Unprecedented: Kenya-Mauritius tax treaty ratification struck down in court

Back in 2014 I was in touch with Nairobi-based Tax Justice Network Africa, as they prepared to take the Kenyan government to court over its tax treaty with Mauritius, signed in 2012. The treaty seemed a pretty poor deal for Kenya, lacking adequate anti-abuse protection, preventing Kenya from imposing withholding tax on technical fees, and restricting its ability to impose capital gains tax, which it was in the process of introducing. It has taken more than four years, but on Friday the High Court ruled, and it has declared the ratification of the treaty in Kenya to be invalid.

This is a landmark case, because tax treaties are usually technical instruments that undergo only cursory parliamentary scrutiny, if any at all. For a civil society organisation to challenge one in court, let alone win, is quite astonishing. Kenyans I know were excited by the possibilities of the country’s new constitution, and this shows their optimism was not misplaced!

TJN-A argued that the treaty was unconstitutional for two reasons: in content terms, the treaty would lead to an unacceptable loss of revenue; in process terms, it should have been subject to public consultation and approval by parliament. The court actually sided against TJN-A on both counts, stating among other things that it should have provided figures for the revenue lost (which should make it untenable for governments to refuse to do the same) and that consultation with Kenya Revenue Authority constituted adequate public participation. The ruling is that the statutory instrument giving effect to the treaty should have been laid before parliament, and was not. I disagree with a lot if what is in this judgement, but its political impact is nonetheless huge and welcome, as this message from TJN-A’s Alvin Mosioma illustrates:

Here are a few documents for reference:

TJN-A’s press release summarising their argument

My expert opinion submitted to the court by TJN-A (pdf)

The court ruling (pdf)

TJN-A’s press release on the judgement


Thoughts on Deloitte and the China-Mauritius-Mozambique route

Sunday’s Observer carried a story, prompted by ActionAid, based on a presentation given by Deloitte to a group of Chinese investors. The presentation explained how to avoid withholding tax and capital gains tax in Mozambique by routing the investment through Mauritius. It’s great to see this kind of common or garden tax arbitrage highlighted and controversialised.

What caught my eye was Deloitte’s response. The company said:

It is wrong to describe applying double tax treaties, such as the treaty between Mauritius and Mozambique, as tax avoidance. Such treaties are freely negotiated between the Governments of the countries involved.

Double tax treaties exist to enable the countries concerned to strike a balance between the need to encourage investment, including cross-border investment, to raise tax revenue, and to work together with other countries who have the same legitimate concerns to raise revenue and promote business.

The absence of such treaties could result in a reduction of investment, and less profit subject to normal business taxes in the countries concerned.

Any discussion of tax treaties by tax professionals would typically be around the technical and administrative aspects of the treaties and not an expression of favour of any particular country at the expense of any other country.

Leaving aside the questionable empirical basis of the tax treaties-investment link, what interests me is the way the statement completely glosses over the difference between “applying double tax treaties”, and treaty shopping, i.e. structuring investments through an intermediate jurisdiction like Mauritius in order to obtain more preferential treaty benefits. It raises a couple of questions for me.

First, is that obfuscation just a good PR strategy, or is it the case that tax advisers don’t see this distinction as valid? Is advice on tax treaties always aimed at getting the best treaty rates available, with no conceptual (or ethical) difference between a direct investment and one via a tax treaty conduit?

Second, how can we say whether this is tax avoidance or not? At first sight, I’d argue that the intention of the Mozambique-Mauritius treaty is to provide benefits to Mauritian investors in Mozambique, and vice versa, while the absence of a Mozambique-China treaty reflects those governments’ intention that a Chinese firm investing in Mozambique should incur taxes at the non-treaty rates. In that interpretation, tax treaty shopping contravenes the intention of the treaties and is tax avoidance.

But it’s more tricky than that. It’s technically fairly easy to include an anti-abuse clause in a treaty, to spell out this intention. If there isn’t one, it might be because of poor negotiation by Mozambique, or Mauritian unwillingness to renegotiate, but it might also be that Mozambique intends investors from other jurisdictions to use Mauritius as a route to invest, since this reduces the perceived need to negotiate treaties with every potential source of investment. After all, Mozambique only has a handful of treaties, and its Mauritius treaty was signed just after Mauritius adopted the offshore regime that creates the problem. Meanwhile, China is a pretty aggressive negotiator, and those African countries that have signed treaties with China seem to have ended up with less taxing rights than Mozambique has from its treaty with Mauritius. So Mozambique may actually be better off letting Chinese investors exploit its treaty with Mauritius, rather than negotiating a treaty with China. Though it would be better off still in terms of taxing rights if it had neither!

And what about China? It only has a few treaties with African countries, but it does have a treaty with Mauritius. China has foreign tax credits, so the less its multinationals pay abroad, the more revenue it gains (of course a lot of its overseas investment is by state-owned enterprises, and there again, tax savings abroad go straight into government coffers). So maybe China doesn’t see any urgent need to change the status quo. That said, at least half of the African countries with which it has signed tax treaties also have treaties with Mauritius, which suggests a preference for its multinationals investing directly.

One of the main issues in all this is that we don’t know what developing countries intend when they negotiate treaties. To make matters worse, in many developing countries, including (I think) Mozambique, the executive has historically had the power to ratify treaties. So there’s no ‘will of parliament’ to look for, and no public record of any debate among decision-makers. Mozambique’s treaty was signed almost 20 years ago. If my experience talking to officials in other countries is anything to go by, it will be hard to find anyone who can remember how and why this treaty came about. The tax landscape has changed in the meantime, as has the economy, not least with the growth of cross-border services. This would be a good time for Mozambique to review its treaty network.