Tax Amnesties in Africa: An Analysis of the Voluntary Disclosure Programme in Uganda
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Tax amnesties have taken centre stage as a compliance tool in recent years. The OECD estimates that since 2009 tax amnesties in 40 jurisdictions have resulted in the collection of an additional €102 billion in tax revenue. A number of African countries have introduced tax amnesties in the last decade, including Nigeria, Namibia, South Africa and Tanzania. Despite their global popularity, the efficacy of tax amnesties as a tax compliance tool remains in doubt. The revenue is often below expectations, and it probably could have been raised through effective use of regular enforcement measures. It is also argued that tax amnesties might incentivise non-compliance – taxpayers may engage in non-compliance in the hope of benefiting from an amnesty. This paper examines the administration of tax amnesties in various jurisdictions around the world, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Kenya and South Africa. The paper makes a cost-benefit analysis of these and other tax amnesties – and from this analysis develops a model tax amnesty, whose features maximise the benefits of a tax amnesty while minimising the potential costs. The model tax amnesty: (1) is permanent, (2) is available only to taxpayers who make a voluntary disclosure, (3) relieves taxpayers of penalties, interest and the risk of prosecution, but treats intentional and unintentional non-compliance differently, (4) has clear reporting requirements for taxpayers, and (5) is communicated clearly to attract non-compliant taxpayers without appearing unfair to the compliant ones. The paper then focuses on the Ugandan tax amnesty introduced in July 2019 – a Voluntary Disclosure Programme (VDP). As at 7 November 2020, this initiative had raised USh16.8 billion (US$6.2 million) against a projection of USh45 billion (US$16.6 million). The paper examines the legal regime and administration of this VDP, scoring it against the model tax amnesty. It notes that, while the Ugandan VDP partially matches up to the model tax amnesty, because it is permanent, restricted to taxpayers who make voluntary disclosure and relieves penalties and interest only, it still falls short due to a number of limitations. These include: (1) communication of the administration of the VDP through a public notice, instead of a practice note that is binding on the tax authority; (2) uncertainty regarding situations where a VDP application is made while the tax authority has been doing a secret investigation into the taxpayer’s affairs; (3) the absence of differentiated treatment between taxpayers involved in intentional non-compliance, and those whose non-compliance may be unintentional; (4) lack of clarity on how the VDP protects the taxpayer when non-compliance involves the breach of other non-tax statutes, such as those governing financial regulation; (5)absence of clear timelines in the administration of the VDP, which creates uncertainty;(6)failure to cater for voluntary disclosures with minor errors; (7) lack of clarity on VDP applications that result in a refund position for the applicant; and (8) lack of clarity on how often a VDP application can be made. The paper offers recommendations on how the Ugandan VDP can be aligned to match the model tax amnesty, in order to gain the most from this compliance tool.