‘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 →

Nigeria – Who’s afraid of new Customs Law?

English: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Managing Directo...

English: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Managing Director, World Bank, Washington DC; Global Agenda Council on Corruption, is captured during the session ‘Zero Option for Corruption’ in the Congress Centre of the Annual Meeting 2010 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not a few people raised eyebrows at one session of a senate committee when the Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, intervened during proceedings. Unlike most public hearings in the National Assembly, the particular one conducted by the Finance Committee of the Senate on the new Customs Bill was historic. Everyone agreed that the bill, which seeks to repeal the pre-independence Act, was timely. The dominant argument was that the roles and responsibilities of the Department of Customs and Excise have changed and required legislation to accommodate those changes.

From a modest outfit collecting taxes and royalties on coastal trading activities, the Department has evolved to become a large organisation employing over 20,000 Nigerians, with responsibilities cutting across revenue collection, border protection, public health and trade facilitation. The new law is to take account of the realities of the 21st century. Provisions were therefore made for electronic processes of Customs clearance, use of non-intrusive intervention methods to enforce controls and adherence with global best practice in customs operations.

However, Dr Okonjo-Iweala , who by virtue of her position is the Chairman of the Nigeria Customs Service Board raised dust when she expressed concerns over the powers of Mr President and the Minister of Finance as contained in the new Bill. Committee members were astonished when she appeared to labour to sound modest in kicking against the provisions which she complained ‘whittled down the powers of Mr President and the Minister over Customs’.

Another dissenting voice came from the Director of Budget in the Ministry, Dr Bright Okogwu, who argued that Customs should not be funded up to the tune of 2.5 % of Value on Board (FOB)’ as provided under Section 18 of the new Bill, although his earlier view appeared to support to the canvassed by Central Bank of Nigeria on the matter.

It is a fact that many Nigerians were not opportune to read the bill before the hearing. My interest in it followed claim of the possibility of creating a Customs outfit that would be too powerful to be under the thumb of the president or the minister of finance.

On the contrary, the bill does seek a stronger Board capable of enunciating policies devoid of bureaucratic bottlenecks. The bill still allows the minister enormous powers as chairman of the Board with the power to appoint some of its members.

But the notion that the bill strips the president of certain powers gave added impetus to the public hearing; Mrs Okonjo-Iweala was clearly agitated. But try as they could, no one could pinpoint the sections which allegedly render the President powerless over Customs matters.

The major omission in the existing legislations put up for repeal is the Customs, Excise Tariff, etc. (Consolidation) Act Cap C.49 of 1995. Perhaps the hullabaloo about the powers of Mr President stems from the erroneous impression that all the previous Acts relating to Customs matters were being repealed. Section 13of this Act is emphatic about the powers on the much-hyped waivers and concessions. The section vested on the president the power to impose, vary or remove any import or excise duty on goods that are liable to payment of such charges. This provision is still extant.

Opposition to Sections 42 and 43 which sought to prohibit by law the future use of Pre-shipment and Destination Inspection service providers was a source of disappointment to most Nigerians. Leading the pack of opposition was the Central Bank of Nigeria with the argument that the provision ‘ties government hands ‘, if such service is found necessary in the future.

Customs position throughout the hearing was to express readiness to take over its statutory roles. If there was any doubt about Customs ability, the CBN and the Finance Ministry, both supervisory organs of the destination Inspection should be held responsible for the orchestrated effort to perpetrate or institutionalise self-gratifying contracts.

All said and done, Nigerians are patiently waiting for the senators to do what is right and ignore sentiments associated with the various positions canvassed during the hearing. It should not be about muscle flexing of who wields what powers as was witnessed during the hearing. Nor should it be about the office holders, since the Service will outlive the current actors involved. It is about building a strong institution that can stand the test of time. Source: The Daily Trust (Nigeria)

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