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Beneficial Ownership: How to Find the Real Owners of Secret Companies - A Guide for Journalists and Civil Society in Ghana, Kenya & Nigeria

Media reports of white-collar crime often refer to how the cases and people they were investigating were facilitated by complex and obscure company structures that were involved in transferring large amounts of money from one jurisdiction to another. The identity of the people at the centre of the crime who owned and controlled those companies (known as the “beneficial owners”) could be kept hidden because of secrecy laws in the jurisdictions in which they operated and the lack of information made available on the companies’ ownership structure. This is too often the case in resource-rich developing countries where the reins of power are controlled by a small elite and the rule of law is too often by-passed by this elite.

It is difficult to identify a corrupt company. Companies can easily be set up for the purpose of committing a crime, or criminals can hijack legitimate companies and use them for illegal purposes. The crimes can involve siphoning off public funds to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars or be much more devastating: wholesale looting of public budgets, backhanders for allowing companies to bypass laws and mass environmental damage or human rights violations.

This toolkit is designed to help journalists get to the bottom of this kind of corruption. It explains the concept of beneficial ownership, details where it is relevant and indicates where to find beneficial ownership information. It is a guide to collecting this kind of information and to making use of this knowledge as a journalist or civil society organisation. While the general principles mentioned in this resource apply internationally, it is primarily written for journalists and civil society in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya. These are the three African countries who made commitments at the 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit to establish public registers containing beneficial ownership information of companies operating in their jurisdictions, to make it harder for the corrupt to get away with their crimes.