By Ahamefula Ogbu
As in the era of WikiLeaks, the world has once again been rattled by revelations about leaked information on secret accounts and other holdings of influential people around the globe.
The Panama papers are documents that were leaked by consortium of investigators across continents, after they hacked the database of shell companies that were lodged in an enforcer’s records.
In this kind of issue, it is usually predictable to find Nigeria on the list. It was, therefore, not surprising when, within days of the leakage, some serving public officers, and other retired ones, as well as oil moguls from Nigeria were named among those on the list.
Facilitator of the hidden interests and companies for Nigerians and other world leaders in British Virgin Island, as shown by the leaked database of Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm, has brought grey hairs to some Nigerian public officers and has elicited denials and staccato statements from others.
Interestingly, lawyers who spoke to THISDAY on the issue were in agreement on the central issues of the leaked papers, though with different angles of explanation.
While Chief Abiodun Owonikoko, SAN, a Lagos-based Lawyer agreed with Mr. Onuoha Kalu, an Abuja-based lawyer on the fundamental that there was no law banning the operation of an offshore company in a tax haven, they however pointed out that it would become an issue if a political or public office holder was involved.
Owonikoko said that, “There is no law banning a public officer from being a shareholder in a foreign company but the officer has to declare his interest fully in it. This is because he pays tax from his salary under the Pay As You Earn PAYE while the shareholding in foreign company also brings in dividends in hard currency which has to be paid into a foreign account that the officer is forbidden from operating.
To him, Iceland’s Prime Minister, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, who has already resigned, because he was named in the leaked papers, may have done so out of moral burden and not necessarily for fouling any law unless there were other facts available to him to have prompted that. In Nigeria, however, resigning from ones position based on such leaks is rare.
Kalu, who sees Nigeria as a “tax haven or sorts” since the country was not strict on ensuring filing of tax returns yearly, submitted that while having shares in offshore companies in tax haven was not an issue, lack of full disclosure on interests in such havens could pose a legal problem.
How it affects those named
Ibori: Allegedly working through a Swiss asset management firm, Clamorgan S.A. in Geneva, Ibori established several offshore companies, including Stanhope Investments Limited, Julex Foundation and The Hopes Trust, enlisting himself, his wife and daughters as beneficiaries. Ibori allegedly cooked transactions and even tried to obtain loans using some of the shell companies. He was later stopped and tried, before what appeared like a failed plea bargain landed him in jail in the United Kingdom. Most of the assets linked to him have relations and children as holders of interest in the companies. He was a governor and political office holder; so if it is proved that he had interests in such offshore companies without declaring them in his asset declarations, he may still face the law since time does not run against federal offences. His could be failure to fully declare his assets, as well as tax evasion.
T.Y. Danjuma: The retired general and former Defence Minister was named in Panama papers as a user of offshore companies. The Mossac Fonseca files exposed his interest in Eastcoast Investments Inc, allegedly incorporated in Nassau, in the Bahamas. An online medium, Premium Times reported that aside Danjuma running such shell interests, he was fingered among global personalities found to maintain secret accounts, operated with codes, with the Swiss branch of banking giant, HSBC. “He was linked to HSBC account 15731CD, which was opened in 1993 and closed in 2001,” the medium said. If he was earning dividends and profits from such companies and did not pay his taxes accruing from them, he may have fouled tax laws and may be charged. Also, if such foreign accounts were being run when he was still in the Army or as minister, then it may mean trouble for the big fish.
Mark: No fewer than eight companies were reportedly linked to David Mark and they are: Sikera Overseas S.A, Colsan Enterprises Limited, Goldwin Transworld Limited, Hartland Estates Limited, Marlin Holdings Limited, Medley Holdings Limited, Quetta Properties Limited, and Centenary Holdings Limited. However, Section 6 (b) of the Code of Conduct Act provides that a public office holder shall not, “except where he is not employed on full-time basis, engage or participate in the management or running of any private business, profession or trade. If the companies linked to him were not declared in his asset declaration form, which requires that interests of your agents, nominees and trustees must be disclosed, he may be put in the dock for false asset declaration while failure to pay taxes from such companies may earn him another tax evasion or avoidance charges, depending on the results of the investigations. He has already denied complicity in running the shell companies, insisting that he had looked through the document without seeing anything linked to him and has even threatened legal action.
Dangote and Dantata: Dangote is reported to be one of the most prominent clients of Mossack Fonseca, with 13 Shell Companies registered by the firm directly linked to persons and companies connected to the billionaire and his allies. Dangote and Sayyu Dantata, the founder of MRS Holdings, which bought Chevron-Texaco’s with equal shares of 12,500 each from OVLAS S.A, a Shell Company registered in Seycheles, a well-known tax haven used by businessmen and politicians and celebrities. On the same date also, a company they both own as at 2003, MRS Oil and Gas Co. Limited, bought 25,000 shares from OVLAS S.A. If the law can get at people of Dangote’s stature in Nigeria, then issues of tax evasion might be pressed against him, aside from the law looking at the manner of takeover of companies, whether they comply with extant provisions.