Under pressure from revelations in the leaked Panama Papers, the Rwandan government has confirmed that it used an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands to lease private airplanes for its top leaders.
But don't expect this intriguing admission to cause any political waves in Rwanda. Its media are under the tight control of President Paul Kagame and his authoritarian government, and they have little interest in investigating his offshore activities. A search of the website of its leading English-language newspaper, the New Times, found not a single mention of the Panama Papers.
It's unsurprising that many African officials and their families have been named in the Panama Papers. In Africa, as in many other parts of the world, there's a long tradition of using offshore finances to hide money or to bypass local regulations (although offshore assets can also have legitimate and legal uses). But the Panama Papers are revealing just how widespread the practice has become.
The leaked documents are causing discomfort for many of Africa's more autocratic regimes. Some, like Rwanda, are trying to keep the revelations out of the media. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the government of President Joseph Kabila has warned of potential legal action against any media that publish the names of Congolese politicians who are cited in the Panama Papers.
"You have to be very careful [before] naming names, because you may end up in court," government spokesman Lambert Mende warned journalists at a press conference on Friday, according to a news agency report.
The Panama Papers revealed that Mr. Kabila's twin sister, Jaynet Kabila, is a co-owner of an offshore company with major business interests in Congo, including a stake in Vodacom Congo, a leading mobile-phone company. Ms. Kabila is a member of parliament and an influential member of the President's inner circle, according to Congo analysts. The leaked information about her offshore assets has lent credence to widespread rumours that the President's family has extensive business interests in Congo.
In Rwanda, the Panama Papers uncovered the offshore activities of Brigadier-General Emmanuel Ndahiro, a close confidant of Mr. Kagame and a former spymaster.
The leaked documents showed that Gen. Ndahiro used a London address in 1998 to become a director of a British Virgin Islands company, Debden Investments Ltd., which reportedly owned a jet aircraft. At the time of this directorship, Gen. Ndahiro was the main spokesman for Mr. Kagame's military.
Three days after the leaked documents were published, the Rwandan finance ministry issued a terse statement about Debden Investments, confirming that the government had established the offshore company "as a special purpose vehicle to secure strategic services, at a time when the government was operating under very restrictive conditions."
It said the company's activities had included "the lease of a secure and convenient mode of transportation for government leaders." It denied that the company had been involved in any "illegal transactions or tax avoidance."
In total, at least 17 African countries have been cited in the Panama Papers, with the leaked information revealing the offshore activities of senior officials or their families, or major investors. Most of these African governments have preferred to stay silent, ignoring the leaked documents. South Africa's government is among the few to pledge that its revenue authorities will investigate individuals whose offshore activities are documented in the leak.
South African President Jacob Zuma's nephew, Khulubuse Zuma, was mentioned in the Panama Papers for his links to an offshore company that acquired oil interests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He has denied any wrongdoing.
In Nigeria, the leaked documents have implicated one of the country's most powerful politicians, Senate president Bukola Saraki. The documents suggest that he is linked to four offshore assets, including a property in London's expensive Belgravia neighbourhood, which are officially listed under his wife's name. Civil-society groups in Nigeria are demanding his resignation, accusing him of using his wife's name to bypass the rules that require him to declare his assets. He has insisted that he has no reason to step down.
In Zimbabwe, the Panama Papers showed that two of President Robert Mugabe's cronies were able to dodge U.S. and European sanctions for several years by running their businesses through offshore companies. The offshore companies, run by an arms dealer and a mining tycoon with close links to Mr. Mugabe, were not entirely shut down until 2013 – more than four years after the sanctions on the two men were announced – according to reports on the leaked documents.
In oil-rich Angola, the documents found that the Petroleum Minister, José Maria Botelho de Vasconcelos, was one of two individuals who had power of attorney for an offshore company in 2002, during his first term as petroleum minister. He has denied any wrongdoing.