Compliance Q&A with Ounsougan Joel Ameyou

Joel Ameyou is a corporate lawyer, who comes from Lome, Togo in West Africa where he serves as the Chief Compliance Auditor for the Togo Revenue Ounsougan Joel AmeyouAuthority. Prior to working in the public sector, he worked as a Legal Assistant for Tax and Laws, Ecobank and Cabinet Sylvia Aquereburu, one of the leading legal firms in the West Africa Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) where, as legal advisor and compliance manager, he led them to become the first ISO-certified legal firm in Togo.

CIPE’s Stephanie Bandyk discusses with Joel Ameyou the challenges and opportunities for combating corruption in Togo.

  • Could you briefly describe the rationale for the current anti-corruption initiatives in the Togo Revenue Authority (RA)? What has served as the main motivation or impetus?

Togo is a French-speaking country and our fiscal system is designed after France’s fiscal system – customs, tax administration, and property administration are all different institutions. Because of the economic recession, the government decided to put all these trade institutions together into one – the Revenue Authority. Corruption and ethics are not the only issues facing Togo. Togo lacks a culture of performance. We – the public administration – didn’t have a culture of management focused on results previously. We do not have this practice of auditing, meaning a culture of accountability. In order to try to infuse a culture of accountability in the administration, the government decided to put the Togo Revenue Authority in place.

Global Financial Integrity reported that in 2012 US $991.2 billion left developing countries in illicit financial flows (IFFs). More than US $18 billion is reported in illicit financial flows from Togo, one of the smallest countries in Africa as far as size is concerned, from 2003 through 2012, putting it at the top of the list if it were to consider IFFs/GDP. This situation is the result of the existing tax havens, tax evasion, and money laundering through misleading invoicing in trade transactions, etc.

The current reform is not only a remedy for the lack of transparency and accountability in public administration. It is also the ambition of the Government of Togo, like some other developing countries, to mobilize enough resources internally to finance its own development in the context of restricted international donor funding due to the international financial crisis.

Putting in place the semi-autonomous Revenue Authority is a clear response to poor corporate administration and political governance. Thanks to the political motivation for the reform, it was voted unanimously in the parliament and granted sufficient administrative and financial autonomy. It liberates the Revenue Authority from some undue political influences.

  • What reforms have you been working on with the Revenue Authority?

What we’ve done is put the customs and tax administration together. Some of the vital functions were combined – like human resources, administration, and IT. Then, we introduced new functions such as compliance, anti-corruption investigation, and internal audit, as well as computerized many systems. Regarding results-driven management for customs, I am working for the Revenue Authority but I’m not a public official. I have a contract of performance and year-end goals that I must achieve. I will be held accountable for these deliverables. I can’t say we have succeeded completely yet, but we are making progress and, in spite of challenges, some notable improvements are taking place. For example, the World Bank’s 2015 Doing Business report ranked Togo among the top ten outstanding countries in the world based on most improved performance on the Doing Business indicators.

Compliance and anti-corruption have been in place at the Revenue Authority for about one year, since June 2014. The government tasked Crown Agents, an international development company, with the responsibility of recruiting high level staff (including the commissioner general, the commissioners, the heads of departments, and people like me, coming from the private sector) to take charge of the team of compliance auditors. The Compliance Audit team goes through the system and looks at the non-compliance. We have to look after any kind of non-compliance – violations of international norms, national legal rules, or internal norms such as Code of Conduct and Ethics. If we notice an issue, we notify the appropriate team. If it concerns the code of ethics, for example, we send it to the investigations team.

  • What are red flags that you might look for or signs of non-compliance?

We might notice that a step in the procurement process was not respected. We look at it as a non-compliance, we analyze it, and if we think it presents a risk of corruption, we send it to the investigation team.

We also make sure the tax payers are provided a high quality of service that meets international standards. We intend, as an institution, to become ISO certified in the next three years. One thing that has changed in the Revenue Authority is how people are viewed. Taxpayers are no longer seen as simple users of public service, but as clients on which the sustainability of our jobs depends on them. This is a vital change in our approach. Apart from the anti-corruption hotline, we have our customer feedback mechanism. We are open to clients. If someone complains about anything, we examine their complaint. If, for example, there is a potential miscalculation of someone’s taxes, we send it to the financial audit team, if it is a corruption issue we send it to the anti-corruption investigation team, and if it is a legal issue it is sent to the legal team and so forth.

  • Any success stories to share so far?

The new staff of the Revenue Authority started in June 2014, there the Revenue Authority was operational only six months in the last year. But as a result of the process and procedures we put in place, we had an increase of our fiscal revenues for 23 percent to reach US $ 721 million. This is only liquid assets excluding treasury checks, bills, and other sort of revenues. It is not only the work of our team, it is the work of all the teams through the mechanism of the internal control, and the entire institution – especially people who have accepted the change in the operational departments.

  • The Tax Revenue Authority has recently signed a partnership with Ecobank – how has this helped mitigate corruption in paying taxes?

We used to have cashiers in our Revenue Authority, staff whose job is to receive money from the taxpayers. But if you have contact with money, the temptation is great. The fact that today about 70-80 percent of the income of the Revenue Authority comes through the bank system eliminates some of the bottlenecks we used to have before. Signing the partnership with Ecobank was important because not only does Ecobank, one of the strongest financial groups on the continent, have a good network in Togo where its headquarters are, but this partnership has limited the opportunity for corruption, reducing the number of cash exchanges. Taking cash is a huge risk of corruption and embezzlement. The collection of taxes by banks saves precious time for the tax payers and guarantees more transparency and security for the country’s revenue. The implementation of an online declarations in customs with ASYCUDA World and the ongoing Revenue Authority Management Information (RAMI) system, as well as the coming e-tax are effective modern tools of efficiency.

  • What are some of the biggest challenges facing Togo in this anti-corruption initiative?

Some people have not accepted the change yet. If you tell people, who have been doing something a particular way for 20-25 years, that you cannot do it anymore, you feel the “heat” or resistance to change. It is normal for any human being to be afraid of change, but still we are going through it and moving forward.

There is also a generational issue. Everyone in the Revenue Authority was brought in according to competency and capability – highly talented young people came in from abroad and the private sector with great motivation to do something for their country. But some people think, “you cannot change things in Togo, you are too young for that. People tried before you and they didn’t succeed.” We came in and said we are young but we are going to write new pages of history for this nation and here we are. We are not going back, we are moving forward.

One of the most important assets in the battle is the strong commitment of the government backing our actions. It takes political courage. But I believe we should go further. For citizens to benefit from economic growth, we have no choice but to go further.

There is also an issue related to public administration in general.  For example, when we came in and told everyone working in the RA to declare their assets, they did not accept. Why? Because someone could technically be earning 500 dollars a month, yet have four houses and two hotels as their personal property, for example. Someone like that may think that if you tell him to declare his belongings, it’s for the purpose of targeting him. It was one of the greatest challenges – and we had to explain that we have a kind of amnesty. Whatever you’ve done wrong before is not our problem, we are a new institution, all you have to do is declare what belongs to you, and we see you as wiped clean. But going forward we will monitor your assets to see if they’ve increased abnormally. It’s never late to do the right thing.

Though the government is committed, some people want to see that the staff of other ministries are doing the same thing. For example, if we are asking RA staff to declare their assets, they would like to see the president and other ministers declare their assets too. But the reality is that they cannot require the president or ministers to declare their belongings before they’ve declared their own because these leaders are simply not our staff and our compliance power does not cover their functions.

  • In addition to the public sector reforms such as the ones undertaken by the Revenue Authority, are you seeing private sector efforts to combat corruption (e.g., through ethics training or companies introducing anti-corruption compliance programs)?

In the private sector, anti-corruption compliance is not really popular but many companies have their own internal control system. It’s helpful to prevent fraud and other professional misconduct. Apart from that, some companies began implementing quality management systems, and they began to apply for the International Standards Organization (ISO) certification. When I was a compliance manager in the legal firm, we were the first legal firm to be ISO certified in our sector in Togo. One of the goals of the quality management system is to make the company comply with all the standards, rules and codes, including code of ethics. This system helps companies to also have a sort of anti-corruption system because it implies that everybody has to respect the processes and it requires a reporting system. In addition, the upcoming ISO 37001 anti-bribery standard, if adopted will be a powerful tool we should take advantage of in fighting corruption in the private sector. Unfortunately, many companies in Togo don’t have the financial capacity to implement it and those that have the capacity are often not sufficiently sensitized or do not know the importance of it.

I think that we need civil society and professional organizations like the National CEO’s Council, the Association of Big Enterprises, Professional Association of Banks, and others to take more responsibility in combatting corruption in the private sector and at its root. I believe CIPE could be a valuable partner in that regard.

  • Can you speak about the education program in ethics that you have designed for young people in order to promote transparency and accountability?

Education is the key to building a generation of faithful and dedicated leaders and we, as the young leaders, are focused on the youth. Devoted to helping young people find their own way in business, we are providing technical and legal assistance at their very beginning. Not because the other people are irrecoverable but because as President Obama’s “invest in the next generation” slogan suggests, we are strongly convinced that a sustainable answer to the current ethics crisis is rooted in the education of the youngest. Last year, I launched a program called a “light meeting” with some young leaders in Togo. We gathered young people from our neighborhood of Agoé, a suburb of Lomé, using social media and radio in an all-day seminar focused on leadership skills and development.

The concept is a response to the fact that many young people do not believe in their country anymore. They would rather die in the ocean trying to go to Europe than face the difficulties of Africa. Some of them are convinced that it’s not possible to succeed without getting involved in nepotism and other sorts of corruption. Unfortunately they become worse than the previous generation: cheating in business, corrupting officials, laundering money, evading taxes etc. We have no choice but to break this cycle. Because we are convinced that the education issue is thoroughly tied to a historical legacy, we try to challenge youth with inspirational leadership thoughts and success stories to open their eyes to find that in any calamity there is an opportunity for prosperity. Our intent is to increase the frequency of these seminars and enrich their content with more subjects on ethics and integrity. Among other projects, we are keen to engage in advocacy for the education of ethics as a mandatory subject at least until the last year of high school.

  • Do you have any closing remarks?

Today we have a country that is moving forward, but what I’ve noticed so far is that the image not only for my country but for all of Africa is always related to stories of failure – poverty, malaria, Ebola, etc. Though these issues are real in most cases, I just want to say that there are a lot of success stories on the continent. There are a lot of people succeeding properly, succeeding without any kind of corruption. It is possible to grow up in Africa, Togo, and have a long-lasting, flourishing career and business without compromising yourself. As one of my instructors, Peter Ruyumbu from Rwanda, used to say, “the greatest asset in a leader’s adventure is integrity.”

I remember some weeks ago I had the privilege to sit with Ambassador Andrew Young, one of the early companions of Martin Luther King Jr. He repeated again and again that you can earn more money in a prosperous economy than steal money in a dying economy. It touched me. We can make it and there are many good things that can happen in Africa in the coming years. What we first need is not money, what we need is the know-how. That’s why we, the YALI fellows, are here to learn what the United States has done well and see how we can apply it to our context.

Ounsougan Joel Ameyou joined CIPE for a six-week Professional Development Experience through IREX as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, the flagship program of President Obama’s Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI). YALI is a highly competitive program that brings 500 young African professionals to the U.S. As a YALI Fellow, he spent six weeks at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young International Center for Public Policy studying Public Management before coming to CIPE.

Stephanie Bandyk is a Program Assistant for Global Programs at CIPE.