Pandora papers: Fury, betrayal trail rich people’s gambit to hide assets

The leak of large swaths of documents revealing how 35 current and former world leaders, more than 330 politicians and public officials in 91 countries and territories try to shield their assets from public scrutiny has attracted widespread condemnation across the world.

Since the files were released on Sunday, some leaders, civil society groups, opposition political parties across the world and lawmakers from Kenya to the United are calling for investigations and toughening the rules that allow rich people to evade taxes and warehouse their assets in lands with low tax jurisdiction.

Read also: 77 oil firms owe FG N2.6trn from tax evasion, concession on rentals- NEITI

Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered a probe on Wednesday into his niece’s overseas wealth after she and her husband were named in the Pandora Papers to have stashed assets abroad.

Rajapaksa said he had “Instructed the chairman of the Bribery Commission to initiate investigations and submit a report within a month on the recently released Pandora Papers which caused controversy around the world. Necessary actions will be taken based on the report,” he said in a tweet on Wednesday.

Posts on social media under the tag Pandora Papers revealed widespread outrage over the actions of individuals in several countries who decided to hide their assets abroad to evade scrutiny and taxes.

“This isn’t a story about countries on the periphery of the world economy,” says the open society UK, “It is a story about how the British state drives a global system in which the richest extract wealth from the rest.”

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists obtained the trove of more than 11.9 million confidential files and led a team of more than 600 journalists from 150 news outlets that spent two years sifting through them, tracking down hard-to-find sources and digging into court records and other public documents from dozens of countries.

The leaked records come from 14 offshore services firms from around the world that set up shell companies and other offshore nooks for clients often seeking to keep their financial activities in the shadows. The records include information about the dealings of nearly three times as many current and former country leaders as any previous leak of documents from offshore havens, the ICIJ said.

The secret throve exposed offshore dealings of the King of Jordan, the presidents of Ukraine, Kenya and Ecuador, the prime minister of the Czech Republic and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Transparency International UK urged the parliament to legislate to remove the influence of big money from UK politics.

In Nigeria, Premium Times, the only participating newspaper in the project from Nigeria, reports that the documents implicated some influential Nigerians including a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, current and former state governors, past and present lawmakers, businesspeople, a popular pastor, and many others. They set up shell companies, and sometimes warehouse huge financial assets, in notorious secrecy jurisdictions.

The first in the series published on Monday detailed how Peter Obi, former Anambra State governor shielded his assets from Nigeria’s Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB). Obi had defended his action saying the assets were jointly owned by him and his relatives.

The paper also reported how Abubakar Bagudu, the current governor of Kebbi State, while a senator 11 years ago, sent a delegation to Singapore to find a new haven to shelter his controversial wealth, which is a target of ongoing forfeiture proceedings by the United States Department of Justice. The investigators say the huge funds, warehoused offshore, is part of billions of dollars Bagudu helped the Sani Abacha family to steal from Nigeria in the 1990s.

Also implicated in the leaks is Mohammed Bello-Koko, the acting Managing Director of Nigerian Ports Authority, who is said to be hiding behind two shell companies incorporated in a tax haven to anonymously invest in the United Kingdom property market, potentially violating Nigeria’s public service code of conduct laws, the ongoing Pandora Papers reporting has revealed.

The leaks further revealed that 233 houses and apartments were bought by 166 offshore companies at the cost of about £350 million by some 137 wealthy and influential Nigerians. The bulk of these purchases occurred during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan.

The Pandora Papers is a sad commentary on how the rule of law has been bent and broken around the world by a system of financial secrecy enabled by the U.S. and other wealthy nations. It also shows a pattern of hypocrisy by rich nations who tag African leaders as corrupt but have no qualms hiding and enabling their crime.

Taiwo Oyele, PwC Africa tax leader in a presentation with journalists on Wednesday said that while owning an offshore company is legal, the use it is put can raise moral and ethical concerns.

When they are used to evade taxes or give cover to illicit money flows, enabling bribery, money laundering, tax evasion, terrorism financing and human trafficking and other human rights abuses, then it becomes criminal.

Poor countries like Nigeria are disproportionately harmed by the stashing of wealth in tax havens, which starves treasuries of funds to pay for roads, schools and hospitals.

The Pandora Papers probe reveals that international leaders who could tackle offshore tax avoidance have themselves secretly moved money and assets beyond the reach of tax and law enforcement authorities as their citizens struggle.

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