By A Special Correspondent
FORGET about Panama and Paradise Papers. Now it is Mauritius Leaks, which has revealed four – at least for now – Tanzanian companies that operate huge businesses transactions in Mauritius, a tiny Indian Ocean Island in Africa, to avoid a number of taxes.
According to various impeccable sources, Tanzania is estimated to be losing between $211m and $370m a year due to transfer pricing and other business deals done in connection with tax avoidance. They are doing business with other companies in tax-heaven countries, including Mauritius.
Mauritius Leaks is a cross-border investigation into how one law firm on a small island off Africa’s east coast helped companies leach tax revenue from poor African, Arab and Asian nations.
Led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the investigation is a global collaboration involving 54 journalists in 18 countries.
More than 200,000 documents from the Mauritius office of a prestigious offshore law firm, Conyers Dill & Pearman, are at the heart of the investigation. ICIJ corroborated company information from the leaked documents with data in the Mauritius corporate registry and the Financial Services Commission’s register of licensees.
The documents offer a rare window into corporate tax avoidance in countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The documents include emails, contracts, some banking practices, and business plans provided by some of the world’s biggest players in finance and law, including KPMG and the London-based multinational law firm Clifford Chance. Others are PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and EY, all have offices in Mauritius.
Those tax consultancy companies they reveal attempts by corporations and individuals to exploit tax rules that allow them to avoid taxes of such countries as Tanzania, Egypt, Mozambique and Thailand.
The island, which sells itself as a “gateway” for corporations to the developing world, has two main selling points: bargain-basement tax rates and, crucially, a battery of “tax treaties” with 46 mostly poorer countries. Pushed by Western financial institutions in the 1990s, the treaties have proved a boon for Western corporations, their legal and financial advisers, and Mauritius itself — and a disaster for most of the countries that are its treaty partners.
“What Mauritius is providing is not a gateway but a getaway car for unscrupulous corporations dodging their tax obligations,” said Alvin Mosioma, executive director of the nonprofit Tax Justice Network Africa.
Many countries refers to “tax avoidance” as the use of perfectly legal methods of arranging one’s affairs so as to pay lesser tax. It involves utilizing loopholes in tax laws and exploiting them with some legal parameters.
In Tanzania, it is not illegal to operate and do business with other countries, including those with tax shelters like Mauritius, but companies, individuals, institutions and other entities, are using it to avoid taxes in their mother country.
Other countries known to be tax havens are Dubai, Andorra, the Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Channel Islands, the Cook Islands, Hong Kong, The Isle of Man, Lichtenstein, Monaco, Panama, and St. Kitts, and Nevis.
The Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA) says that Tanzania does not have any tax-related agreements with Mauritius or any tax heaven countries.
“There is nothing wrong doing businesses with offshore countries, laws of our land don’t block anyone who wants to open and operate legal businesses in any country; be it tax heaven or others,” says a senior TRA official.
TRA is aware of fully aware of the offshore businesses and that it has made attempts to control transfer pricing by requiring companies to verify that the related-party pricing is at arm’s length and supported by genuine transfer pricing documentation.
“The TRA is aware of the problem of Tax avoidance and noncompliance to tax generally and has been addressing these problems most of the time in its corporate plans and now there are some crucial measures to lessen the practice,” says the official.
TRA is said to have significantly capitalized in staff training and capacity building especially in specific areas such as forensic audit skills in order to monitor mega local companies as well as multinationals companies (MNCs). This is aimed at tackling the challenges associated with tax planning and avoidance.
However, Tax avoidance has remained upright until now despite all the above efforts by tax authorities
Dr Lenny Kasoga, an international economist, former University of Dar es Salaam lecturer, says the main purpose of local companies to operate other like businesses in offshore countries is to avoid “high taxes” in their home countries, which in a way, stalling national growths.
“Some companies use it to minimize their tax bill by artificially inflating input costs in high tax countries and reporting (and paying tax) profit in low tax countries,” says Dr Kasoga, who has done some thoroughly researches on international taxes.
Governments around the world are struggling with the issue of transfer pricing. This often leads to opportunistic and, ultimately self-defeating competition among countries in setting company tax rates.
Internationally, there has been a rapid introduction of what is called “new transfer pricing regulations” from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), including the Base Erosion and Profit Sharing initiative (BEPS), which Tanzania has embraced.
“If our poor countries don’t execute a standardized international system of tax regimes, there will always be room for tax rate arbitrage because of the awkwardness incentives offered up by taxing profits rather than production,” says Nyaronyo Kicheere, a Dar es Salaam based lawyer.
Kicheere, who is a high court counsel told ICIJ that poor countries will remain poorer if they continue embracing home-based companies to have mother-companies offshore, and depend only in collecting Pay As You Earn (PAYE) taxes from an employee. “There should be some mechanism to combat rampant resource shifting,” he hints.
A Dar es Salaam based tax consultant, Maguha Magesha says it is high time now Tanzania refrain from using politicians in tax matters, and usefully engage its tax experts in utilizing laws which enforce the willingness for its people to pay their obligatory taxes.
Magesha advises the country to use The African Tax Administration Forum (ATAF), which Tanzania is a member, to exchange notes on better practices instead of “fighting with taxpayers.” He says there is a need to improve good governance so that the legitimacy of the government is enhanced, adequate resources need to be provided to promote voluntary taxpayer compliance.
He says there is a need to have Tax Laws free from ambiguities in that they should not create gaps that will attract more tax avoidance acts as it is with transfer pricing provision under the Income-tax Act.
ATF is an international organization which provides a platform for cooperation among African tax authorities.
It has been revealed that at least four companies in Tanzania are in Mauritius Leaks – for now, ICIJ is publishing one company while continuing to track three others.
All those companies, in different times from 2014 to 2017 has been engaged in various businesses with Mauritius entities; including contracts – some never sealed, communications (mostly, emails), banking practices and transactions – according to documents seen by ICIJ.
One of those companies is Ubongo Group, Africa’s largest producer of educational children’s television programs, whose shows reach 11 million households in 31 countries. Eyeing an expansion, the Dar es Salaam-based company predicted a 35-fold increase in revenue over six years, according to a financial model.
In 2015 KPMG provided advice on the “economical means of Ubongo Mauritius extracting profits from Ubongo Tanzania,” according to a Ubongo planning document. One KPMG suggestion was that the Mauritius subsidiary lends money to the Tanzanian one so that the money used to repay the loan would be taxed at 3% in Mauritius rather than 30% in Tanzania.
Ubongo, which its mission in Mauritius was never sealed, told ICIJ that it took advice from KPMG about how to grow across Africa, but did not follow through with the plans or recommendations. “We cancelled the investment round before receiving any funds, and instead re-registered as a non-profit organization to better align our funding and structure with our mission,” Ubongo told ICIJ.
Ubongo said KMPG made recommendations for creating a parent company in Mauritius so that the company could raise investment and grow but never followed through with the restructure per those recommendations and instead re-registered as a non-profit.
“Tax efficiencies refers to not incurring double taxation. It does not mean tax evasion. Taxes are always paid in the country of origin (Tanzania, Kenya, etc.) however Mauritius limits additional taxes to be paid on top of those taxes already levied. So taxes are still paid in Tanzania, but there is a limited additional tax levied by Mauritius. I would suggest that you talk to KPMG directly. They can explain these recommendations and the double taxation issues,” Ubongo noted further.
“We never transferred any shares nor have we ever “extracted profits” from Tanzania. All of our audited accounts clearly show this.” “Our aim is not to generate or extract profits. Hence why we became a non-profit to fully align around that,” added Ubongo.
Ubongo said, they initially started the company as a for-profit social enterprise (founded in 2013 in Tanzania and the US) and were seeking investment from foreign impact investors to scale across Africa. Investors “suggested that we open a parent company in Mauritius followed by subsidiaries in various new countries where we expand to,” Ubongo said in response to questions. “However, during the course of that investment round they decided to change paths and re-register as a non-profit to better pursue our mission; an institution helping children to learn and brain sharpening.”
KPMG Tanzania avoidance
KPMG Tanzania did not comment on specifics, despite three visits to their office in Masaki, Dar es Salaam. Each time ICIJ reporter was told by personnel at the reception; “our bosses are so busy, could you write an email.”
The questions were written and sent by email to one of the firm’s partner and senior advisor on July 02, 2019 (1043hrs) but have not been acknowledged nor answered. ICIJ decided to contact KPMG International based in Amstelveen, Netherlands and answered all questions in one paragraph;
“Organizations engage our tax professionals to help ensure their companies are compliant with relevant legal, regulatory and professional requirements and we take great pride in our ability to deliver. While we do not comment on specific client matters, we can say that our tax professionals act lawfully, with integrity and in line with our Global Responsible Tax Principles. We demand this from our own people and we expect it from the wider stakeholders we work with.”
The government of Tanzania
The government of Tanzania, through the Ministry of Finance, said the country has few entities and individuals who are involving in tax avoidance compared to other countries, although he didn’t deny the problem in Tanzania.
Country’s ministry said TRA has refined analytical tools to detect and confront taxpayers using tax avoidance outlines. TRA and other state organs will always investigate and challenge systems and that will litigate cases up to the proper court if needed.
“If you involve in tax avoidance structures, you are exposing yourself to major overheads, often greater than the potential tax gain. You should also be aware of the disruption caused by our institutions’ enquiries, potential litigation and prolonged uncertainty about the outcome,” the ministry said.
Mauritius hits back
Mauritius’ Minister of Financial Services and Good Governance, Dharmendar Sesungkur, who oversees the country’s offshore sector, said that ICIJ’s information was “outdated”. The minister said that independent organizations, including the World Bank, recognize that “Mauritius is a cooperative and clean jurisdiction that has made significant progress in adhering to international standards.
The Panama Papers
At least 45 Tanzanian businessmen were exposed by the Panama Papers investigation that details the names of people and related companies with offshore accounts in territories that are known as tax havens.
Those included well-known businessmen and politicians. Their details were captured in both the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers, millions of documents leaked from the custodians of the information about the shadowy records of some of the world’s mighty leaders and business multinationals.
Among those names were business mogul, Rostam Aziz, Quality Group Limited CEO Yussuf Manji, politician and Member of Parliament for Morogoro – through ruling party, CCM – Abdul-Aziz Mohamed Abood, and the head of Kilimanjaro Safaris Eric Pasanisi.
Members of the global elite to figure in previous offshore leaks included a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin; football player Lionel Messi; actors Jackie Chan and Emma Watson.