‘Flying out of Africa’, an essay on China -Africa relations

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The following article featured in BusinessLive (eEdition) on 25 July 2019. It is authored by John Grobler. The article was compiled with the financial support of Journalismfund.eu’s Money Trail grant programme. 

Chinese ‘lying money’, or fei qian, is an ancient form of value exchange. But its modern incarnation is blamed for stripping Africa of its resources.

The secret of Chinese commercial success in Africa, as suggested by an 18-month investigation into the drugs-for-abalone and rosewood trade and a major Namibian tax fraud case, is an ancient system that not only allows African countries to be robbed of taxes, but also plays a part in financing the global $270bn-a-year wildlife contraband trade.

Fei qian, or “flying money”, dates back about 1,200 years, to the Tang Dynasty in China. In its simplest modern incarnation, it is a low-cost and trusted method of remitting money, much like the Islamic hawala system. For example, a person who wants to send funds to a recipient in Africa will pay a fei qian broker in China. For a commission, the broker will arrange that a counterpart in Africa pays the recipient, again for a commission. The two fei qian brokers later settle their account through, for example, the transfer of commodities of equivalent value — but also sometimes through less salubrious methods such as transfer mispricing or invoice manipulation.

In practice, the system relies on the systematic underinvoicing of Chinese imports into Africa and a seamless chain of payments system in which accounts are settled through the transfer of high-end — and often illicit — goods such as abalone, rosewood, rhino horn and ivory. In brief: goods are undervalued on their import documentation; they are then sold for cash; and that undeclared cash is subsequently channelled into high-end commodities that are remitted to China to balance the fei qian books.

“The trick behind fei qian is that the money never actually leaves China,” says a former Singaporean finance expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s just the commodities that get moved around” as part of a longer payment chain among the Chinese diaspora.

Unlike barter trade, fei qian is not a straight swap; it is an exchange in stored value that leaves no paper trail, except in the books of the fei qian operators themselves. What makes the system even more impenetrable, the investigation has found, is that these operators mostly seem to be older, well-established women working in a closed network of mutually trusted contacts.

This nexus, and lack of paper trail, means fei qian is largely invisible. But it occasionally appears as a gaping hole in a country’s balance of payments account with China – as Namibia has discovered in an ongoing import-tax fraud investigation.

Jack Huang, a business associate of President Hage Geingob, and Laurentius Julius, a former Walvis Bay customs official and now a customs clearing agent, are among eight suspects facing 3,215 charges of fraud and money laundering in the Windhoek high court. Continue reading →

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Singapore seizes tusks from 300 elephants in ivory haul worth $12.9 million

Authorities in Singapore have stopped a shipment of almost 9 tonnes (9.9 US tons) of ivory, the largest seizure of its kind in the nation’s history. The 8.8-tonne (9.7-US ton) haul was passing through Singapore on its way from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Vietnam, according to a joint statement from the Singapore Customs, Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and the National Parks Board released Tuesday.

There were also 11.9 tonnes (13.1 US tons) of pangolin scales among the illicit cargo, the third such shipment to be intercepted in Singapore this year.Three containers said to contain timber were inspected as they passed through Singapore on July 21, revealing the huge illegal cache.

Authorities say the ivory, with tusks from nearly 300 elephants, is worth $12.9 million; the pangolin scales, estimated to have been taken from around 2,000 Giant Ground Pangolins, would fetch around $35.7 million.

Pangolins are solitary animals that have an armor of scales, which are coveted for “cultural and ethno-medicinal purposes,” according to the statement. They are also hunted for their meat.

The seizure takes the total weight of pangolin scales stopped in Singapore to 37.5 tonnes (41.3 US tons) in 2019 alone. Singapore previously seized 177 kilograms (390 pounds) of ivory in April.

In Africa, poachers kill tens of thousands of elephants a year for their tusks. Much of the demand for elephant tusks comes from China, where ivory is still seen by some as a symbol of luxury and wealth. 

“Around 55 African elephants are killed for their ivory a day, their tusks turned into carvings and trinkets,” Tanya Steele, chief executive at World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement.

Source: CNN, Jack Guy, 24 July 2019

Vietnam seizes 125-kilogram haul of trafficked rhino horn encased in plaster

Fifty-five pieces of rhino horn were found hidden inside shipments of plaster at Hanoi International Airport, Vietnam’s state media reported Saturday.

Customs officers broke open plaster molds from 14 shipments to uncover the illegally trafficked horns, which weighed 125 kilograms (275 pounds) in total, according to the Vietnam News Agency.

Vietnam has the world’s largest market for illegal rhino horn, according to the World Wildlife Fund. A single horn can fetch $100,000 in Asian countries such as China and Vietnam, where buyers believe it can cure health problems from hangovers to cancer, and use it as a lifestyle drug. The global market is thought to be worth about $500 million.

The seizure in the Vietnamese capital came after Hanoi police arrested a man accused of running a wildlife trafficking ring on July 23.

That arrest followed the discovery of seven frozen tigers in a car parked in the basement of a Hanoi skyscraper.

Source: CNN, Helen Reagan and Angus Watson, 29 July 2019

USCBP seizes MSC Gayane with 18 tonnes of cocaine aboard

MSC Gayane

US customs officials seized a container ship financed by JPMorgan this week after authorities found nearly 18 tons of cocaine with an estimated street value of $1.3 billion in the vessel.

The drug bust on the Liberian-flagged MSC Gayane is surprising for several reasons. The sheer quantity of cocaine it was carrying, its links to JPMorgan, its presence in the US, and the recent string of West African drug busts are worth noting.

A container ship financed by JPMorgan was seized by US customs officials this week after authorities found nearly 18 tons of cocaine with an estimated street value of $1.3 billion on the vessel. The drug bust on the MSC Gayane is surprising for several reasons, outlined below.

The roughly 39,500 pounds, or 17.9 metric tons, of cocaine – about the same weight as three African bull elephants – found aboard the MSC Gayane outweighed the total amount of cocaine that passed through West Africa in 2013 and all of the cocaine seized across Africa from 2013 to 2016, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The vast quantity may reflect a supply glut. Global cocaine manufacturing surged by a quarter in 2016 to 1,410 tons, according to the World Drug Report 2018. The production boom is centered in Colombia, where cultivation of the coca plant rose 17% to 171,000 hectares in 2017, according to the UN.

The link between the MSC Gayane and JPMorgan may be the most surprising aspect of the drug bust.

The MSC Gayane is operated by the Switzerland-based Mediterranean Shipping Co., but JPMorgan helped finance MSC’s purchase of the ship. The two reportedly structured the purchase so the ship was owned by client assets in a transportation strategy fund run for JPMorgan’s asset-management arm.

JPMorgan hasn’t yet publicly addressed its association with the vessel, and it has declined to comment to Markets Insider.

The MSC Gayane sailed under the flag of Liberia, a West African country. West Africa is a popular transit route for smugglers between South America and Europe because of its porous borders, weak rule of law, largely unmonitored coastline, and limited infrastructure and resources. The proportion of cocaine seizures in Africa accounted for by West Africa rose to 78% in 2016, “reflecting the rapidly growing importance of West Africa as a transit area,” the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said.

But there appears to be little drug smuggling between West Africa and the US, making the MSC Gayane drug bust highly unusual. Higher street prices and a lower risk of getting caught make Europe a more lucrative and attractive market than the US, the Nigerian drug smuggler Chigbo Umeh told The Guardian in 2015.

While notable, the ship’s flag doesn’t necessarily implicate Liberia.

“A Liberian registered ship is not in itself a link with the West Africa drug economy,” Mark Shaw, the director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, said in an interview with Markets Insider. “Liberia serves as a flag state for much shipping.”

The drug bust on a Liberian-flagged vessel is the latest in a string of major seizures linked to West African countries this year.

In May 2018, Algerian officials seized more than 1,500 pounds of cocaine on a Liberian-registered container ship that was transporting frozen meat from Brazil, according to the BBC. In February of this year, Cape Verde officials found 21,000 pounds of cocaine, with a street value north of $700 million, on a Panamanian-flagged vessel. A month later, authorities in Guinea-Bissau notched their biggest-ever cocaine bust – and the country’s first in a decade – when they discovered more than 1,700 pounds of the drug hidden in a false bottom of a truck loaded with fish.

“There were doubts whether West Africa was still being used as a major transit route, but these seizures seem to suggest that there is a return,” Shaw said in an interview with Bloomberg in March. “It’s a surprise and it’s very significant.”

Source: The article was written by Theron Mohamed, Market Insider, 11 July 2019

Grasping the size of Container Traffic

The following infographic is shared courtesy of Visual Capitalist

Size-of-Shipping

WCO SAFE FoS – 2018 Edition

SAFE FoS 2018 Edition2

The WCO has published a 2018 edition of its Framework of Standards. The 2018 version of the SAFE Framework augments the objectives of the SAFE Framework with respect to strengthening co-operation between and among Customs administrations, for example through the exchange of information, mutual recognition of controls, mutual recognition of AEOs, and mutual administrative assistance.

In addition, it calls for enhanced cooperation with government agencies entrusted with regulatory authorities over certain goods (e.g. weapons, hazardous materials) and passengers, as well as entities responsible for postal issues. The Framework now also includes certain minimum tangible benefits to AEOs, while providing a comprehensive list of AEO benefits.

The updated SAFE Framework offers new opportunities for Customs, relevant government agencies and economic operators to work towards a common goal of enhancing supply chain security and efficiency, based on mutual trust and transparency.

Customs officers and trade practitioners also be on the lookout for then new WCO Academy course on SAFE and AEO. The Framework of Standards to Secure and Facilitate Global Trade is a unique international instrument which usher in a safer world trade regime, and also heralds the beginning of a new approach to working methods and partnership for both Customs and business. This E-Learning course aims to present this tool and the benefits of its implementation.

Counterfeit 35mm Fujifilm

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The market for 35mm camera film may be shrinking fast, but it still isn’t safe from counterfeiting, according to Fujifilm.

The Japanese company says it has discovered counterfeit copies of its film products fraudulently bearing its logo that aside from being of suspect quality could damage other customers’ film rolls if developed at the same time in the lab by contaminating the developing chemicals.

The counterfeiters appear to have created counterfeit Fujifilm 250D, 64D, 250T, and 500T Colour Negative Film canisters and filled them with movie film, which cannot be developed using the standard colour negative film process. This sounds more like a case of sabotage.

Compilation of Customs Integrity Practices

WCO Compilation of Integrity PracticesThe WCO Secretariat has undertaken a new initiative involving the compilation of good internal control [governance] practices by Customs administrations, and their relationship with external controls. The Secretariat carried out a survey of Members to find out how they implement principle 6 of the Revised Arusha Declaration. The responses indicated that internal control functions can be structured differently and do not operate in the same way.

The survey collected material on the experiences of Members and on their integrity practices, with a view to compiling a good practice guide which Members could use to enhance their integrity strategies, including external oversight. It consisted of 18 questions, and was divided into four sec- tions: (1) Governance of Internal Control; (2) Operational Aspects; (3) Relationship with External Controls; and (4) Sharing Good Practices with Other Members. Responses were received from 58 Member administrations. Download this link.