By Tabia Princewill
Quite some confusion surrounds the “Panama Papers”, the information released by an international consortium of investigative journalists, as it concerns Nigerian public office holders and businessmen. To simplify, it has emerged that the law firm, Mossack Fonseca, helped wealthy individuals and corporations create accounts in Panama, a tax haven previously blacklisted by a number of Western countries for its opaque financial dealings.
Many might claim otherwise, due to the negative perception associated with tax evasion, but the only apparent reason for a wealthy, high profile entity to domicile its accounts in a tax haven is to avoid paying taxes, which in today’s world of crippling poverty, inequality and scarcely funded public services, poses a moral issue as well as a criminal one. Tax evasion is recognised as a crime in most countries, precisely because it deprives a country of revenue and places an unfair burden on the rest of society.
To us in Nigeria, the idea of a social contract between government and citizens is unfamiliar. Many of us don’t pay taxes, our country has always relied on its oil wealth to fund its expenses and we didn’t get satisfactory public services in the first place (quality education, healthcare, roads, etc.), so paying taxes has, for the most part, been a non-issue for Nigerians who believe, in a society regimented by “chop-make-I-chop” that public goods are an entitlement and don’t require any civic commitment in return.
Politically linked names
It is therefore no surprise that we are not all scandalised by the number of Nigerian, politically linked names included in the #PanamaPapers. No taxes, no representation, Americans say. Yet, we continuously fail to see the correlation between bad governance and our own lack of interest in our civic duties, which explains our inability to hold past governments to account.
The investigation revealed that Iceland’s Prime Minister, Gunnlaugsson was in breach of his country’s parliamentary ethics and rules: non-disclosure of his 50% ownership of a company called Wintris Inc. domiciled in Panama led to calls for his resignation, even after he claimed the company was owned by his wife. Less than 24 hours later he was forced to resign due to mounting pressure. Yet, Senate President Bukola Saraki remains, further proving there are two standards of behaviour: the decency and respect for public office the rest of the world holds dear and then the Nigerian witch-hunt ideal. Gunnlaugsson was perhaps unlucky; he had no Fayose or Olisa Metuh to sound the clarion call of victimhood.
Offshore accounts often fund crime, terrorism and aid corruption. But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of such accounts are the use of shell companies where ownership is virtually anonymous, meaning that any company can be set up as a front to hold assets and transfer money, all without its real ownership being known to regulators who cannot tell which financial flows are legal or illicit. The US has paid particular attention to tax havens in recent years, compelling citizens to divulge their offshore holdings, which culminated in over $8 billion in taxes accruing to the Federal Government. As for politicians who own offshore accounts, they make sure they can justify this by staying within the confines of tax avoidance (which is legal) and not tax evasion (which is not, although both are commonly used interchangeably).
Tax avoidance, is defined as legal steps taken to minimize one’s tax bill by for example, keeping money in a category of savings account which doesn’t incur income tax (also a way to encourage citizens to save which has its own economic benefits). Tax evasion, on the other hand, concerns mainly corporations and high net-worth individuals who pay lawyers and accountants to forcibly exploit legal loopholes, such as hiding taxable assets by claiming they are owned by an offshore company, which costs the state millions. The truth is that globally, laws ensuring the rich pay taxes are both poorly designed and implemented. But with the level of public outcry regarding the impression of special rules and consideration for the rich, the impervious nature of the world’s financial system is under scrutiny and Nigeria is finally able to take its place at the table.
The US Treasury Department has new “customer due diligence” rules, which requirebanks for example to identify the real owners of all companies using their services and therefore to know without a doubt who owns (and more importantly profits) from said companies. This applies to shell companies and previously anonymous transactions.
For too long, the Western world has been a safe haven for the corrupt dealings of Nigerian politicians, many of whom allegedly visited the United States, particularly in the 80s and 90s under aliases and were involved in all manner of illicit trades. A well established network of corruption and smuggling of Nigerian assets abroad flourishes to this day, resulting in lost possibilities and opportunities for millions of Nigerians, the victims of corruption and its corollary, a lack of development.
We should be more concerned about the Nigerians listed in the #PanamaPapers. Where does this money come from? A good number of businessmen in this country merely serve as fronts for political actors. With this background, perhaps Nigerians will understand our President’s travels a bit better.
By attending an anti-corruption conference in London this week and pushing for further transparency and disclosure of company ownership information, both at home and abroad, he will help strengthen the capability of local and international law to deal decisively with those criminals who use stolen public funds to buy homes abroad while sponsoring chaos in Nigeria, such as terrorism or the willful sabotage of our army’s ability to defend us.
Enablers of corruption
Our politicians exploit the gaps in Western tax rules, which enable them to hide their loot. At this conference in London, such enablers of corruption, both locally and internationally, will be addressed. A strange piece of news went virtually uncommented recently which buttresses the need for such international financial regulation and cooperation.
During the Tiwa Savage and Tee Billz marital drama, it was alleged by some that he fraudulently obtained N45 million from IBB’s niece, routed through Etisalat. No one seems to have asked what the connection is between IBB’s niece (or rather, IBB himself) and Etisalat. Who then are the real owners of Nigeria’s telecoms?
It is no wonder Nigeria has become a breeding ground for insecurity and a cesspool of corruption, if wealth and financial flows continue to be so opaque. With Buhari we finally have a leader willing to make murky waters clear again.
Muslim born son of a Pakistani bus driver elected London’s mayor: what a headline. The world continues to taunt us with tolerance, with greatness and civilization while we respond with bigotry and greed.
The first mayor of Enugu was a Fulani man, lest we forget and this had nothing to do with a “Northern agenda”. May we return to a time where ethnicity and identity didn’t play a deciding role in politics. May we join the rest of the world in broadmindedness, progress, and dare I say, change.
Ambassador Aminu Wali
The Minister of Foreign Affairs under the past dispensation says he did receive N950 million to pay party agents during the past elections. The declaration has one hesitating between qualifying it as a mind-boggling revelation or simply arrogantly nonchalant.
He was quoted as saying: “I immediately disbursed it according to the procedure of our party”. What procedure legitimises using public funds for private affairs? It is all so clear now. Year in year out, Nigerians wallow in poverty and despair. No wonder, if huge sums meant to develop them are routinely used to “conduct” elections, a euphemism for something much worse. Prof. Sagay has confirmed the special courts: may we never see such wasteful, selfish, horrors again.