Sh1.2m surprise prize for advocacy against tax evasion

Saturday August 26 2017

Stella displays the certificate that came with

Stella displays the certificate that came with the award. PHOTO| DENNIS ONSONGO 

By ELVIS ONDIEKI
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At first, Stella Adhiambo thought it was a con game. This Birgitt Rambalski who was informing her through Facebook Messenger that she had been selected for an award by a German city did not sound very convincing.

Being considered for the Bremen Solidarity Prize? Why her, of all people? How did they even get to know about her?

Questions raged in her mind that day in February. But somehow, Ms Adhiambo decided to “play along”. As a test, she enquired what was required of her.

“I was very certain if they told me they needed my credit card details and such, I would know this was just one of those...,” she says.

WHEELS STARTED TURNING

That is how the wheels started turning and it culminated in her receiving the Bremen Solidarity Prize on June 18 from the president of Bremen’s senate, who is also the city’s mayor. Bremen is a city in northwest Germany.

The award included a sculpture, a certificate and 10,000 Euros (Sh1.2 million) in cash.

“I can’t begin to explain how humbling yet uplifting this is for me,” an elated Ms Adhiambo said in her acceptance speech at the Bremen City Hall.

“I dedicate this award to all the people I have worked with in this journey; the youth in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Zambia and all over Africa,” she said.

The person who read a speech to laud her at the event was Dr Peter Eigen, the founder of Transparency International. It was an unimaginable honour, Ms Adhiambo says.

But how did she get there? The Bremen Senate had, after a long search, picked her as this year’s recipient of an award it gives out once every two years to people who “stand up for democracy and human rights” or who champion causes to “overcome effects of colonialism and racism”, according to the city’s website.

A 17-member panel advises the senate on who to choose and Ms Rambalski, who made the initial contact with Ms Adhiambo, is one of them.

The award has been issued since 1988, with the first ever recipients being Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

Ms Adhiambo, through her win, added Kenya to the list of countries whose citizens have taken the award in the 15 honours given out so far.

Besides South Africa, nationalities previously awarded include El Savador, Brazil, China, Germany, Rwanda, DR Congo, Israel, Argentina, Columbia, among others.

Ms Adhiambo told Lifestyle that this year, the search for a winner almost hit a dead end.

“The jury sat down to search for a recipient for the award. They got 16 nominees, who for some reason did not impress them as much,” she says.

Afterwards, one of the panellists discovered the work Ms Adhiambo had been doing.

“I don’t know whether she went to my Twitter handle or some news articles or something she had read. I’d also done interviews with a lot of international media, including Deutsche Welle (Germany’s public international broadcaster),” Ms Adhiambo says.

The panellist informed her colleagues and they agreed to research on Ms Adhiambo. The probe included calling organisations she had worked with. It is after various confirmations that she was contacted.

Stella Adhiambo delivering her speech while

Stella Adhiambo delivering her speech while accepting the Bremen Solidarity Prize inside the historic Rathaus Bremen on June 18. PHOTO| COURTESY

Ms Adhiambo’s work involves demanding for transparency among companies that run businesses in Africa when it comes to paying taxes to host governments.

One of the topics she has been discussing whenever she finds a chance to talk to audiences in Africa, Europe or anywhere else is the need to get rid of tax havens — the countries that give leeway to businesses and individuals to amass profits without making commensurate returns to host countries.

These havens, given their lenient terms, also allow wily traders in various countries to hide their cash knowing their deposits will remain fat however long they stay there. Some of the practices in such jurisdictions are not illegal but face a moral question.

“Brigitt told me it’s an award for my advocacy work; that this year the award was to go to somebody who is doing something to prevent the human migration that is taking place between Africa and Europe now. Europe has had a very extensive conversation and introspection and they realised that a lot of the resources that were taken out of Africa are now impacting on our behaviour.”

Ms Adhiambo adds: “People are going to look for opportunities there (in Europe), and for that reason they have decided that they’re going to support work to keep Africans in Africa. As absurd as it looks, they linked my tax justice work to the same.”

She says Kenya is one of the many countries that have lost billions due to the tax havens, and hopes that more people can be armed with information to enable them question the deals with local-based firms.

“A lot of the multinational corporations come to Africa because this is the ripest ground for their business. By the time they come to mine oil in Kenya or Uganda, it’s because this is the best place where they can come and do their businesses. None of our policy-makers should treat them as if they are coming to do us a favour. They should engage with them like equal partners,” she says.

In her acceptance speech, she gave an analogy of humankind before governments came in, where anarchy ensured that only the strong survived. But even with the onset of governments, she said, there are people who prefer a return to anarchy.

“The [pro-anarchy] people are the individual politicians, entire governments, the tax consultants who help companies manipulate their taxes; they are the Mossack Fonseca of our times; they are the rulers who have created tax havens in their countries,” she said.

The Mossack Fonseca she mentioned is a law firm that came to the limelight last year following revelations that it had registered bank accounts on behalf of a number of individuals across the globe – Kenyans included – in Panama, a tax haven in the Caribbean.

Papers released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, dubbed the “Panama Papers” listed former Deputy Chief Justice Kalpana Rawal among the people who had dealings with Mossack Fonseca. Also exposed in last year’s revelations were former CMC chairman Jeremiah Kiereini, former Attorney-General Charles Njonjo and Mr Aly Popat, among those linked to offshore accounts. The individuals behind some companies associated with Kenya were not unmasked. However, having money in offshore accounts like in Panama is not in itself illegal and there is no proof of wrongdoing on the part of the named individuals. 

WIKILEAKS...

As far back as a decade ago, claims of wealthy Kenyans stashing their cash in tax havens were flying about. One of the most damning came in 2007 through a leaked version of the Kroll Report released online by anti-secrecy organisation, WikiLeaks.

President Mwai Kibaki had sanctioned the preparation of the report by Kroll, an international risk consultancy, but its details were never published until WikiLeaks spilled the beans and named prominent individuals thought to have stashed money in secret foreign accounts and registered companies overseas as well as their wealth in Kenya.

The real number of Kenyans who operate offshore accounts may never be known and details of how much Kenya-based corporates are inured into the vice may not be fully revealed. But Ms Adhiambo hopes that by creating awareness, people can push for more accountability.

“Businesses are afraid of shame. So, the best thing to do is to, in a very safe way, ensure that you circulate as much as possible information about the malpractice to ensure that they conform,” she advises.

She was first involved in tax justice campaigns while working in Malawi under ActionAid International, a 45-year-old firm involved in the fight against poverty and injustice.

Her being posted to Malawi in 2013 opened a new chapter in her long life in advocacy.

It all started when she was a Form Three student at Buruburu Girls’ High School in Nairobi in 1999. As a member of the Child Rights’ Club, she was selected to represent young people in a UN forum on the rights of children.

She was later chosen to represent Kenyan children at a function held in Nairobi. A year later, in 2001, she was selected to represent Kenyan children at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children that was held in New York.

By then she had cleared from high school and had joined the Child Rights Defenders’ Movement.

“Let’s just say it all started in high school; focusing on children. But as soon as I transitioned into youth, it naturally became my responsibility to also start agitating for my rights,” she says.

From there, she did a number of undertakings that included being a consultant for the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission in 2002 and being a research assistant for Unicef in the same year.

In 2004, she was involved in the “Cancel Debts for Children” initiative championed by former Budalang’i MP Ababu Namwamba.

“That is when I started actively engaging in tax justice campaigns,” she says.

In 2006 Stella was hired to support a programme at the Africa Youth Programme for a few months before going to Liberia to help the government to develop its national youth policy.

Around that time she also joined the Africa Youth Trust where she became an administration assistant in 2007 before rising to be the deputy executive director in 2012.

In between, she was studying law at the University of South Africa and she graduated in 2007.

ADVISOR TO THE YOUTH

From there, she was recruited by ActionAid and posted to Malawi. She worked there between November 2013 and March 2016, her first posting being as an advisor to the youth.

“It’s also there that I also had a very specific assignment to support the work of the international secretary of ActionAid on tax justice,” she recalls.

Malawi being mineral-rich, she says, has fallen prey to wily companies that enter pacts with the government which leave room for tax evasion.

“For example, they had an Australian company that applied to mine uranium. And they did not come as the company itself. They sent what they would call a subsidiary. And it indicated that they had sent the company with a loan from the mother company. This company did some mining for about six years and managed to get about $48 million in tax, which they got away with through different mechanisms. One of them was that they set up a management office in Netherlands,” she recalls.

From March 2015, while still working with ActionAid, she got to be involved in an international campaign on tax justice.

That saw her visit Denmark, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium among others.

“In Belgium, we were targeting the EU governments. This was to get them to appreciate the kind of struggle that African countries are going through, the kind of services that we’re missing out on because the resources that could have provided for those services are being repatriated out of the countries because of tax evasion and tax avoidance,” she says.

In all, Ms Adhiambo has visited more than 11 countries in Africa and an almost similar number of States in Europe, mostly to discuss tax justice.

Her talks, sometimes sponsored by one organisation or another, target university students and women.

In Malawi, for instance, she trained approximately 750 youth on tax justice.

“I am basically getting them to start reviewing the profit base of companies like Amazon, Google, Coca-Cola — some of those multinational corporations that are in Africa — and to see that in fact some of them have profits that are larger than single economies of states in Africa,” she says.

In her August 12 trip to Nigeria, her target was university students, who she believes have the power to add more people into the conversation.

To illustrate her talks, she is usually armed with the 2012 African Union report Illicit Financial Flows by a commission headed by former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki. The 2015 Panama Papers and the 2014 Luxembourg Leaks also provide talking points.

ONE BILLION EVERY YEAR

“Africa loses $51 billion every year to corruption, this amount being three times more than what the continent receives in foreign aid. I dare say if Africa was not losing revenue through such illicit financial flow and tax evasion, then it would not be needing donations,” she said in her Bremen speech.

Such tough talk may make observers think she was born in the trappings of power. But far from it. She was born and raised in the Ayany Estate of Nairobi’s Kibera slum. A second born in a family of five children, she says her tribulations when she was younger give her the zeal to fight.

With her 35th birthday beckoning, she knows she will no longer be considering herself a youth.

“I no longer represent young people in activities. I’m playing an advisory role,” says Ms Adhiambo, who is currently studying international relations and politics via correspondence with the Atlantic International University.

When she is not travelling, she can be found at the YMCA offices on State House Road, where she is engaged in an education programme with the Emerging Leaders’ Foundation.

And after her long service in advocacy, most of which she says has been voluntary, she thinks it is about time she settled... “I intend to settle down. I happen to be a very forthright person, very straightforward. So, I happen to scare a lot of men. That, plus the nature of my work – I’ve been moving around a lot – has impeded on my social life a little,” she says.