As the anti-corruption war grinds on slowly, daily revelations of mass treasury looting continue keep the populace entertained. All these revelations are geared towards explaining why the Nigeria is in such dire economic straits. The nation is heavily in debt, and yet has so little to show for it. This is because so much was borrowed and simply shared, or put in to projects which failed due to corrupt practices.
A large part of the money that the nation owes can be traced to private bank accounts held abroad. Powerless to do anything about it in the face of selective prosecution by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) or the ineffectiveness of the snail paced legal system, citizens look on helplessly. As if that isn’t bad enough, government at all levels believes that the best means of dealing with their poor finances is to further to tax citizens even though the stolen money was theirs in the first place! Reprehensibly the people are being asked to pay more taxes at a time when notorious treasury looters are deified, flaunt their wealth and continue to hold top positions.
In a nation where the leader of the major opposition party Uche Secondus described a self-confessed thief of public funds as a “great leader who must be celebrated”, it comes as no surprise that there is little enthusiasm for paying taxes. When former US President Harry Truman left office, he walked out of the White House and took a bus home. He said “you can’t get rich in politics unless you are a crook”. In Nigeria all political office holders are rich because public funds are used to subsidize their opulent life styles.
For example despite the nation’s dire financial predicament, there are several Ministers and 21 Senators who in addition to their salary also collect pensions as former Governors or Deputy Governors. Shehu Sanni, the Senator representing Kaduna Central recently let the cat out of the bag over the obscene amounts paid to all Senators when he informed the nation that in addition to their legitimate salary and allowances of N700,000 per month, members of the upper legislative chamber approved for themselves an additional N13.5 million monthly in illegal allowances.
The revelation has incited widespread anger amongst Nigerians who are increasingly pressurized to pay taxes in spite of the fact that there is no standard infrastructure, health service or educational system that justifies paying taxes for. Nigerians know that their taxes are mainly used to pay for the extravagances of the political class. It’s important to debunk the myth that taxes are necessary for the operation of good governance. There are 10 countries in the world where no income taxes are paid by anybody, and over 70 countries where the minimum income tax rate 0% so that those citizens living below the poverty line aren’t required to pay tax.
These nations which choose not to collect income taxes still have other methods of generating revenue and the most common denominator amongst them is that they are oil-producing nations whose national political philosophy has inculcated compassion for the underprivileged. Although Nigeria has oil, the money either stolen, misappropriated or shared, and no such niceties exist. The super-rich pay virtually no taxes while those struggling to survive on a daily or monthly basis are hounded as a means of increasing internally generated revenue. Paradoxically the same government that claims not to have enough money, gives away billions of Naira annually in form of import duty waivers and tax breaks. Naturally the beneficiaries are their acolytes. The public believe that it is unfair for certain well known “big men” to continuously benefit from duty waivers, and still get tax breaks for fixing roads used by their business, while struggling businessmen who provide their own electricity and water, as well as patch the roads in their areas are hounded for taxes.
Bearing in mind the prevailing level of poverty and lack of infrastructure, the case for zero income tax in Nigeria is very strong. This “out of the box” thinking is way beyond the capabilities of our leaders. It’s the sort of bold move that only progressive compassionate governments consider. It would mean that those in power would have to severely moderate their lifestyles and citizens would be free to spend their money providing for themselves rather than for their leaders. Instead of looking inwards to save billions and make governance cheaper, political leaders expect long suffering Nigerians to continue paying for the inefficiency, incompetence and high-life. The revelations concerning the ridiculous amounts of money our Senators are playing with certainly do not inspire patriotic. It is fallacious to compare tax rates of different nations.
Taxes should as far as possible be levied equitably according to ability to pay. In a situation where 75% of the population live below the international poverty line, why should they pay taxes? Especially at a time that the nation cannot account for its oil revenues! If truly Nigerians were exempted from paying income tax, it would make the massive theft of government money slightly more palatable. Very few people can be expected to be enamoured with paying taxes when the money will not be accounted for and nothing can be done about it. This is the reason why despite all the hype, VAIDS (Voluntary Assets and Income Declaration Scheme is a half-baked idea.
It is conceptualised by those who have used public money to insulate themselves from economic hardship, and have no idea of the contempt in which the general public holds political leaders. Taxation is the means by which government is supposed to raise money to provide standard services, and not money to subsidize their hedonism. In a situation where these standard services have never been provided, budgets never adhered to, and misappropriation of funds is an on-going problem it’s sheer hypocrisy to expect long suffering citizens to voluntary agree to pay taxes which will be stolen or misapplied.