An appeals court in Lagos has ruled that Econet Wireless International remains a shareholder in Airtel Nigeria, dealing a blow to the mobile operator’s majority owner Bharti Airtel, which may have to pay Econet USD3 billion in compensation. According to the Premium Times, the court said Bharti Airtel failed in its bid to get the ruling of a lower court on the disposal of some shares the telecom firm set aside.
The Indian telecoms operator, which is expected to lodge an appeal with the country’s Supreme Court, inherited the ongoing legal case as part of its USD9 billion acquisition of Zain’s Africa operations in June 2010, including 65% of Zain Nigeria (since rebranded Airtel Nigeria).
Econet was a founding shareholder in Airtel Nigeria when the cellco was established as Econet Wireless Nigeria (EWN) in 2001, and claims its 5% stake was cancelled following a takeover by Vodacom of South Africa in 2003. EWN was subsequently renamed Vee Networks, but Vodacom pulled out of its contract soon after, citing ‘irregularities’ in the payment of the brokerage fees. Celtel International, a division of Kuwaiti firm Zain, then purchased 65% of the company in May 2006, a move Econet Wireless said violated its pre-emption rights. Then, in 2009 Econet Wireless started moves to block the sale of Zain’s interests in Nigeria to Bharti Airtel until a ruling on the dispute over ownership of the company was issued, but the takeover by the Indian firm was concluded in June 2010. In 2012 an international tribunal ordered Bharti to pay compensation to Econet Wireless, after the Federal High Court of Nigeria reinstated Econet’s 5% shareholding in Airtel Nigeria, claiming that the stake was unfairly cancelled, thus rendering any decision made since then without Econet null and void.
In its judgement, the Lagos High Court found that the international tribunal had been correctly constituted, had jurisdiction and had acted correctly on all accounts. Econet Wireless then submitted a claim to the tribunal for equitable compensation and damages of USD3.1 billion.