MTN's head office in Johannesburg. Picture: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
MTN's head office in Johannesburg. Picture: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
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Five months after he was ordered to leave the country, MTN’s CEO for Benin has still not been able to return amid a dispute over frequency fees.

The mobile operator’s country head, Stephen Blewett, was told to leave Benin in November 2017 because he had engaged in "activities detrimental to security and public order", the state said. Nearly half a year later, he remains, in effect, in exile.

The expulsion came as MTN was threatened with sanctions over outstanding fees, which it deemed to be excessive.

Analysts agree, saying the government’s request for $213m worth of frequency fees for 2016 and 2017 was exorbitant, since that amounts to nearly three-times MTN’s annual earnings in the country.

"We continue to have positive engagements with the government of Benin," an MTN spokesperson told Business Day, confirming that Blewett "remains outside of Benin".

"As our discussions with the relevant authorities are ongoing, it would not be appropriate to speculate on any possible outcomes of those discussions."

MTN had 4.4-million subscribers in Benin at the end of 2017, up from 4.1-million a year before. However, revenues from the country declined 6.9% in constant currency terms to R3.5bn in 2017 and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation fell 29.1% to R655m.

The company has a market share of just below 50% in the country and MTN’s most recent results show that it continued to add sites through 2017.

Analysts have said MTN should take a firm stance against the Benin government so it is not seen as an easy source of revenues for other states.

"We are proud of our association with the people of Benin and we wish to continue playing an active role in the further development of Benin and its people, through the provision of connectivity," the MTN spokesperson said.

MTN chief financial officer Ralph Mupita said in March the group was "fighting to stay" in Benin, though he intimated that it would have to walk away if authorities there did not budge on their lofty demands.