Last year when the secret accounts in tax havens and money laundering by a number of world leaders, politicians and institutions came into the open, it left in its trail casualties, many of them politicians who had to lose their positions, because of their country’s intolerance for corruption and businesses without full disclosures. Those are countries, where the rule of law is observed. However, in Nigeria, where the law is truly an arse, and does not protect the weak against the rich and powerful, those mentioned in the Mossack Fonseca secret vaults, known as Panama Papers are sitting pretty, growing from strength to strength and seeking to break new grounds in business and politics. This happens only in Nigeria.
Based on investigations from the Panama-based offshore papers provided by the German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung and shared by the international Consortium of Investigative Journalists and over 100 other media partners including Premium Times, many Nigerians were also mentioned in the leak. Although offshore banking is allowed in law, it must be done within a country’s legal framework and one must remit taxes in respect of such transaction. Offshore banking is also said to be “the preferred method of banking for criminals, drug cartels, sketchy oligarchs, sanction dodgers and tax evaders” Prominent among those mentioned in the elaborate investigative work was Senate President Bukola Saraki and his wife; Senator David Mark, James Ibori, Gen Theophilus Danjuma, Aliko Dangote, Obi Asika, Olufela Ibidapo and Sayyu Dantata. When protesters called on him to resign over the infractions, Saraki said the assets belonged to the estate of his wife’s rich and famous family and the law did not require him to declare such assets, even though findings showed the wife, Toyin holds the stupendous offshore assets it in trust for him.
There were protests all over the world, and the then British Prime Minister, David Cameron showed remorse when he admitted and said he should have handled the scrutiny of his family tax arrangement better, even after releasing his tax returns. After the Panama Papers came the Paradise Papers, and Nigeria’s list of ignominy was updated. The joke of our nation continued as the Chairman of Zenith Bank, Jim Ovia and CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele were named among tax evaders. The duo were said to have acquired a Gulfstream for $33 million, imported it to a tax haven in Isle of Man, leased to another company, Oviation Ltd before it was leased to Zenith Bank. Mercifully, Mr Ovia did not deny it. Instead, he said Zenith Bank might have been the end user, but the bank’s fund was not used to acquire the aircraft. He also offered to pay back the tax refunds that were claimed to ‘illustrate his good faith’.
Beyond the symbolic gesture of refund by only one man in Nigeria, the politicians in the pack could not be bothered. As a matter of fact, Senate President Bukola denied culpability in his assets declaration. Elsewhere in the world, Panama Papers did consume politicians and ended their political career. For the fact that his family sheltered money offshore as revealed in the Panama Papers, Iceland Prime Minister Sigmundur Davio Gunnlaugsson had to step aside. Ditto, with the resignation of Spain’s industry minister who was scandalised by the disclosure that came with the tax haven account.
A struggling country like Pakistan has proved it is light years ahead of Nigeria when it comes to fighting corruption with the country’s Supreme Court banning Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from public office over internal tax related issues engendered by the Panama Papers. So, from France where Societe Generale used the firm to set up 979 offshore accounts to Salvador, Azerbaijan, China’s red aristocrats, Zimbabwe, Iran, Austria Russia to Argentina, FIFA and Transparency International officials, Panama papers’ revelations have ended the careers of many public officials except in Nigeria, where they are rather pampered and propped up for further political appointments.
After a half-hearted protest in Abuja and the EFCC’s promise to investigate all those mentioned, Nigerians moved on with their lives; the EFCC never investigated anything or anybody and those mentioned in the show of shame have continued business as usual. Today, there could be many more of Nigeria’s high and mighty hiding illicit assets in several tax havens around us. Nigeria is the only country in the world where the poor are taxed more to nourish the profligate lifestyle/political activities of the rich, and not even an international embarrassment from the Panama Papers could change that.
The epidemic of corruption and cycle of paying lip-service to fighting it have left the country in tatters. Kidnapping is now competing with unemployment as the greatest vices of our time. Kidnappers simply rule the roost, while the rest of the country live in fear in addition to the old and established crimes around us. With all these you would expect Nigerians to take up arms against whoever is ‘caught red-handed’ as it were. Sadly, people do not see it as cogent a reason to sack their elected officials including leaders like Bukola Saraki. Ignorance they say is bliss. A lot of people do not know what the fuss about Mossack Fonseca is about and those who know do not care because all these have no direct impact on those we elect as leaders next time around: they simply buy their way to the top anyway. No wonder, a tax crime that shook the world and led to the downfall of some world leaders is a non-issue in Nigeria.