Bharti/MTN

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Plenty of suitors have come calling on MTN, but all have hung up. Now the South African mobile operator is back in play. Indian billionaire Sunil Bharti Mittal’s Bharti Airtel, which walked away from discussions almost exactly a year ago, is again talking up the prospects of an emerging market telecoms powerhouse. This time, combining the two would create a mobile telecoms operator with 200m subscribers and sales of over $20bn.

To avoid another broken connection, Bharti is tiptoeing carefully round South African nationalist sensitivities – concerns about foreign ownership of a national champion figured prominently in the snagged talks last time round. This time, the Indian operator, which has a bigger market capitalisation than MTN but a similar number of subscribers, would end up with 49 per cent of the South African operator. MTN, meantime, would wind up with just 25 per cent of Bharti after a complex cash-and-shares transaction – still hardly a merger of equals.

Bharti’s offer looks generous, valuing MTN at about 160 rand per share – a 35 per cent premium over MTN’s Friday close. In return, Bharti would gain a big piece – though not yet control – of a company well-positioned in one of the mobile industry’s last great untapped markets while MTN shareholders would benefit from exposure to India.

Still, the deal, with its convoluted cross-shareholdings, is clearly a halfway house. Both companies are explicit about wanting to consummate a full merger eventually. Political considerations would seem to preclude that for now, even with new governments in both countries. Mr Mittal’s best hope of conquering the southern hemisphere is that continued growth under the more limited partnership now under discussion will demonstrate to politicians the benefits of deeper integration, clearing the way for a full merger down the line.

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