It rained overnight in Lagos and the morning was cool so I seized the opportunity to rack up a few thousand steps by taking a walk to Tafawa Balewa Square. As I was about to walk through the still imposing gates of the complex a near stampede preceded me even as the gates were swung shut. I looked around and witnessed a regular sight in Lagos: state Ministry of Environment taskforce operatives sanitizing our environment by dislodging roadside stalls. Wares are thrown into gutters and on the floor or captured and taken into the vans. Don’t ask me what dictates what is scattered and what is collected. Depending on the ferocity of the particular raiding team, sellers either stand arms akimbo, hands on heads bewailing their plight or make panicky dashes for freedom as part of the Task Forces mandate is to arrest, prosecute and even ‘deport’ to other parts of Nigeria infractors of the laws against street trading.
On this cloudy morning, with rain still drizzling, the team of three raiders went about its task with relative restraint as it tossed wares onto the ground and, this being post rain Lagos, into standing puddles. I particularly noticed a fellow who could be anything between his late 50s and early 70s. He sold fruit from a wheelbarrow and his apples and banana bunches were unceremoniously dumped in the nearest puddle. As he rescued a bunch of bananas, some young fellows around helped him to pick up the apples. He effusively thanked and blessed them. I expect he also silently cursed the agents of the state and the state itself. While he was recovering what he could the taskforce had moved on to the fellow displaying, mainly motivational, books spread on the sidewalk under s sheet of transparent plastic. They were kind enough to allow him collect his books though he was chivvied to hurry up. I was tempted to take pictures of the poignant scene with my phone but I have learnt my lesson from an encounter with the Anti One Way Taskforce at the same square when I took pictures of a commercial motorcycle rider, who had driven the wrong way, whose bike had been impounded and had stripped himself naked to seat right in the middle of the three lane road. God’s grace was with me on that day as I did not wind up in the slammer with the offender.
I went away wondering if the state governor, Babatunde Fasola, had he been leading the taskforce, would have had the heart to throw the fruits of the obviously economically desperate senior citizen into a puddle of dirty water. Even if he couldn’t really care less about the fellow’s condition and fate surely he would have considered the voters gathered around and maybe would have remembered the similarly circumstanced Tunisian street trader who is credited with starting the Arab spring by his self-immolation when the state cast its baleful gaze on him once too often. Fasola is a politician apparently with a keen sense of socio economic justice and dynamics and surely he would have recognized the danger of such heavy handed state tactics in the Nigerian pressure cooker that is waiting for just the right confluence of events to start the ‘revolution’ that will bring this whole house of cards down. Just yesterday I had noticed and shared with friends a story in the papers about his government paying residents of defective apartment blocks in the government built Isolo housing estate, in which a block collapsed months ago killing two sisters, N200,000 each to rent temporary accommodation while the government brought down and rebuilt their houses. So just 24 hours ago I was arguing that there are glimmers of ‘progressive governance’ in our midst especially as the same day Ogbeni Aregbesola’s government in sparely resourced Osun state had announced a campaign to rid the streets of the mentally deranged not by the usual carting of the unfortunates as so much human refuse into prison cells and to their ‘states of origin’ but by medically treating and eventually rehabilitating them. Ogbeni had stated: “One of the factors that facilitate this illness is unemployment and we are addressing that through a series of programmes. It is to me a basic responsibility as the government, but this is not without a huge cost. We are stretching our meagre resources to better the lot of the people.”
With Fasola and Ogbeni being both of the ACN, or is it APC, now I wondered yesterday if the art of governance was beginning to turn the corner for the better in our benighted nation. I got my answer this morning. I situated the fruit selling senior citizen that fell victim to the taskforce within my own family. I imagined him with two or three graduate children who unfortunately were not among the best five percent of Nigeria’s graduate cadre and thus are forever shut out of jobs that pay decent wages. Some are lucky enough to find jobs, teaching in ramshackle private schools, selling insurance to unwilling buyers etc that pay about N20,000 per month. That obviously barely takes them home and definitely leaves nothing to support aged parents without pensions or any other social support. We shall ignore this time the segment of the aged who are owed pensions by the state but whose pensions have been stolen in the most brazen way with the thieves known yet not getting even a slap on the wrist from the justice system.
Some of these elders wind up trying to keep body and soul together via less than dignified but at least honest means. They swallow their bile about the nation and the unkind hand it has dealt them, scrape a few notes together and set up stalls, push barrows or dash through traffic to eke out a very humble living. As long as they escape illness and other strokes of fate that put a final end to their stubborn struggles to stay alive their very presence on the kerbs and meandering through traffic continually reminds us of much that is wrong with our society. Then, one day, a task force descends on them and takes them out of the picture for good. When such unceasing abdication of state responsibility and abuse by the abdicators finally puts the last nail in the coffin of yet another unfortunate what goes through the mind of the descendants that are left to mourn and mark his passing? Do they all take the counsel of the pabulum sellers on our pulpits and chalk it all up to divine neglect with the constantly buttressed hope that soon and very soon, as long as they continue paying tithes and other unconscionable demands out of their meager income, they too will have a divine breakthrough that will consign all the hunger, avoidable deaths, shame etc to history? Or do they, as Kehinde Bamigbetan, the Chairman of Ejigbo LCDA who was just released by kidnappers after the rumoured payment of N15m ransom, posited; screw up their courage to the sticking point and venture into bunkering, robbery, kidnapping, drug trafficking, militancy etc?
Today probably less than one percent of our very hard done by compatriots have given up totally on the system and taken their fates in their hands armed with AK47s, rocket launchers and IEDs. These very few brave ones, staying within Bamigbetan’s paradigm, have totally overwhelmed the state and its coercive forces and we have the state waving white flags all over the map. In the South-South MEND accepted the surrender of the Nigerian state years ago and in the North Boko Haram is currently being pleaded with to consider the generous armistice terms being offered. Yet only a miniscule portion of those who have no stake in this system of things, those who can justifiably bear arms against this state that has done absolutely nothing for them but who continue to suffer the loss of even the little they manage to bring to creation, has chosen to take its fate in its own hands. What will happen to Nigeria if we decide to apply federal character to militancy as is our wont in all things good or bad? What if OPC, MASSOB and whatever gang the Middle Belt has put together decide to join the fray? What if the allure of the easy millions from ‘bloodless’ kidnapping entices even more young people? What if up to five percent of Nigeria’s dispossessed get tired of breathing in the fumes from the private jets of their oppressors and choose to regain a ‘fair’ share of our common patrimony? Would the bunch of clueless jokers in Aso Rock and virtually every state house in country be able to handle such a blow out? Do we even dare to contemplate the God-awful mess we and the West African region would have on our hands? By now, even if you empathize with the picture I have painted, I bet you are asking what can be done.
The state can do more of what Lagos is doing on the Isolo estate and Osun is doing for its mentally destitute. Where to get the resources? The state must stop leaving money on the table and plug the holes that allow the theft of even the little that has been collected. I shall give specifics, not a comprehensive listing but enough to help us all realize that no government in Nigeria need plead poverty.
Three years ago I helped two relatives procure motorized tricycles. I was stunned to learn that their possibly most important DAILY outlay was ‘union’ dues of N600. As we all know this money and similar or larger sums from motorcycle riders, bus and cab drivers is collected all over Lagos and every other state in Nigeria in the name of transport unionism by, typically, the best armed gang of miscreants in the motor parks who add zero value to the transportation sector and our lives. When trying to get motorbikes off our expressways the government of Fasola stated that there are over 400,000 registered motorbike riders in the state. If we take the entire population of okadas, kekes, danfos, taxis and all other commercial motorized vehicles on Lagos roads to be one million and assume the daily rate keke riders paid three years ago as the average that can comfortably be borne we begin to see how much of the commonweal has been gifted to the ‘courageous’ fellows who have been in charge of our motor parks for decades now. N600m per day would net the governments of Lagos over N200b every year from drivers and riders if the state and local authorities were to convert what thugs now collect to government taxes and this is no more than is due from this sector for they are the heaviest users of our transportation infrastructure and benefit from all other government spending too. Lagos state government could almost double its much vaunted internally generated revenue if it were to start collecting what rightfully belongs to it from the motor parks. Did I hear you say my numbers are outlandish? Let me daze you with just one factoid: in late 2011 a transport union functionary in Lagos was accused of defrauding the union of N9b. Yes. So much money was sloshing though the system that the chairman could walk away with N9b. As in Lagos so we have in every other Nigerian jurisdiction.
Since the advent of this republic the barbarians within Aso Rock have turned a well intentioned incentive for industrialization into a choice bit of pork. From church General Overseers who reputedly got N9.6b in duty waivers TWICE for the procurement of moulds for plastic chairs etc to those who got more billions for importing rice and other items we could have produced locally, Nigeria’s lords spiritual and temporal have fed fat with the import duties lost to the exchequer hovering around N100b per year. On its own this is not such a big deal by Nigerian standards but when we add the impact of the injudicious granting of pioneer status to companies going into industries that have existed in Nigeria for almost a century it begins to amount to values that even benumbed Nigerians notice. There is the particularly pernicious example of Dangote Cement granted pioneer status for its cement factories in Ibeshe and Obajana despite the existence of cement factories in at least the Western and Eastern regions of Nigeria from before independence in 1960. Despite these rather blatant facts on ground Dangote Cement still got bilk the economy with double price cement and at the same time paying no taxes for five years on his sky high profits. The results it released this week for 2012 show that PBT was N136b on turnover of N298b giving a net profit margin of 46 per cent which gives the lie to the company’s tale by moonlight that cement prices are high because costs are excessive. A still respectable net profit margin of 20 per cent would crash cement prices by about 30 per cent but that won’t happen on Dangote’s watch. This bedmate of any government in power would rather further constrain the market space by hounding newcomers like Ibeto and leading other established producers in the cartelization of the Nigerian cement sector. It is hoped that his fellow travelers who have a presence in EU and US legal jurisdictions will remember that they are willfully exposing themselves to future antitrust charges if Nigerians ever lay their hands on all the facts. Over and above the grave sin of keeping cement out of the reach of the masses we however have Dangote Cement receiving N16b of the taxes you and I paid as a tax credit for 2012. Yep. Dangote did so well selling cement to us at more than double global prices, marking up his product price by almost 100 percent, that the Nigerian state rewarded him in 2012 with N16b out of the funds we are told we don’t have. Definitely there is money in those cement hills. Rationalizing and severely limiting the twin bonanzas of duty waivers and pioneer status should return a couple of hundred billion naira to the national treasury each year.
As an accountant I am quite familiar with the stipulations of the tax laws especially as they relate to personal income. As a Nigerian I bleed afresh each time a relative or friend announces his new job and tells me his ‘basic’ salary is just 10 percent of the gross with the rest treated as ‘allowances’. Despite the clear and uncomplicated wording the tax law virtually every Nigerian owned company, particularly banks and insurance companies, chooses to misinterpret the law and treat the 90 percent of salary tagged as allowances as non taxable. In Nigeria things are so bad that a prominent purveyor of payroll and personnel management software actually offers to create hidden accounts when it implements its software in corporations. Typically the average salaried Nigerian pays about five percent of his annual pay in taxes not because our tax laws are so generous but because employers, accountants and external auditors are agreed that this nation should be raped until it expires bleeding from a thousand unnatural ingresses made into it. Meanwhile the authorities, fully aware, look on benignly and rather go to the same corporations, begging bowl in hand, to ask for donations towards security and other intervention funds. I know the authorities know because I asked the FIRS chief five years ago at an anti corruption workshop if she could confirm that her office was investigating this pervasive crime and what the findings were. She said before the entire audience in Accra that her office had indeed investigated and found it true but that she considered the banks and others had robbed the nation blind in ‘ignorance’. Banks, insurance companies etc with their sharply dressed ‘financial gurus’ had ignorantly cost the nation trillions of naira? Anyway, she had thus decided there was no need for any sanctions and they the culprits had been left alone to continue in their sinful ways. Yes, despite an FIRS investigation the sinning has continued because I continue to see employment contracts where 90 percent of the remuneration is parked in allowances and pay slips showing less than five percent effective tax rate.
Five years ago I was worried enough to take the matter beyond the FIRS by sending an email to Fasola after I had gotten nowhere with Alpha Beta the tax consultants. For my daring I got, not a response from Fasola who was at that time running ads on CNN and other media with Cardinal Okogie and others asking us to pay our taxes, but inquiries from the software purveyor asking if I was trying to save Nigeria or ruin his company. Fasola has never been able to connect emotionally with me since that day especially when he goes on air either to boast of the high IGR level he has attained or the paucity of funds stopping him from turning Lagos into El Dorado. I know he and other public servants have left trillions on the table and that there are many low hanging fruits that could be plucked with next to no effort providing more than enough to do what must be done if the impending conflagration of our nation is to be averted. As the Central Bank’s Sanusi said earlier this week; we must start taking care of our unemployed youth with social aid if we hope to keep them out of the clutches of those who will help them find their ‘courage’. By the way Sanusi was one of the workshop resource persons the day Omogui stated that our banks and others continue to steal our money by not taxing adequately the income of their staff because they lack enough smart people who understand our tax laws.
The regional body ECOWAS to which Nigeria belongs set a tax collection benchmark of 20 percent of GDP for its members quite a while ago. The last time I looked only Ghana and Cape Verde had met that mark. I do not believe that it is coincidence that those are also two of the best run nations in our immediate neighbourhood. I pay over 20 percent of my income as PAYE tax and if I add the VAT on my purchases the total tax I pay would be closer to 25 percent of my income. Maybe that is why I care and bleed each time I see fraud and waste in the public sphere. Maybe if the tax net were to effectively capture the vast majority of income earners in the economy we would have a lot less of the siddon look attitude. This has led me to sometimes wonder if our politicians deliberately refuse to push for tax compliance because they realize that tax payers are more difficult to abuse and ignore than freeloaders who invest nothing in the system and are not too perturbed to see it all go to hell in a hand basket. Maybe social activists should be the ones championing full taxation because it would be the greatest way to awaken the consciousness of the moral majority.
The next time you are told that the roads can’t be rebuilt, schools can’t be modernized, hospitals don’t exist, civil servants should stop dreaming of a living wage, free education is unaffordable, the police can’t be effectively equipped and this country simply can’t be better than this sorry mess please respond by telling the politicians and their collaborators that they should simply collect all the income that the laws of the land allow them to collect and, once the money is collected, to not treat it the way fuel subsidy and pension funds were treated. To paraphrase the bible: bring in all the taxes to the government storehouses and see if this land will not be blessed with development and plenty. Let’s create an environment where employment opportunities are available for the average person and not just the few extremely able / fortunate ones, an environment that doesn’t drive our young ones to ultimately discover their ‘courage’ and send many to hell before they are themselves cut down in a hail of bullets. A nation that offers enough to attract its best children to stay at home to contribute their quota instead of going abroad to become servitors to those they are more able than. A people that celebrate the acquisition of houses and cars by regular folks like teachers, nurses, policemen, farmers, artisans, transport workers etc instead of the private jets of dollar billionaires listed by Forbes even while most of us cannot understand when or how they stumbled on the billions. Let’s return Nigeria to that nation where Boko Haram, Ansaru, MEND, OPC, MASSOB and every other ill wind that is blowing our way will find no ready hands. A country where we can again proudly say that it is unNigerian to kill oneself even if such death will eliminate 1,000 ‘enemies’. Let us stop willfully creating terrorists and militants by our egregious failures in statecraft.
Let no one tell us that Nigeria is a difficult country to govern. With a bit of sincerity and the will to knock a few heads we can yet pull this chestnut out of the fire. There is progress in some areas but it takes very sharp sight to see the glacial changes. Incremental change will not do at all for the forces we have unleashed with decades of madness, the revolution we ordered, are already upon us and all will be lost if we do not make a radical break with the way we have done business up till now. May God raise for us men and women fit for such a time.