One of the reasons US President Donald Trump is often tagged as behaving like a typical third world politician is because he makes wild claims about any and everything without any evidence to show, and he does not feel he has the duty to prove his claims. An example is his claims that Huawei is spying on Americans for the Chinese government. Not a shred of evidence has been provided, yet a whole national policy has been based on it. That is exactly what we have experienced in Ghana with this fatigued claim for decades, that telcos under declare revenue, even though no one has showed us a shred of evidence. We spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money to go after something that we cannot provide hard evidence for.
I remember, in 2015/2016 there was heated debate over the dangerous termination clause in the Subah contract with Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA). The clause meant Ghana was going to pay Subah an alleged GHC600 million for terminating their supposed telecom revenue assurance contract. A current Deputy Minister (not of Communications), who was then in opposition, was a lead antagonist. I had the privilege of having a phone conversation with him over the matter. In fact, he called me because of something I had written about the matter. In that phone conversation, he said one thing that now makes me understand why his voice was conspicuously missing in the 2017/2018 Kelni-GVG debate, even though Kelni-GVG is a baby of his government.
This is what he said to me, as I remember it – “I think you the media should start paying attention to this so-called real time monitoring and revenue assurance schemes. We have seen them in the telecom industry – now we hear there is going to be one for the mining sector. You guys should start investigating these schemes because it appears, they are nothing more than set ups by people in government and their cronies in the private sector to create, loot and share. You guys in the media will do this country a great deal of service if you throw the spotlight on some of these things.”
I wonder if that Deputy Minister knew his government was going to set up a real time monitoring scheme for the telecom industry. I am not too sure if he would have said what he said to me, had he for a second thought that his government was going to bring what he practically described as a looting brigade. But his conspicuous silence over the Kelni-GVG deal is testimony to his consistency, in my opinion. After all, not everyone in government agrees with whatever a government agency is doing; otherwise why would the Vice President disagree with the Communications Minister’s insistence on taxing mobile money earnings of telcos.
A little bit of history: GVG (Global Voice Group) is a company from Haiti, partly owned by embattled former Haitian Prime Minister, Laurent Salvador Lamothe, who was accused of bribery and corruption, for which he was forced to resign as Prime Minister after serving for only two years, even though he denied that allegations. His company, GVG was accused of misleading many countries into thinking their so-called real-time monitoring set-up is able to detect and prevent tax evasion/avoidance by telcos. By so doing, they get to share some mirage incremental revenue with the state, even though it is commonly known that taxes increase organically every year, without the intervention of any real-time audit. And guess which countries were gullible enough to buy into this scheme – African countries.
In fact, even though GVG was primarily set up to do REAL-TIME MONITORING, it never monitored anything in real time. All they did was to collect call detail records (CDRs) provided by the telcos to the National Communications Authority (NCA), and then claim to do some audit, the results of which no one got to see, and yet GVG’s cohorts in government told us what was convenient for them, i.e. GVG HELPED THE STATE TO SAVE X AMOUNT, which telcos would have hidden from the state, but for GVG’s intervention. What exact intervention – we were not told. We were also told the familiar and most fatigued chorus – “WE REALISED THAT PRIOR THE COMING OF GVG TELCOS WERE UNDER-DECLARING REVENUE”. In fact, in one instant, the then Communications Minister, Aggrey Ntim said telcos were evading Communications Service Tax – which telcos, and how much, we were never told.
As was to be expected, after looting for a while in Ghana, under a particular government, GVG was kicked out via CHANGE OF ADMINISTRATION, but same party. The new administration thought a local contractor was better, so Subah Inforsolutions was brought in. It was a Ghana-India partnership. It emerged that Subah had been paid some GHS74 million for “no work done”. It started the debate all over again. What exactly did Subah do to deserve GHC74 million. Their contract said they were supposed to do REAL TIME MONITORING, which they NEVER did. The contract also said they were to be paid 13.5% of the incremental revenue they should have brought in. We were never told they brought in any money out of which the GHC74 million would have been 13.5%.
Deja vu – the same debate started all over again. Some regulatory officials claimed Subah had exposed a lot of rot by telcos, the details of which we were never told, except some propagandist publications about SIM box fraud burst, of which the telcos were instrumental in detecting and tracing the fraudsters. The antagonist asked for accountability and the protagonists kept beating about the bush until, at some point, the chief suspects – GRA decided to threaten the media houses focusing on the issue with immediate demand for tax arrears. That threat was what killed the matter, and Subah and GRA got off the hook.
Then years later, CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT again meant Subah was to be thrown out of the deal, so they quickly did a backdoor arrangement with their cronies at GRA, on the blind side of the Attorney-General then, and inserted a dangerous termination clause into the contract after the AG had already approved of it. The AG later warned that the contract she sanctioned previously had been tampered with, but GRA/Government still went ahead with the dangerous contract, which meant they had no choice than to pay Subah an alleged GHC600 million termination package, just for them to discontinue a litigation and allow Kelni-GVG to take over smoothly.
Kelni-GVG comes in and guess what, the same debate started all over again. Antagonist demanded for value for money – the protagonists, who used to be antagonists in the Subah era, sung that same fatigued chorus. The difference though, is that Kelni-GVG was set up to do much more than GVG and Subah did. And Kelni-GVG is also the first ever to actually connect their system to the telcos networks and do REAL TIME MONITORING. It became believable for some of us, until recently when the lead protagonist, the Minister of Communications, Ursula Owusu Ekuful, decided it was time to bring back the old fatigued chorus – WE HAVE DISCOVERED THAT PRIOR TO THE COMING OF KELNI-GVG THE TELCOS UNDER-DECLARED REVENUE AND GOVERNMENT LOST GHC300 MILLION IN TAXES. Then at another time, she changed the figure to GHS470. Then she went further and said since the coming of Kelni-GVG, government has saved an extra GHS1.5 billion which would have lost but for Kelni-GVG.
The Minister made those claims at a press conference last year and then in Parliament this year. Those were some very stellar achievements that you would expect the Minister to back with documental evidence so we can all clap for Kelni-GVG and shame the telcos, but evidence was not provided. Well, a conference could be a platform for empty political propaganda, so we can forgive that. But when you go to Parliament and make a claim, it is required that you provide evidence because Parliament is a house of records. Till date the whole country is waiting for the Minister to provide evidence of her claim. She is a lawyer and in law there is a simple but critical rule of thumb – she who alleges must prove. Apparently, she inherited a practice where her predecessors used the so-called real time monitoring schemes to do whatever they wanted and they never ever, at any point, provided evidence of the claims they made about the “success” of the scheme as it related to the integrity of the telcos. It has always been empty words.
So, from GVG to Subah, and now Kelni-GVG, the chorus that telcos under-declared revenue and therefore evaded taxes, has been nothing but an empty claim to justify why the taxpayer had to give millions of dollars (US$89 million in this current case) to ‘needless’ set ups just to feed the insatiable crave of a few people to create, loot and share. The idea of a scheme that polices government revenue flow in real time is a fantastic one. But when you tell us that the scheme is to police revenue flow going forward, and not necessarily to bring in any incremental revenue, as in the case of previous set ups – then you turn round and claim that, but for your set up, the state would have lost some millions, it becomes obvious that without that unproven claim, you know the set up is a waste of money; so, you necessarily have to call telcos thieves just so that your set up will look good. It is not different from what we were told about GVG and Subah.
The clarion call is very clear. This propaganda about telcos hiding revenue from us has now become pedestrian, lame, disingenuous and “Trumpian”. If we claim Kelni-GVG is different from the rest and the benefits are far bigger than the rest, we should be bold to show the evidence to everybody. We can all read and understand so show us the evidence. Indeed, Kelni-GVG is the only set up that is doing actual real-time monitoring. Subah and GVG did not. So why are we not seeing real time or at least near-real-time reports – weekly, monthly, quarterly or something? And even after all this while, the Minister goes to town and to Parliament to make such wild claims that impinges on the integrity of multinationals, who have made such huge investments in our country, and she sees no need to provide the simplest of thing – EVIDENCE.
And it is not as if the telcos have been quiet on the matter. Usually, when telcos have cotton under their “bumbum” over a particular matter, they steer clear of comments that will infuriate the regulator or government. But this one, the Ghana Chamber of Telecommunications and some telcos have come out clearly to say they have not seen any report nor any evidence of revenue they under declared. The Minister claimed the respective telcos were being engaged, but checks from GRA, NCA, Telecom Chamber and individual telcos indicate there is no such engagement with any telco over under declaration of revenue. I remember years ago, when Aggrey Ntim said telcos were evading taxes, the then Managing Director of Kasapa went on radio and challenged him to bring evidence of taxes Kasapa evaded. His lame response was that part of the CST will be used to build cancer units because telecom towers cause cancer. That was supposed to be a Communications Minister!
The noise of silence
What is instructive is that no other government official is making that under-declaration claim except the Minister of Communications, Ursula Owusu Ekuful. The question is why? All her lieutenants, who were very vocal in defending the Kelni-GVG deal, are silent on this claim of under-declaration of revenue by telcos. Even GRA and its supervising ministry, the Finance Ministry, who are actually in charge of tax revenue collection in Ghana, have NEVER for once said anything about under declaration of revenue by telcos, prior to Kelni-GVG. But the Communications Minister, who once worked in the telecom industry, is the one who seem to be in “payback” mode and is bent on running down the integrity of the key industry players at all cost.
My thing is, if you have the arsenal to shoot someone down for the right reasons, load the gun with live ammunition and get the job done. Don’t fire blank bullets and expect everybody to think that your blank bullets have done the job. You are only tickling yourself and laughing. We are still waiting for the evidence so we can run at the telcos with all the fibre in us. Until then, please note that so far, Ursula Owusu Ekuful is the only one claiming that telcos hid revenue from the state. Her deputies and the usual attack dogs are all mute on it because, I dare say that, no one has seen any evidence. I wonder if the people at Kelni-GVG themselves have seen the evidence of what she is claiming.
I have personally sent a formal request to her office seeking for the evidence. It has been several months now and no response. I have asked the NCA, GRA and any person or institution involved in this exercise for the evidence but none of them has provided one. I even wrote an article about the matter once, but no reaction from the Minister. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it must be a duck. The Minister’s claim is fast beginning to look like the figment of someone’s fertile imagination. It just might be one.
But if the Minister insists on maintaining the status quo that telcos hid money from us and they would have done it again if not for Kelni-GVG, without showing any evidence; then she cannot ask for evidence from anyone who says GVG, Subah and indeed, Kelni-GVG are nothing but sophisticated set ups to create, loot and share, without showing any evidence. That would not be fair I believe; well, so is the Minister’s repeated claim that telcos hid money from us without showing a shred of evidence.
At this juncture, I feel like greeting Honorable Kweku Kwarteng, MP for Obuasi West. Good day honorable.