Tax Collection: Oyedele’s beatification of ‘Area Boys’
By Busuyi Mekusi
The resourcefulness of Nigeria, in terms of human and material endowments, has never been in doubt, but for the palpable disaggregation between the richness and the endemic glaring poverty that rules the majority of the citizens. Talking about the 133million Nigerians that are multidimensionally poor could be an irritation, as there are also in the public domain humongous figures of funds that are constantly stolen by political office holders and their civil servant collaborators. Since the days of Sanni Abacha, when Gani Fawehinmi appointed himself a whistle blower, one has been awed about the huge public funds in foreign earnings that were converted to personal use. Reflective of the many contradictions that taint human existence, the repatriation of Abacha’s ‘largesse’ came when the avant-garde lifestyle of Fawehinmi is no longer fashionable. We are now living not just in Nigeria of naira and kobo but of dollars and pounds!
Lack of developmental templates for states in Nigeria and the federal has hampered developments in so many ways, even as programmes of governments to be sustained, after recalibration, are suffocated by the innocuous operators who always see public service as a form of ‘Tax Collection’ for personal aggrandisement. The recent revelations at the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Poverty Alleviation, as well as some unconfirmed stories of negotiation to refund some money linked to Abubakar Malami, Mamman Daura and Sabiu Yusuf indicate that corruption is nothing but a rollercoaster in Nigeria, which gets people to swim seamlessly to the ocean of sweat-less wealth. The ease with which people make inexplicable money in Nigeria has enhanced criminality, as people with nefarious activities like kidnappers, money-ritualists, internet scammers, etc., have since climbed up the economic ladder, and melted to the economically rich club of property owners.
It is not outlandish to argue that Nigeria is now a nation of ‘Tax Collectors’, who are considered to be shrewd, analytical, smart, bold and ruthless in the game of extracting taxes from payers. Tax collection is central to the Internally Generated Revenue of States in Nigeria and the Federal Government. Available data speak to the ingenuity of governments to raise the revenues accruable from taxes year-in-year-out, with such dexterous achievement in Nigeria clime becoming a yardstick to designate performance. Developed economies across the world use taxes to improve infrastructures, support the poor, emplace social amenities, provide cheap healthcare, reinforce public education, and sparingly remunerate political office holders, whereas in Nigeria the process is reversed to; fund the luxurious lifestyle of the rich political class, build personal business empires, construct havens in personal accommodation, fund medicare overseas when public hospitals are in tatters, build private schools while publicly-owned ones are in ruins, and import drinking-water when the public are dying of water-borne diseases.
It is also commonplace that Internally Generated Revenues in Nigeria are open to various malfeasances, with revenue collectors, at different levels of governments, having perfected the act of under-declaring what they collect on behalf of the government. There have been instances that government agents were accused of printing spurious receipts to collect taxes from unwary members of the public, or negotiating with potential tax payers to underpay what is chargeable, with a reasonable chunk of the underpayment going to the purse of the fraudulent tax collectors. From the local government, through the state, to the federal level, revenue collectors are influential, audacious and connected to high hierarchies that should moderate their deeds, and sanction their infractions.
Tax collectors ‘kill to share’, and when they fail, bubble will burst! Some states in Nigeria, mostly Lagos, have privatised revenue collection, to enhance his collectibles and sacrifice to the gods at the three-junction road, whose foods are provided by the Yoruba god, Esu Elegbara. Public Private Partnership promotes reasonable accountability in infidelity! Little wonder, the Tinubu government relies heavily on revenue generation to fund the budget, and change the economic narratives in the country, particularly in the face of inadequate accruable funds. The oil sector, which is the mainstay of the nation’s economy, continues to throttle in the dark. While the federal coffer is distanced from revenues from oil proceeds, oil thieves are having a field day, using vessels, given the similitude of matchboxes, to steal oil in the Niger Delta. Various stakeholders have been accused of perpetrating and perpetuating oil thefts in the coastal areas, including security personnel, that it now takes non-state-actors to secure oil pipelines.
The convergence between non-state-actors, specifically leaders of repentant militants, and the federal government, has raised dusts variously, so much that the marriage has been used to propose a relationship between government and leaders of terrorist organisations like Boko Haram. Ahmed Gumi was a self-appointed adviser that pushed for negotiation with terrorists, as he advanced that they, like militants, have their grievances, which must be remedied by the government. Whatever becomes of the position of government on this, criminal leaders are now audaciously confronting the state by expanding their tentacles and putting spaces close to the seat of power, Abuja, under siege. ‘Door-mouth’ is the most dangerous precinct one could be challenged!
In a most worrying manner, the hydra-headed security challenges confronting Nigeria has multiplied despicable Tax Collectors across the country. From Kaduna to Niger States, Kastina to Borno, there were and are still claims that bandits collect taxes, to allow people to farm, go to the market, sell and return home. Apart from the condemnable dastardly acts of terrorists, most government establishments have reified bribe-taking to a socially acceptable ‘greeting exchange’, having mastered the cliché of personnel of Nigerian Police, whose majority would ask you for what you bring, either you are visiting them, or they are paying you a visit. In a most humorous manner, a friend has suggested that the Nigerian Police Service should be upgraded to a revenue generating ministry, owing to their ingenuity to get people to part with money, either as a friend and supporter, or victim of extortion. Whereas the collection of unaccredited tokens, that have assumed the status of toll-fees by police, is merely an open robbery that is reminiscent of the kickbacks and frauds committed by public officers in their respective cosy spheres, the Nigerian Police has been demonised as an institution that is irredeemably gravitating toward the precipice.
The recent intention of the federal government to convert ‘Area Boys’ to Tax collectors is very creative, and a sincere way of beatifying them. ‘Area Boys’ are known for collecting fees or taxes on lands and spaces they do not own; vehicles they did not buy or maintain; motorcycles that were purchased by others in instalments, etc., and they feed fact on the money that should ordinarily go to government coffers. They, like illegal miners, are poisonous to the society. High on drugs, rascally to a fault, and barbaric, before Nigeria social media users qualified as Soyinka’s barbarians. Depending on their operational base, ‘Area Boys’ have hierarchical structure that dictate authority, leadership and benefits, with people on the high echelon connected to political authorities, heads of security agency, and notable traditional rulers some of them have been conferred traditional titles. A few of them that have climbed the social ladder to head traditional institutions are not lacking in finesse, but grandiose in oddity.
It was exhilarating that Taiwo Oyedele, the chairman of the Presidential Committee on Fiscal Policy and Tax Reforms, hinted, not too long ago, that ‘Area Boys’ would be hired for tax collection, and paid decent salaries in order to positively change them. This initiative speaks to the satirical absurd play of Wole Soyinka, The Beatification of Area Boy, which centres on Sanda, the head of Area Boys, and his activities in connection to the fabled wedding ceremony held in the play. Notable is the dexterity with which the Area Boys clean up the crisp naira notes sprayed over the Lagos plaza venue of the wedding, in ostentation and exhibitionism, following the pandemonium that breaks out. The intriguing interactions between the Area Boys, nobility, represented by the military governor, and the rich families of the spouses and the security agents are also symptomatic of the material realities in contemporary Nigeria.
In an urgent bid not to suggest that vices have conveniently vanquished virtues in Nigeria, the collection of taxes by non-state actors in Nigeria should stop forthwith, and be replaced by scientific processes that would ensure accountability and remove multiple taxes. Building institutional frameworks around individuals or groups must give way to sound parameters needed for a transparent present and secured future. The beatification of ‘Area Boys’ should be extended to employees in both public and private endeavours that have chosen to play by the rules, who are now seeking alternatives in other countries, as against the few well-placed that are cutting corners, and cleaning up what should accrue to our commonwealth. We should all be treated as ‘Area Boys’, and accorded needed beatification.