Senate President Bukola Saraki and CBN Governor Godwin Emefiele have been named as tax dodgers. Let the law prevail.
What’s an offshore account or company?
The BBC defines offshore financing as “a place outside of your own nation's regulations to which companies or individuals can reroute money, assets or profits to take advantage of lower taxes”.
Essentially, celebrities, top government officials and politicians across the world set up companies in some far flung Island, by funneling money into those companies from their own countries where tax laws are a lot more stringent.
It’s basically tax evasion or avoidance, depending on how you prefer to look at it.
According to the BBC, “these jurisdictions are known as tax havens to the layman, or the more stately Offshore Financial Centres (OFCs) to the industry. They are generally stable, secretive and reliable, often small islands but not exclusively so, and can vary on how rigorously they carry out checks on wrongdoing”.
Recently, an offshore law firm called Appleby, leaked 13.4 million documents which revealed the financial dealings of corporate giants, celebrities and politicians.
This trove of documents were handed over to the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and then shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ); comprising over 100 media organisations including Nigeria’s Premium Times.
According to Premium Times, “more than 380 journalists from 96 media organisations in 67 countries pored over the gigantic data, which cover a period of nearly 70 years, from 1950 to 2016”.
The leaked 1.4 terabyte data have been dubbed ‘Paradise Papers’.
Senate President Bukola Saraki’s name prominently appeared in the Paradise Papers alongside those of current Central Bank Governor Godwin Emefiele and businessman Jim Ovia.
The Paradise Papers are coming two years after a similar investigation by the ICIJ called the Panama Papers.
Saraki’s name prominently featured in the Panama Papers as well.
The senate president is being accused of setting up shell companies in tax havens in a bid to evade taxes, launder money or conceal assets.
These are grave allegations which should be treated as such.
According to the latest leaks, Saraki set up Tenia Limited in the Cayman Islands in 2001. He ran the company as its Director until 2015, according to the Paradise Papers.
Tenia wasn’t listed in Saraki’s asset declaration form when he emerged Governor of Kwara in 2003; a clear violation of the nation’s laws.
Saraki didn’t list Tenia in his asset declaration forms of 2007 when he was re-elected Governor and in 2011 when he was elected senator.
The Paradise Papers also detail that CBN Governor Emefiele was a shareholder in at least three shell companies including Vitesse Asset Management SA, incorporated in Switzerland in 2007; Oviation Asset Management Limited, a Bermuda company established in 2009; and Oviation Limited, an Isle of Man company incorporated in 2012.
The Papers say Emefiele was still on the board of one of these companies up until July 2017—while still serving as CBN Governor. That is a huge case of conflict of interest.
Emefiele co-owned the companies with Zenith Bank Chairman Jim Ovia.
Recall that Emefiele was MD of Zenith Bank until he was announced CBN Governor on June 3, 2014.
Saraki, Emefiele and Ovia have denied that they operated offshore companies or kept offshore accounts.
In a statement, Saraki said he has violated no law:
“We will like to make it known that Dr. Saraki violated no law and did nothing illegal in the course of registering the company under reference, Tenia Limited, and afterwards. As we had earlier explained when the issue was first brought into public view, the company in question, Tenia Limited, was incorporated in 2001, long before Dr. Saraki ventured into politics and was elected into public office.
“The company from incorporation to date had never been used for any transaction. It held no asset. It had no bank account to the best of the knowledge of Dr. Saraki. Even if it did, the Senate President was not a signatory to such account.
“This is just a paper company and therefore could not have been used to hide any asset. The company, unlike the other ones investigated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), had been a dormant entity from creation such that when in late 2015, its existence was raised with the Senate President, he could not readily recollect that there was such a company linked to him.
“He then immediately directed that the company be struck off.
"For the umpteenth time, we will reiterate the fact that the Senate President has fully complied with the law on assets declaration, even as it concerns the company under reference”.
But their denials shouldn’t be enough to keep law enforcement and anti-graft agencies off their backs and coat-tails.
The federal government should deploy all the arsenal at its disposal to finding out if Saraki, Emefiele, Ovia and other such wealthy public officers in Nigeria who keep offshore accounts, violated any known laws by maintaining those accounts at the expense of their own country.
For if these offshore monies weren’t declared by these individuals before tax, it will amount to a criminal offence for which they can be charged before courts of competent jurisdictions and tried in accordance with the laws of the land.
In extreme scenarios, Emefiele and Saraki could both lose their jobs or be pressured to step down from their public roles if found or proven guilty.