The troubling connections between ‘politically exposed persons’ and Chinese companies within Ghana's fisheries sector

An illustration showing individuals classified as politically exposed persons in Ghana who are listed as owners of fisheries companies. Photo by Solomon Nyamekye, used with permission.

This story was originally published by iWatch Africa, and a shorter version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Samuel Abayitey, a Ghanaian fishery observer, disappeared under mysterious circumstances in October 2023 while aboard the Korean-owned trawler vessel Marine 707. His vanishing, just like the unresolved case of Emmanuel Essien years earlier, points to a troubling pattern of risk and vulnerability for observers in Ghana’s fisheries sector.

An investigation led by iWatch Africa in partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s Ocean Reporting Network sheds light on the nexus of power and privilege within Ghana’s fisheries industry. It reveals troubling connections between “politically exposed persons,” fishing trawler ownership and the pervasive lack of accountability.

According to Ghana’s regulations, politically exposed persons (PEPs) are individuals who are or have been entrusted with prominent public functions both in Ghana or in foreign countries and people or entities associated with them. 

At the heart of these revelations stands Kenneth Dzirasah, a former deputy speaker of Ghana’s parliament, former member of parliament for the South Tongu constituency in Ghana and prominent member of the biggest opposition party, the National Democratic Congress.

Dzirasah serves as a director and shareholder of Kenbonad Fisheries and has been identified as a PEP in the Thomson Reuters World-Check. Despite his influential status, official company records obtained showed that Dzirasah failed to disclose his PEP status, raising concerns about potential conflicts of interest, the integrity of Ghana’s regulatory framework and the effort to combat tax evasion and money laundering.

In an interview with iWatch, professor Kojo Nyarko, a legal expert and head of African Fisheries Transparency Network said the failure to disclose PEP status raises “serious questions about money laundering, tax evasion, and influence peddling” within Ghana’s fisheries sector, underscoring the need for “greater oversight and scrutiny”.

In 2020, Ghana implemented stringent revisions to its anti-money laundering laws, placing heightened scrutiny on the activities of PEPs. This legislative overhaul was accompanied by a directive from the Central Bank in 2022, designating PEPs as “high-risk” customers and requiring financial institutions to rigorously verify the source of their wealth. Additionally, the directive mandated the implementation of robust risk management systems to identify PEPs and obtain senior management approval before establishing any business relationship with them.

An assessment of company documents from 25 fishing companies authorized to operate in Ghana over the last five years unveiled a startling reality: not a single director or shareholder had disclosed their PEP status. Only four companies had ventured to declare beneficial ownership.

The evidence revealed that a staggering 32 percent of these companies were either owned or controlled by PEPs, with over 80 percent connected to Chinese ownership interests.

In 2020, a report by China Dialogue Ocean showed that the Meng Xin 15 fishing trawler, where Emmanuel Essien was last seen, and registered under Kenbonad Fisheries, was owned by the Chinese company Dalian Mengxin Ocean Fisheries.

When iWatch Africa approached the former speaker and director of Kenbonad, Dzirasah regarding the missing observer, the nondisclosure of his PEP status and the potential connections between his company and Chinese entities, Dzirasah offered little clarity.

“It is in the pipeline [filing his PEP status],” he responded, while insisting that he “cannot assist” with any answers when pressed about his company’s relationship with Chinese interests.

Furthermore, In 2017, Ghana’s Fisheries Commission, an agency under the ministry of fisheries and aquaculture, accused Kenbonad Fisheries of unauthorized fish transfers within Ghanaian waters and of operating trawlers with unqualified captains, but failed to revoke their license.

Data obtained from the country’s ministry of fisheries during this investigation revealed a troubling pattern: Kenbonad Fisheries had previously failed to pay fishery infraction fines imposed by the state.

Despite these allegations, Francis Ashiteye Armah, an official of the company, told iWatch Africa that “the company had settled all outstanding fines,” contradicting official records.

In addition to the companies investigated is Global Marine Consult, authorized to operate the Meng Xin 5 and 6 in Ghana’s waters. Investigations revealed that the company’s directors and shareholders are presently Awurama Ofori-Ani and Edwin Ofori-Ani, both acknowledged as beneficial owners. Compelling evidence suggests that Awurama Ofori-Ani is a PEP who, as of February 2024, had failed to declare her status. Notably, she holds a senior finance role as a director of management information systems at Volta River Authority (VRA), a power utilities company in Ghana owned by the state.

A report by Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) in 2021 further implicated the fishing trawler Meng Xin 5, in unauthorized transhipment and illegal adaptation of fishing gear.

According to the report, while a fine of GHS 347,690 (USD 60,302.3) was imposed, a mere GHS 100,000 (approx. USD 42,507) was paid by Global Marine Consult — a fraction of the minimum fine stipulated by the country’s law.

In response to the investigation, Edwin Ofori-Ani, identifying himself as Awurama Ofori-Ani’s husband, acknowledged her failure to declare her PEP status, stating that she is “in the process of filling the documents.”

He also contested any outstanding fines owed by Global Marine Consult to the Fisheries Commission. “In fact, as at today, Global Marine Consult Limited does not owe a pesewa of fine to the Fisheries Commission,” he said, providing payment receipts totaling over GHC 1.9m or USD 140,000 in fines paid over the past two years.

Previous reporting by China Dialogue Ocean unveiled a tangled web of foreign ownership linking Global Marine Consult to the Dalian Mengxin Ocean Fisheries. Despite these revelations, Edwin Ofori-Ani adamantly denied any beneficiary ownership by Dalian Meng Xin Fisheries, asserting that “the relationship between Global Marine Consult Limited and Dalian MengXin is that the former acquired the trawlers from the latter and have a working arrangement to ensure that the cost of the trawler are paid for and the trawlers handed over to the Ghanaian company. Dalian has no shares in Global Marine.”

During a previously related interview with iWatch Africa, Steve Trent, CEO of the environmental watchdog NGO, EJF, emphasized, “The Ghanaian law expressly forbids foreign ownership of industrial trawl vessels operating under the Ghanaian flag both in terms of ownership on paper, and, crucially, in terms of those who profit from the vessel — known as the ‘beneficial owners.’” 

“The 2019 Companies Act (Act 992) clarifies the definition of a beneficial owner, showing clearly that the way Chinese fishing corporations are using Ghanaian front companies is illegal,” he added.

According to Professor Nyarko, if PEPs can operate with impunity, hiding behind complex corporate structures, then the systemic issues plaguing Ghana’s fisheries sector will only deepen: “Without rigorous oversight, meaningful legal consequences, and a renewed commitment to transparency, the shadowy nexus of power will continue to obscure the truth, leaving lives at risk and the sector’s sustainability in peril.”.

Ghana’s fishery sector supports the livelihoods of millions of people, but persistent Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices, including opaque corporate structures that protect beneficial owners have had a severe impact on fish populations, which resulted in a European Commission warning (“yellow card”) in 2021.


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