Kenya’s new plan to wipe out financial criminal enterprise faces a litmus test

Monday June 10 2019

Kenya Bankers Association said its members were well-equipped to handle the transition to the new currency regime.

Kenya Bankers Association said its members were well-equipped to handle the transition to the new currency regime. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JAMES ANYANZWA
By JAMES ANYANZWA
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Kenya’s decision to withdraw its Ksh1,000 ($10) notes from circulation by October 1 was last week facing strong legal headwinds in the form of two legal suits against the Central Bank of Kenya.

The suits seek to challenge Central Bank of Kenya governor Patrick Njoroge’s decision to use the transition to new bank notes to strike the nerve centre of the multibillion shilling illicit financial flows industry that has recently benefited from massive looting and hoarding of public funds in private homes.

That decision came in the form of an order withdrawing from circulation the Ksh1,000 note by October 1 — giving holders of the notes 90 days to comply.

“By Gazette Notice No. 4849 of May 31, 2019, all the older Ksh1,000 banknotes shall be withdrawn and will cease to be legal tender on October 1, 2019. All other denominations are unaffected and will continue to circulate alongside the New Generation banknotes,” the CBK said in a statement Thursday adding that the objective of the measure is “to deal conclusively with emerging concerns about illicit financial flows and counterfeits.”

Aside from questioning the legality of the sudden withdrawal of the Ksh1,000 notes from circulation (a process also known as demonetisation), the suits are also challenging use of the image of Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta on the notes contrary to the constitutional provision barring use an individual’s portrait on Kenyan money.

The CBK has maintained that demonetisation of the currency is meant to curb illicit financial flows, money laundering and terrorism financing, the three major vices which it believes have rocked the Kenyan economy in the recent past and denied the exchequer the much needed revenues through tax evasion.

NEW NOTES

Kenyans have continued to debate the possible impact of the sudden withdrawal of the notes on trade and pricing of goods and services as well as its effectiveness in dealing with tax evaders and hoarders of illicit funds.

Lack of enthusiasm for the Central Bank of Kenya’s latest move is informed by the fact that Nairobi has in recent years enacted key legislations targeting economic crimes without much to show for it because institutions empowered to deliver on the mandate failed to hold their brief.

But these laws have not prevented mega theft of public funds and well as the flow of illicit money in the Kenyan economy as Dr Njoroge confessed in his June 1 statement “that illicit financial flows have become a great cause of concern to the government.”

Thiong’o Irungu, an anti-money laundering officer said effective enforcement of the regulations is needed to curb the laundering of illicit funds and terrorism finances through the country’s porous borders. Mr Irungu pointed an accusing finger at the Judiciary and the Executive arms of government for weakening the fight against corruption through their actions.

“The Judiciary has not done well in serving justice in cases involving financial criminals. That is why nobody is shaken by the pronouncement of possible prosecution. Suspects go through the process with negligible consequences,” he said adding that the biggest paradox is the continued appointment of corruption suspects to high public offices.

It appears that the CBK, which hosts one of the most powerful institutions in the fight against illicit cash (the Financial Reporting Centre) has now opted to deal with financial criminals by declaring the current Ksh1000 bank notes void beginning October 1.

The Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya (ICPAK) however said the demonetisation project could produce mixed results on the economy, including a rise in inflation.

“At the initial stage, it might lead to a shortfall in circulation of cash which will impact small business and households that mainly depend on cash transactions as cash assets will be returned to the banks for exchange. But as the economy is remonetised and conditions normalise, the uncertainty should dissipate,” said Edwin Makori, the ICPAK chief executive.

WORMING BACK

Meanwhile, the Kenya Bankers Association said its members were well-equipped to handle the transition to the new currency regime but cautioned banks to be vigilant as there may be attempts to launder illicit funds.

A number of countries have used currency demonetisation in the fight against illicit finance with varied degrees of success.

Myanmar and Zimbabwe stand out as countries that demonetised their currencies with little success.

India in November 2016 used the same means to take its Rs1,000 and Rs500 bank notes out of circulation with mixed results. The Reserve Bank of India said the aim was to catch black money hoarders, rake in more tax revenue and force a transition to use of digital cash. The RBI later confirmed that 99.3 per cent of the demonetised notes were returned to the banks, meaning that almost all illicit cash found its way back into the banking system.

Two and-a-half years after India’s demonetisation exercise it has become clear that demonetisation was not a definite success the government expected because the country’s black money problem has not gone away.

Although there have been some gains in tax collections and the country has progressed toward digital payments critics have argued that these advances could have been achieved through less stressful means.

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