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Conflicts of interest exposed by #WestAfricaLeaks underscore need to rein in anonymous company ownership

Stories published as part of the #WestAfricaLeaks project by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and Cell Norbert Zongo for Investigative Journalism in West Africa (CENOZO) show how easy it is for corrupt public officials, money launderers and other criminals in West Africa to hide behind anonymous companies and access the global financial system.

One of the recent #WestAfricaLeaks investigations, which is based on information contained in the Panama Papers, highlights the case of a high-level official from Côte d'Ivoire whose secret offshore company in the Bahamas presents a clear conflict of interest. According to CENOZO, Akossi Bendjo, a key political figure and prominent businessman in Côte d'Ivoire, is also the beneficial owner of a company doing business with the government.

Another #WestAfricaLeaks story from Ghana outlines similar conflict of interest issues and breach of public trust. According to records from Appleby, the law firm at the centre of the Paradise Papers breach in 2017, a prominent Ghanaian medical doctor was obscuring his business dealings through a complex structure of offshore companies while serving as ambassador to the United States. This is contrary to the Vienna Convention, which prohibits diplomats from actively engaging in any business ventures that result in personal profit while at post.

Jessica Ebrard, a project coordinator at Transparency International working on anti-money laundering in West Africa, said: "These revelations show that people in high-level positions have multiple opportunities to abuse their power while hiding their actions from authorities. Financial centres and West African authorities both need to have more effective anti-corruption measures in place, in particular full transparency around who really owns corporate structures."

Max Heywood, global outreach and advocacy coordinator at Transparency International said: “Time and again, we find conflicts of interest being hidden and corruption schemes being made possible through the use of anonymous companies. While governments have made commitments to tackle this problem, implementation and concrete action continues to be lacking. In the meantime, corrupt individuals are still in business, and citizens are paying the price.”

Transparency International urges West African governments to fulfil their commitments within the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) framework, establishing registers of beneficial ownership to peel back the layer of secrecy that allows corrupt officials to avoid scrutiny and disguise their conflicts of interest. These registers should be publicly accessible.


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