MTN has become an easy target for revenue raising and point-scoring by authorities who calculate that many Nigerians will support vilification of the company. Many in Nigeria, even those who willingly use MTN’s services, resent its success, holding on to a view that they are being exploited by foreigners and that their money is being repatriated to SA, a country deemed to be generally unfriendly to Nigerians. This does not reflect the real picture though. MTN has re-invested billions of dollars into its Nigerian operation and points out that it took a chance on Nigeria at a time when most investors considered the country too high an investment risk.
Even as Buhari appears to seek private investment in Nigeria, such attacks on business have been a feature of his rule. Multinationals are a favoured target of overzealous tax collectors. With a huge number of entities unregistered for tax or unwilling to pay it, the Nigerian authorities tend to focus on the compliant to extract more money from them than they are already paying. There appears to be little attempt to steadily and sustainably build the tax base.
It is not just foreign investors that bear the brunt of the government’s depredation. Local companies see themselves as long-term victims of a hostile regulatory and tax environment. More than 700,000 firms were targeted by a new tax unit in a crackdown during the 2015-16 recession. Tax inspectors went door to door, aggressively demanding information in an attempt to raise more revenue for the depleted national fiscus.
In 2017 more than 10 Nigerian banks, such as UBA, Fidelity Bank and Access Bank, were among financial sector institutions that were fined. A similar number of banks had been fined the year before for various regulatory infractions, most of them disputed by the banks to no avail.
Analysts in Nigeria are still puzzled about what is driving the current bruising battles with the private sector. The issues are complex. Some say it is about the president reminding the electorate of the anticorruption drive that won him many votes in 2015 but has drifted of late, netting no high-profile public officials or big fish in the private sector.