By Today’s Investigation Team
At a time, many indigenous Ghanaian businesses are suffering from the sledgehammer of the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA), some multi-national companies are not only enjoying rebate from the nation’s revenue mobilizer, but also in cohort with the GRA to rip the country off millions of Ghana Cedis. (There are other multi-national companies within the chain that we would expose in the coming days).
The crunch economic conditions of the country have rendered many Ghanaian companies incapable of breaking even; let alone to declare profit. Others have folded up as a result of the dire economic situation. That notwithstanding, the GRA would not renege on it public obligation of demanding their tax-revenues.
As a result, some of the companies who have failed to own up to their tax obligations have had their companies shut down; their owners either jailed or standing trail for tax fraud at the special tax tribunal. However, painstaking investigations conducted by The Today newspaper have established that not same measure of tax-demand is exerted by the GRA on some Multi-National companies.
One classical case involves the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA) and ECOBANK Ghana Limited. The two are at the centre of what seemed an intriguing GHS73.8 Million scandal which some industry players who are privy to, have described not only as a clear breach of banking and finance ethos, but suspect a deliberate conspiracy and connivance of the two, to rip-off the Ghanaian tax payer.
At the centre of what many industry players describe as melodrama is Zoe Petroleum Limited, a wholly Ghanaian-owned Oil Marketing Company (OMC) that operates in the Gas industry, with its subsidiary— ZEN, being one of the market leaders in the Gas station industry throughout the country. The gas station also supplies fuel and lubricants to many mining companies operating in Ghana.
Today gathered from its investigations that Zoe/Zen is one of the most reliable clients of ECOBANK Ghana Limited. In 2021, Zoe Petroleum issued multiple cheques worth GHS73,885,101.00 (Seventy-Three Million Eight and Eighty-Five Thousand One Hundred and One Ghana Cedis Ninety-Nine Pesewas) covering the payment of petroleum tax revenues to the Ghana Revenue Authority. ECOBANK serves as one of the receiver agencies of GRA.
ZOE raised credit with ECOBANK Ghana, to be able to raise funds to cover its revenue debts with the GRA. It was on the basis of the granted credit that ECOBANK Ghana, issued Zoe Petroleum value-added credit covering the stated amount and was paid to GRA through the Tema Long branch of ECOBANK Ghana, investigations by this paper have revealed. The said amount, went through all relevant procedures within ECOBANK’s chain of clearance and approval before payment was made.
Zoe Petroleum anticipated that after the payment of its debts to the GRA, the state revenue mobilizer would open its pipelines to enable the company starts its operation to raise money to settle its debts with ECOBANK Ghana. The paper discovered that prior to ECOBANK bailing out Zoe Petroleum, the GRA had shut down Zoe Petroleum’s gas and fuel pipelines because the company’s tax revenue debts were piling up into thousands of millions.
However, days after the payment, ECOBANK detected that Zoe Petroleum’s pipelines were still shut out, making it impossible for the company to start business. Snippets of information pieced together by our investigation team, although unconfirmed, suggest that the order to keep Zoe Petroleum out of business was as usual “an order from above”.
Why? It’s the contention of many who know of the matter that Zoe Petroleum is suspected to be leading financier of a major political party in the country. ECOBANK Ghana then had to device every means possible to retrieve their funds from GRA. The bank therefore notified GRA to return the funds because they (ECOBANK) had detected a mistake in the approval of the transaction.
Therefore, after series of meetings between the Commissioner General of GRA, Rev. Dr. Amisshaddai Owusu-Obeng and the Board of Directors of GRA, the Authority decided to return the stated amount to ECOBANK Ghana. There was however, a strong objection to the return of the funds by a member of the GRA Board (name withheld for now) to the action taken by other colleague Board members.
In fact, some legal team members of GRA initially kicked against the “refund”; but had to later acquiesce to the majority Board decision on the matter, The Today newspaper can state on authority. The position of the said legal team members is corroborated by an official investigative report on the matter which states categorically that it was wrong for the GRA to have returned the funds.
So the logical question then becomes, if the said amount went through all the stages and indeed approved by the head officer of ECOBANK, how justifiable could the ECOBANK claim be? From an official twenty-eight page receipts booklet in possession of Today, Zoe Petroleum has been depositing cash payment at the ECOBANK (GH) Ltd-Tema Long Room totaling some GHS78, 269, 946.44 as at April 19th, 2021 without any problem. Everything was thoroughly checked and payment done without issues, although the figure is bigger than that which has drawn huge dispute.
One industry expert who we sought his opinion on the issue was baffled at encircling rigmarole. In his opinion, “definitely, such a huge transaction can only be done through the bank’s or ECOBANK head office; whether it is a direct transfer or a cheque issued. This will be handled by clearing; but must first be sanctioned by the bigger officer in the Finance Department and the CEO.”
He continued: “So the beneficiary should just pay the chequeinto his/her bank account even if the account is at a Zabzugubranch; it’s the duty of the bank branch where the account is cleared.” The deduction is thus clear; it’s one big transaction that would have to go through clearance and be approved by a superior officer at the ECOBANK Ghana, Head Office. And from our narration so far, such due process was followed by ECOBANK.
GRA’s response on the issue
The Ghana Revenue Authority admitted to a Today newspaper questionnaire that indeed Zoe Petroleum issued ECOBANK Ghana Limited, cheques covering the “payment of petroleum levies”. The Commissioner General of GRA, Reverend Dr. Ammisshadai Owusu-Obeng disclosed to the paper that “ECOBANK credited GRA account and gave value to the cheques”. He however, could not answer why the Authority returned the said amount when it has been approved and given value by ECOBANK. He only remarked “it’s a Board decision”.
On what was the reason given by ECOBANK in its demand notice, this is what Commissioner Amisshaddai had to say, “ECOBANK said they mistakenly gave GRA value when the funds had not cleared”. We again posed the question whether GRA was aware such transactions go through clearance and subsequent approval given by the highest officer of the facility, presumably, the CEO. And so why would GRA pay the price for a supposed mistake made by ECOBANK? The Commissioner General just stated “ECOBANK question”.
When the paper further queried “Shouldn’t ECOBANK demand the funds from Zoe Petroleum instead, the GRA boss answered “Because they mistakenly gave value to the funds when chequeshad not cleared”. When we asked him whether he was aware that GRA’S legal department advised against the return of the funds, Commissioner Ammisshaddai stated “We do not recall that the Legal Department did that”.
In his answer to our question that a member of GRA’s Board of Directors objected to the “refund” of the money, the Commissioner General just stated “Board decisions”. We tried finding out from the Commissioner General whether the GRA decision can stand the test of best finance practice, Rev. Dr. Ammisshadai Owusu-Obeng replied “The best financial practices were followed based on advice”. That advice, according to the Commissioner General was given by the GRA Board.
The paper demanded to know why GRA would take Zoe Petroleum to court for a supposed “omission” committed by ECOBANK and whether any such action shouldn’t instead come from ECOBANK? This is the answer given by the Commissioner General: “In our opinion, ECOBANK gave value for the cheques and were reversed when the cheques were returned”.
Again we demanded to know why GRA sent Zoe Petroleum demand notice on October 14th, 2021, demanding the recovery of Petroleum tax revenues after GRA had returned the company’s cleared and approved cheques. This was the answer provided by the Commissioner Amisshaddai: “Because the cheques had not cleared and Zoe Petroleum still owed taxes. Zoe Petroleum has been charged with issuing dud cheques and failure to pay levies on Petroleum lifted”.
ECOBANK Ghana would however, not honour our enquiries which we presented on a formal questionnaire, similar to the one we sent to the GRA. They would not reply to our reminders on the subject. Underground investigations by the paper however, suggest that ECOBANK’s silence was deliberately induced by GRA lest they (ECOBANK) give Today answers that may contradict that of the GRA.
Today newspaper’s further investigations into the subject
Further sleuth hounds by the paper on the subject have revealed some interesting perspectives. According to one top finance and banking personnel, the fact that “ECOBANK credited GRA account and gave value to the cheques” meant “a confirmation of the cheques by ECOBANK or having sufficient funds in the account for the cheques to clear. It’s just a terminology”.
He further alluded: “It could also mean the cheques being COMPLETE and REGULAR. That’s amount in words and figures must correspond. The cheques must be dated; the chequemust be signed at the front; the cheque must be endorsed at the back. Also, it could mean the cheques must be opened”.
Today discovered that the other issue that makes farcical, the answers provided by the Commissioner General is that the return of the funds was approved by the GRA Board of Directors. Does the GRA Board have the power or mandate to approve of public spending or any other contingency relating to tax revenue? The answer, we found out is a big NO!
The Comptroller and Accountant General’s Department has the legitimate mandate as per the Public Financial Management Act, 2016 (Act 921) to: Receive all Public and Trust monies payable into the Consolidated Fund (done through its staff stationed in all government departments including revenue ones. The Consolidated Fund is a fund established by law (FAA) into which are paid all revenue and other monies (receipts and trust monies raised or received on behalf of government, and from which all lawful disbursements are made on behalf of the government.)
Payment of money on authorization of such is made by the Minister responsible for Finance. That suggests that “The Comptroller and Accountant-General may on a warrant issued on the authority of the Minister responsible for Finance, pay out of the Consolidated Fund and other public funds during the financial year”. So at what point did the GRA Board become legitimate authority to issue directive on public funds?
According to the GRA Commissioner General, the amount was paid into GRA accounts. He however failed to explain whether GRA operates a separate account outside of the Consolidated Funds where tax revenues are paid into. If that were to be the case, wouldn’t that constitute an aberration of the established public finance act?
Although ECOBANK attributed the anomaly to human error, in its demand notice of recovery of tax revenues from Zoe Petroleum, the GRA stated in its letter among other things that ECOBANK Ghana “dishonored your cheques for the payment of taxes amounting to GHS73,885,101.99 (Seventy-Three Million Eight Hundred and Eighty-Five Thousand One Hundred and One Ghana Cedis Ninety-Nine Cedis, because the chequeswere dud”.
The GRA thus gave the Petroleum company “seven (7) days from receipts of this letter to make payment of the said amount to the GRA.” The letter further warned Zoe Petroleum that “unless payment is received within the stipulated time (7days), the GRA will not hesitate to exercise all remedies under the law to enforce payment.” It’s therefore not surprising that GRA has resorted to court action to retrieve the amount from Zoe Petroleum.