From the Seychelles to Liberia, African countries are creating financial centres that demand little or no taxation. Khadija Sharife provides a run-down of the places to hide away money from the taxman.
Not all tax havens are equal - nor are their services homogenous. Certain regions can be classified as 'secrecy jurisdictions', providing banking secrecy and an environment that does not call for disclosure concerning beneficial owners, shareholders, directors and company accounts.
The term Offshore Financial Centres (OFCs) conventionally includes powerful global finance centres as well as smaller zones. Despite this, their capability and reach is vastly different. In reality, smaller island economies are typically 'rented' out to foreign multinationals that are hypermobile in nature, able to switch jurisdictions easily if the government fails to comply.
Africa's tax havens are gathering strength. Some, like Morocco, act as geographically specific hubs, while countries like Liberia are 'flag states' catering to international clients eager to access zero-tax corporate maritime services. Still others like Djibouti are regional centres offering specific secrecy vehicles.
The latest edition of The Africa Report highlights four established and developing regional offshore centres and secrecy jurisdictions in Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius and Tunisia. Below are a few more jurisdictions that are broadening the scope and scale of Africa's tools to hide money from state treasuries.
Morocco (Tangiers): Tangiers, the gateway to two continents, has always been an international city. Located on the Straits of Gibraltar, a stones throw away from Europe, the city has a rich past. These days, the oldest city in Morocco, founded by the Phoenicians in the 4th century B.C., remains a draw for corporations eager to access a tax-free environment via the Tangier Exportation Free Zone. Considered an 'offshore centre' by the IMF, the Zone was described by Deloitte (2010) as an “offshore financial centre open to all international banks and financial establishments”.
While the headline corporate tax rate is on a par with countries not classified as tax havens, companies are subject to tax “only on income generated from activities carried on in Morocco”, says Deloitte. This creates the perfect loophole for foreign companies eager to circumvent taxation. Amongst other perks, holding company regulations allow for a corporate tax rate of $500 per year for 15 years and a tax exemption on dividend distributions and the repatriation of profits.
Seychelles: An estimated 11% of the island's GDP is generated from ring-fenced financial services. These services include the classic mix of banking secrecy, company redomiciliation, protected cell companies, tax exemptions, no financial reporting requirements and a lack of disclosure concerning beneficial owners and company ownership, including shareholders, directors, trusts and other critical details.
Shell companies can be established within a day. Registration fees are $100 and $100 per annum thereafter. Banks even provide 'account signatory' services that allow foreign clients to benefit from enhanced secrecy. The International Business Companies Act 1994 allows companies to operate completely tax-free provided the foreign entities do not conduct economic activities in Seychelles or own real estate. International business company (IBC) benefits also include air and vessel services. The Seychelles has been used in the past as a transshipment centre to circumvent sanctions. According to Fidelity Corporate Services, an offshore agent in Seychelles: 'This means that you can have your IBC registered in Seychelles with an authorised capital of a hundred million dollars and still pay the same government fee of $100.' Since 1994, the Seychelles have registered 30,000 IBCs, with 600 new entities created each month.
Djibouti: A crucial military hub for US and French troops in the East Africa, Djibouti has been operating as a free port since 1949. The Djibouti Freezone - in the process of development - allows for company redomiciliation, tax breaks, five- to ten-year licensing exemptions, amongst other perks, and will serve as a transshipment centre.
Situated at the strategic point between Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Djibouti provides foreign companies with port infrastructure, offshore services as well as export-oriented goods via entities with the title of Export Processing Company. Djibouti's services render the country one of a few African countries that serve as regional offshore finance centers, characterised by relatively-developed infrastructure and range of geographically-specific services.
Liberia: In the late 1940s, Liberia developed a flag state to provide corporate and maritime tax haven services, specifically to vessel owners and operators. It was developed under the wing of Standard Oil, arguably the largest oil corporation at the time. Liberia's registry, administered by a private corporation based in the US, currently hosts 10% of the global fleet – including 1,049 German vessels and 509 oil rigs – representing almost ten times the share of the US.
The government does not tax profits and collects fees that rise to several hundreds of dollars per company each year. Offering many of the same services as leading secrecy jurisdictions, Liberia's maritime registry supplied between 40-70% of the government's official revenue during the rule of warlord-cum-president Charles Taylor (1997-2003), now on trial in The Hague.
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* This article first appeared in The Africa Report.
* Khadija Sharife is Southern Africa correspondent for The Africa Report.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.