Panama Papers: Eminent Nigerians in another corruption cesspool

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Like the Halliburton and Siemens scandals, some Nigerians were named in the Panama Papers leak. But some Nigerians already doubt that such persons will be investigated based on past events.

It now seems certain for Nigerians to make any list of persons connected to an international scandal and the leaked Panama Papers appear to have again confirmed it.

This perhaps explains why many Nigerians were not surprised to hear the names of some of their compatriots being connected to the latest scandal. After all, in the past, there have been Halliburton, Siemens and WikiLeaks scandals, all with global outlooks.

The Panama Papers is a leakage of sensitive documents detailing how political world leaders, celebrities, athletes, FIFA officials and so on, have hidden money using anonymous shell corporations across the world.

The 11.5 million documents, held by Panama-based Mossack Fonseca, were released to Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper, and an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The Panamanian law firm, regarded as one of the world’s most secretive companies, according to the documents, has helped clients launder money, dodge sanctions and evade tax.

It was revealed in 2.6 terabytes of data – more than what was leaked by WikiLeaks in 2010- and shared with journalists in the documents that 140 offshore firms are connected to politicians or public officials and their families.

In all, 14,000 clients used Fonseca while 214,000 companies incorporated by Fonseca had their details leaked to journalists.

The British Virgin Islands was said to have been home to half of the companies exposed while Hong Kong had the most affiliated banks, law firms and middlemen.

Senate President, Bukola Saraki; former Senate President, David Mark; a former Delta State Governor, James Ibori; a former Army chief and Minister of Defence, Gen. Theophilus Danjuma (retd.); Africa’s richest man, Alhaji Aliko Dangote; and his cousin, Sayu Dantata, are the prominent Nigerians named to have links with the offshore assets revealed in the Panama Papers.

Already, pressure is building on the Federal Government and anti-graft agencies to investigate Nigerians fingered in the scandal with the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, Transition Monitoring Group and human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), seemingly leading the pack. Calling for the prosecution of the public officers found to be holding foreign accounts and shell companies in Panama, Falana had told The PUNCH that “public officers have always been barred by the Code of Conduct Bureau and Code of Conduct Tribunal Act from operating foreign accounts in any manner whatsoever.”

“To that extent, former and serving public officers whose accounts have been published in the Panama Papers are liable to be prosecuted if they had failed to declare them in their asset declaration forms,” he had added.

“Secondly, the onus is on them to prove that any funds in such accounts emanated from their legitimate income.”

Likewise, SERAP had also called for investigation into the matter but taking it a notch higher by giving the Code of Conduct Bureau a 14-day ultimatum to commence the proceedings.

The organisation had warned in a statement made available to Saturday PUNCH that if no action was taken on the matter within the period, it would be forced to “take all appropriate legal actions to compel the Bureau to effectively discharge its constitutional and statutory mandates in this instance.”

Addressing the CCB Chairman, Mr. Sam Saba, the group had urged him to use his “good offices and leadership to urgently investigate current and immediate past high-ranking public officers named in the Panama Papers and others that are maintaining and operating or have maintained and operated foreign accounts in other safe havens and secrecy jurisdictions, and to where appropriate, refer such officers to the Code of Conduct Tribunal for prosecution.”

However, some analysts have expressed doubts about government’s will to pursue the matter further and they have a rich history of antecedents to back their arguments.

There is the $182m (N36.4bn) Halliburton scandal involving the alleged bribing of some Nigerians by the company to win contracts in the country.  While their accomplices in the US and Europe were prosecuted, fined and jailed, no one has been made to face the music in Nigeria.

The Halliburton Bribery Scandal dates back to 1994 when the Nigerian government launched a plan to build the Bonny Island Natural Liquefied Gas Project.

The Halliburton scandal allegedly involves a number of prominent Nigerians, including former military Heads of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (retd.), Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar (retd.), and Senator Jubril Aminu, who were accused of collecting bribes to award multi-million dollar contracts to the two foreign companies.

For the Siemens scandal, the German equipment manufacturer, also allegedly bribed Nigerian officials in return for preferential award of contracts to supply and manufacture equipment for the Nigerian liquefied natural gas project.

Consequently, executives of Siemens were tried, indicted, and convicted in Germany for their roles in the scandal, and the company was made to pay hefty fines to the German government. It also paid a fine to the Nigerian government and named the Nigerians it had paid the bribes. But sadly, nothing became of the cases beyond government’s repeated promises to take appropriate steps to prosecute those indicted persons.

In the view of the Chairman of CACOL, Mr. Debo Adeniran, the Federal Government has been taking the Panama Papers “too lightly” when compared to other countries.

“It seems that our government is not taking the issue seriously as to commence investigation on the expose with a view to punishing any public official that is found guilty,” he told our correspondent.

Adeniran noted how the same scandal had forced Iceland’s Prime Minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, to step down from his position.

The leak showed that Gunnlaugsson owned an offshore company with his wife which he failed to declare when he entered parliament, leading to accusations that he had concealed millions of dollars worth of family assets.

Although, Gunnlaugsson denied any wrongdoing, saying he had sold the shares to his wife, thousands of people continued to protest outside the parliament building, leading to his eventual resignation.

Like Gunnlaugsson, Saraki had also denied any wrongdoing, equally saying the assets allegedly linked to him by the Panama Papers belonged to his wife’s family.

However, subsequent reports in the news have allegedly claimed that Saraki’s wife, Toyin, was a business front for her husband.

“It is against the background that the Nigerian government’s attitude to the revelations from the Panama Papers leaks becomes worrisome, as its attitude has been apparently lackadaisical and indifferent.” Adeniran said.

“In other places, heads have rolled over the Panama Papers leaks. In Iceland, the Prime Minister was forced to resign from office following protests by the people.

“It is a shame that the Senate President, who is also the Chairman of the National Assembly, is still presiding over the lawmaking process of Nigeria because there is nothing that comes out of the chambers now that will not be viewed with suspicion.

“It is believed that such a National Assembly is not likely to make any law that will make it easy for anti-graft agencies to punish people found guilty of corruption. Look at the way the National Assembly has been blamed for the handling of the Appropriation Bill. Nobody believes that anything good can come out of the National Assembly without an iota of corruption.

“The whole issue is an embarrassment to all of us as Nigerians. This is why CACOL is saying that the government has not done enough to safeguard our national integrity by ensuring that all these alleged criminals are thoroughly investigated with due diligence and those found wanting are adequately punished and not given slaps on the wrists as usual.

“Our government must also ensure that Ibori is repatriated to Nigeria, after serving his term in the UK prison, to answer for all the charges against him and his involvement in the Panama Papers scandal.”

According to Adeniran, CACOL will continue to mount pressure on the government to prosecute those named in the Panama Papers scandal and revisit the past international scams involving Nigerian citizens even in spite of its perceived disinterestedness in the matter.

He said, “Our role is to put it on record that not every Nigerian is complacent about the way the government is handling corruption cases. We can only try but we don’t have prosecutorial powers to try the suspects.

“We can only mount pressure on the government or go to court but that is where our capacity ends. As a matter of fact, the courts may even question our locus standi (the right or capacity to bring an action or to appear in a court), which has been done in the past.

“We know the law forbids any public servant from engaging in any business or professional or economic activities. They should hand over to new directors before leaving office and declare that they are no longer the directors in such companies.

“But the reason why these people put such assets in tax havens is because they do not want the home country to benefit from the proceeds of the business or because they do not want to disclose the source of the capital for the investment. So they may also be guilty of involvement in money laundering or other related offences depending on whatever is found against them.”

However, a lawyer and tax consultant, Mr. Tunde Esan, said it was wrong to conclude that everyone mentioned in the Panama Papers scandal was guilty of corruption.

According to Esan, some of them may only be guilty of “tax avoidance or tax planning, which is not criminally wrong.”

“It is just a form of tax planning to move their money to a place where they can get lower tax rates,” he told our correspondent.

“Yes, it raises moral questions but nobody has criminalised it yet. For instance, in the US, the tax rate is 39 per cent. Why would I want to put my business in a place where I know the tax rate is very high when I can move my money to Panama or British Virgin Islands, where I will pay next to nothing as tax?

“Take for instance, cigarette smoking. We can raise issues and say it is bad but it has not been criminalised in Nigeria. So it doesn’t matter how bad you feel about it, the truth is that smoking cigarettes is not a criminal offence.

“Saraki, for instance, could be guilty of nondisclosure of the assets to the CCB, but his crime cannot be that he has accounts in tax havens. They are two different things. So if Saraki had declared those assets, then he has not committed any crime.

“We need to understand the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance. Putting accounts in tax havens is a form of avoiding tax but it is not the same thing as tax evasion. Tax avoidance is the taking advantage of loopholes in tax laws; it is not a crime. But tax evasion is when you break the tax law.

“An online store that has put its server in another country, even if it is getting orders from Nigeria, is not a Nigerian company because the server is not in Nigeria. So you cannot accuse it of not paying tax in Nigeria because it is not a Nigerian company.”


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