* MTN’s 2016 earnings hit by $1.1 bln Nigeria fine
* Firm facing another probe by Nigerian lawmakers
* Declares dividend despite loss, shares up 10 pct
* Expects subscribers to increase by 8.3 mln in 2017 (Adds dividend, subscriber forecast, shares, trader comment)
By Tiisetso Motsoeneng
JOHANNESBURG, March 2 (Reuters) - Africa’s biggest mobile phone operator MTN Group swung to its first annual loss in two decades on Thursday, hit by a regulatory fine in Nigeria and unfavourable currency moves but its shares soared after it kept a dividend.
MTN agreed to pay a fine of 330 billion naira ($1.1 billion), reduced from $5.2 billion, in June last year after a prolonged legal battle to end a dispute in Nigeria over missing a deadline to cut off unregistered SIM cards.
The fine by Nigeria, MTN’s most lucrative but increasingly problematic market, wiped 10.5 billion rand ($768 million) - 500 cents per share - from the firms 2016 headline earnings, South Africa’s main measure of profit.
But MTN shares rose nearly 10 percent after Africa’s largest mobile network operator said it would pay a total dividend of 700 cents a share despite the loss, compared with 1,310 in 2015.
MTN also said it expects to keep it at 700 cents in 2017.
“They indicated that they will sustain a dividend of 700 cents, which investors see as a positive,” Avior Capital Markets trader Mark Hodgson told Reuters.
MTN said its headline loss came in at 1.4 billion rand ($108 million), or 77 cents per share last year, with headline earnings of 13.6 billion rand, or 746 cents per share, in 2015.
MTN woes in Africa’s most populous nation and biggest economy still persist, with the company facing an investigation by Nigerian lawmakers for allegedly illegally repatriating $14 billion between 2006 and 2016.
MTN has denied any wrongdoing.
Founded with Pretoria’s help after the end of white rule in 1994, MTN is seen as one of post-apartheid South Africa’s biggest commercial successes but clashes with regulators in recent years have exposed governance issues and hobbled growth.
MTN, which has operations in Iran, said it expects to add 8.3 million new users in the 2017 financial year, a document handed out at its results presentation showed.
The firm said its total subscribers increased by 3.3 percent or 7.7 million to 240 million in the year to end-December. ($1 = 13.0003 rand) (Additional reporting by TJ Strydom; Editing by James Macharia/Keith Weir)