameroon, representing more than half of the local market. It says it has been targeted in the dispute because South Africa’s national pension fund, the Public Investment Corp, is a shareholder in both First National Bank and MTN.
The pension fund is owned by the South African government and has R2.5-trillion in assets under management. It owns about 17% of MTN on a group level. Danpullo, First National Bank and the Cameroon government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Danpullo, a Cameroonian with investments in real estate, telecoms and other industries, is pursuing a claim of Cfr259-billion (R7.8-billion) related to a dispute with First National Bank. Last year, he began to target other South African companies operating in Cameroon in an attempt to receive the money, including MTN and a division of food producer Tiger Brands.
South Africa’s foreign ministry expressed concern over the order. “Unfortunately, these latest developments will challenge the extent and appetite for investments into Cameroon,” the ministry said in a statement on Tuesday. — Loni Prinsloo and S’thembile Cele, (c) 2023 Bloomberg LP