BENUE MUST RETURN TO TAX

imageBy James Ibechi

A combination of two undesirables that blighted the Nigerians’ joy of democracy, as it was more pronounced in the twilight of the immediate past regime in Nigeria, remained high corrupt practices and the nation’s dwindling oil revenue.

But while the problem of corruption was and still is self-inflicted, oil price fall which weakens the nation’s mainstay can be said to be a misfortune.

The two factors, which at a point, brought the country to its kneels are not necessarily interrelated but they both worked together and made the country while it was still in the grip of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to teeter on the precipice of political and economic crash.

And so, we say, if over a thousand teachers died in Benue in the height of the industrial strike rocking the education sector – this is the national newspapers’ reported death toll – on account of the inability to pay salaries for months by former governor, Gabriel Suswam, corruption or dwindling allocation to the state from the federation account was at the root.

Yet where most people lay the blame is dependent on which political divide they belong. The only thing that was non-arguable was the fact that the common man was suffering hardship, despair and hopelessness, seriously during the last regime.

The condition was that bad that forlorn-faced Onahi Odeh, an indigene of Oju, looked through her window to see the evening sun go down as it made way for the fast approaching dusk.

A very beautiful young woman, Onahi’s eyes could see the grandeur of the evening glow but her mind was filled with frustrating thoughts instead.

It had been three months since she last went to school as a final year economics student of the Benue State University, Makurdi. Her eyes moved away from the window to the calendar. Three months from that day, and she would have been a graduate; and now she doubted if she would graduate this year at all.

Her fears, doubts and expectations reflected the state of the feelings of the over 5 million people across the entire state.

GABRIEL SUSWAM
GABRIEL SUSWAM

Workers’ salaries were backlogged upwards of six months and valued at approximately N12billion in arrears. The Benue State new Governor, Samuel Ortom, has stated that the verified debt profile for Benue state is over N169billion as against the purported N9bn indicated by the immediate past administration of Gabriel Suswam.

That States, including Benue, have suffered dwindling fortunes from the Federal Allocations is obvious. This, we are told, is occasioned by falling crude prices, lack of fiscal discipline, corruption, and leakages in the system over time. In a few words, Nigeria is broke, Benue broke and deficit.

In Benue, the situation is pathetic. For a State that relies 97 per cent on federal allocation, the picture begins to take shape, and it is not a good picture by any measure. The backlog of salaries (approximately six months), pension claims, unpaid contractors, loans that are due, and an almost non-existent Internally Generated Revenue envelope all paint a grim picture.

Juxtaposing the above scenario with the joy and huge expectations that greeted the victory of Governor Ortom at the 2015 polls poses a contrasting scenario. On one hand are the huge expectations of the deprived and suffering Benue masses and on the other is a deficit treasury and near zero Internally Generated Revenue base. The only ray of hope in all of this, is that the Governor is not deterred and has repeatedly stated his conviction that he will turn things around.

Yet, methinks, we the Benue people, must manage our expectations, and not only that, we must assist the less informed to be in the know of the actual state of government accounts. This is fundamental if good governance is to find a home in Benue. Where do we as citizens come in and how does the Ortom administration deliver amidst great expectations and the myth of the never ending deep pocket of government? This is where the need for proper management of the people’s expectations comes in. This paradox and dilemma requires patience, partnerships and openness from the people towards the new administration and vice versa. The situation calls for tradeoffs, midway meetings and other possible local understandings and options.

The citizen has rights that Government as an institution must respect, protect and fulfil. This means government must provide for our rights, especially civil and political rights; create an enabling environment for the enjoyment of same and also protect these rights from being abused in any way. Provision of education, healthcare, housing, food, are just some of these rights, and in some climes these are justiciable. This therefore means that government must have resources to deliver. In plain terms, government must have money!

At the risk of repetition, Benue is presently without resources or money, making these obligations of government difficult to meet. This is especially so because we rely 97 per cent on federal allocation, and this structure which we solely rely on, has never been as shaky as it is today. Yet Benue state government must hold and deliver, and alternatives ways must be sought, develop and sustained, and they must be locally sourced, right here in Benue.

The above can only be achieved by the emergence of an alternative source of income that is independent of federal allocation and loans. The only feasible and sustainable alternative source of income for the state remains the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) which currently stands at almost zero in relation to our needs. For the State to move ahead in terms of development and in the direction of the fulfilment of the dreams and aspirations of every Benue man, woman, boy and girl, there is a need to bolster the Internally Generated Revenue base of the state to meet the huge expectations of the people.

Mercifully, Ortom, even during his campaigns, made it clear that his administration would prioritize increasing the Internally Generated Revenues of the state in order to shift from the over dependence on federal allocations and loans which over the years have failed to yield any remarkable development in the state.

Of course, residents and people of Benue will point out to anyone who cares to listen about the huge potentials of the state, from tourism to wealth in the ground etc. The question, however, is, how do we get the resources to tap these huge potentials? Loans, loans, bailouts and more loans? Yes, people talk of going into partnerships, bringing in multi-national companies to finance some wonderful projects, etc….but again, these organizations are no father Christmases. There is always a catch.

The most important issue which we have failed to highlight so far in all of these is: what is the role of the citizen in resolving this challenge? How can you, the citizen, contribute to the re-birth of a new Benue?

Dear Benue indigene and resident, we have a constitutional obligation to join hands in the rebuilding of our potentially great state, Benue. The solution lies in the paying of that, oh so disliked stipend better known as “taxes.” We need to make the sacrifice so that government can function and deliver on its obligations to us. It is not an option, but an obligation. We cannot in all good conscience say we love Benue or even demand that government discharges its obligation to us for the provision of basic infrastructure if we do not pay taxes. That is how it works and this is one of the major ways we can assist today’s government, that we are all excited about, to deliver.

Do you own a school, a shop, or a house? Do you render consultancy services, and do you buy luxury goods? If yes, we have an obligation to pay taxes. In Benue today, taxes that are collected are less than 30% of what could be paid and collected by the state to develop its people, pay salaries, provide social amenities etc. As citizens, we must admit we have failed ourselves, our government and our children yet unborn in the discharge of this obligation and we need to start today. The huge potential revenue that lies untapped and neglected can and will add considerably to the capital outlay of the state.

We must look inwards for increased revenues, which can only be achieved through taxation, legally permissible levies, rates and other charges by the government on the Benue citizens. This, in other words means that, the Benue man and woman will provided needed support for the expected development projects through prompt and regular payment of taxes and other legal and permissible levies as and when due.

No doubt in a corrupt environment, where government steals and does not deliver on good governance, citizens are reluctant to pay taxes, and many may argue their cause on various grounds, some valid and some not so valid. These arguments will range from prevailing hardships to lack of accountability and everything in between. True. Yet this is no reason to avoid paying taxes. Ortom deserves the benefit of doubt that he will not steal our money. He has said so on several occasions. He is the first Benue Governor, that I personally have heard repeatedly mention transparency and accountability. The least we can is give him the benefit of doubt, pay our taxes then hold the government to account.

It is only logical that a tax paying citizen will be more justified and concerned about holding the leaders to account and demanding probity through transparency and active participation in governance. Citizens who pay their taxes and rates have a stronger justification to demand for accountability from government than those who do not. This function can be achieved through civic groups, workers unions and community based associations who will periodically engage government at all levels to account for taxes paid.

The Ortom government on its part, we are sure, has just unveiled his plans regarding how to achieve his campaign promises. The government must be tactful and strategic in its approach to commencing its wholesale approach in increasing the Internally Generated Revenues of the state, especially the tax envelope. The initiative has to be people-oriented and driven to enable a more persuasive and acceptable outcome.

In this regard, the government will have to liaise closely with Civil Society Groups, Community Based Organizations, Faith Based Organizations etc. This is imperative because these civic groups are close to the people and have a high success rate with regard to grassroots mobilization and sensitization. Their mobilization and sensitization skills will enhance the peoples’ support to the proposed taxation policy and enhance its success for the growth and development of Benue.

Once this is achieved, the worries of Onahi Odeh and millions of other Benue indigenes when they peep through their windows, will melt away as they see the sun rise in its glory and majesty at growth of a new and vibrant Benue.

Ibechi is Special Assistant to Benue State Commissioner for Information and Orientation on Media/ICT

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