Rachel Etter-Phoya ■ Africa’s battle against financial secrecy: Financial Secrecy Index
How are Switzerland, the United States, and the Caymans working against African efforts to stem the tide of illicit financial flows? They’re among the worst offenders in the Tax Justice Network’s 2018 Financial Secrecy Index.
The index was launched at the end of January 2018 and weights a country’s secrecy score against its global share of financial services. This means that countries that top the rankings have a far higher risk for illicit financial flows running through their systems than countries that may have a higher level of secrecy, but have much smaller-scale financial services. 20 key indicators are used to assess secrecy levels, including banking and tax court secrecy, country-by-country reporting compliance, ownership disclosure rules, and tax administration capacity.
The problem for Africa
Africa remains a net creditor to the world because of illicit financial flows. These flows include money from criminal activity and corruption, tax evasion, avoidance and planning, as well as hidden wealth. So-called foreign aid is dwarfed by the amounts that are leaving the continent. Sub-Saharan African countries lost over USD 1 trillion in capital flight between the 1970s and 2010; external debt was less than one-fifth of this. Financial secrecy is the enabler.
The Paradise Papers was a disturbing reminder of the scale of the problem. 13.4 million documents were leaked from Appleby, a leading British offshore law firm, and Asiaciti, a family-owned trust company, which were investigated by over 90 media partners with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
We learned that Namibians lost potential tax revenues from its fishery resources through a complex corporate arrangement that exploited a double tax treaty signed with Mauritius. Angolans’ sovereign wealth fund was tapped into by a financier who incorporated companies in secrecy jurisdictions for investment projects in which he had a stake. And mining giant Glencore’s nefarious practices in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Burkina Faso have also likely reduced the revenue these governments have to spend on vital public services.
South Africa has also had its fair share of challenges with secrecy jurisdictions. The notorious Gupta family along with their politically-exposed associates have been able to hide behind opaque companies to gain questionable access to government contracts. For example, the family is reported to have used shell companies in the United Arab Emirates to move ‘the dubious proceeds of state tenders in South Africa to their collection of shell companies in and around Dubai’. The United Arab Emirates is ranked number nine in the Financial Secrecy Index 2018, with an ‘”ask-no-questions, see-no-evil” approach to commercial transactions, financial regulation and crimes’.
African secrecy jurisdictions on the rise
Financial secrecy has also reared its ugly head on the continent itself. Nine African countries are included in this year’s Financial Secrecy Index:
Kenya found itself in the top 30 countries worldwide with a very high secrecy score (80 out of 100). This may not come as a surprise. The country’s Vision 2030 includes the establishment of the Nairobi International Financial Centre as one of its commitments. Legislation entered into force in September last year to encourage foreign direct investment to be channelled through the East African nation to other countries in the region. Kenya has adopted a model similar to the City of London (the UK having experienced the Finance Curse phenomenon as a result) and continues to increase its network of double tax agreements.
Double tax agreements aim to prevent income being taxed twice. Yet a number of associated risks undermine the collection of tax. The treaties restrict the rights of states to tax foreign investors and owned companies and often do not include adequate automatic exchange of information provisions. Multinationals and sometimes domestic companies may set up an entity in an intermediary country, even when they have no substantive economic activities, to exploit tax treaties in place. This ‘treaty shopping’ enables companies and individuals to pay lower taxes in conduit countries and avoid taxes all together in the countries where activities are taking place.
However, with just 15 tax treaties in force, Kenya has some way to go if it is to compete with one of Africa’s oldest secrecy jurisdictions, Mauritius. In a bid to reduce its reliance on sugar back in the 1970s, this island nation started offering preferential tax terms and exemptions to foreign investors, and similar ones exist today. The country has entered double tax agreements with 43 nations, 16 of which are with African states. Zero-percent capital gains tax has lured many companies to set up shop – with no genuine economic activity – on the island, significantly reducing their tax burden at the expense of other countries, often not paying capital gains tax anywhere. South Africa and India have successfully renegotiated their agreements with Mauritius to be able to collect capital gains and withholding tax. Other African nations, including Lesotho and Zambia, are following suit and renegotiating treaties.
Ghana toyed with setting up an International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) and went as far as granting Barclays Bank Ghana Limited an offshore banking licence in the early 2000s although President John Atta Mills revoked the licence in 2011 to avoid OECD blacklisting. Worringly, it appears the country has plans to revive the IFSC.
Much more can be said about secrecy on the continent. We have prepared narrative reports for eight of the nine African countries included in the Index. Take a look here. Our partner Tax Justice Network Africa also has a blog series on financial secrecy. Part 1 is available here.
Some changes have been made to the global infrastructure to tackle secrecy since TJN launched the first Index in 2009. For example, the OECD is mandated by the G20 to roll out the automatic exchange of information on taxation, but coverage is patchy and some countries, particularly African ones, are missing from the arrangement.
Reform is needed now. Besides individual countries addressing laws and regulations to improve transparency, TJN has identified three major policy responses considering the latest Financial Secrecy Index:
- Take counter-measures against tax haven USA: the USA ranks second in the Index this year because it has not improved transparency while other countries have acted. The global scale of its financial services has also increased. The USA needs to make it illegal to establish anonymous companies within its borders and it must comply with the standard for automatic exchange of tax information. We have a policy proposal for how to incentive the USA, here.
- Adopt the Tax Justice Network’s ABCs of tax transparency: all countries must be included in the Automatic exchange of information and aggregate statistics published, all entities must disclose their Beneficial owners and data should be online, free and in open data format for companies, trusts and foundations, and all multinational companies must comply with public Country-by-country reporting.
- Introduce a UN global convention on tax transparency: ambitious standards should be set, with the ABCs of tax transparency at a minimum, through a global, inclusive process that outlines meaningful sanctions for non-cooperation.
Media coverage: Africa and the Financial Secrecy Index, 2018
Switzerland, US top global 2018 Financial Secrecy Index, Ghana Business News (Ghana)
Ghana ranks 95 in global financial secrecy index, Business Ghana (Ghana)
Kenya tops illicit financial activities in Africa – report, The Star (Kenya)
Maurice 49e pays le plus secret du monde mais aussi le 39e le plus libre, ION News (Mauritius)
Paradis fiscaux: Un nouveau classement épingle dans sa liste noire la Suisse et les États-Unis, Huffpost Maroc (Morocco)
Opacité financière: Et les plus mauvais élèves sont…, L’Economiste.com (Morocco)
Nigeria is losing money to Illicit Financial Flows, Stears Business (Nigeria)
Anxiety over Abacha loot, others recovery as US, Switzerland lead in 2018 FS Index, Business Hilights (Nigeria)
SA gets lowest score in Africa on global secrecy index, Fin24 (South Africa)
South Africa ranking in global tax secrecy index, BusinessTech (South Africa)
Gambie: cette place forte de la non-transparence financière, Le Point Afrique