Going home the other night, I noticed a young lady being tossed out of a keke napep (tricycle/tuk-tuk) right in the middle of the road. It turned out she had been mugged by a man on the same keke, who bolted into the nearby bush while the keke scampered off down the road. Coming to her aid were 5 random men from 4 random cars who not only stopped to help but also gave her a ride to the nearest major intersection, pressed some taxi money into her hand, and assured her that getting out alive was her blessing of the evening. There was absolutely zero talk of police or anything. While being a Good Samaritan is basic human empathy that we should all employ without seeking repayment, it would appear to me that these sorts of occurrences happen a whole lot more in Nigeria than should be normal. I have no idea where to find such statistics (can someone please set it up?), but it does seem more common here than anywhere I’ve been or heard of.
**The title of this article is borrowed from a classic song which incidentally bears an uncanny resemblance to the current Nigerian situation; there is a fundamental problem which needs to be fixed, but the solutions being offered take us in a circle so we end up going nowhere at all. Have a listen.
As a small exercise, answer the following questions (hint: look up for the answer). Who provides work (temporary or permanent) for the millions of Nigerians with nowhere to go and nothing to do? Who builds roads on their streets? Not highways, but the untarred roads that actually lead to homes of people not connected to government? Who provides transportation to the desperate man on the street who has no means of getting back to his home or village? Who comes together to contribute hard cash to pay for the surgery of complete strangers who just happen to come to their place of worship or know someone who’s able to set up a Whatsapp group? When armed robbers are breaking into your home in the middle of the night, who kicks up a racket, lets loose their dogs and saves your life? There are untold numbers of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) from Boko Haram attacks, communal/ethnic violence, recurring floods, etc spread around the country that the Nigerian Emergency Management Agency doesn’t even know about. Guess who feeds, clothes, houses and provides them with medicine and work? In contrast we read about some people in IDP camps having to sell their bodies for food to feed their children. Who decides the responsible party that must pay the bills after a traffic accident? I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. And so, to revert back to the the men who aided the mugging victim, my question is, shouldn’t the government pay tax to these men, who would do it again and again without stopping to think for a second? Especially when compared to the behaviour of a police station that receives an emergency call from people in danger but responds that their patrol vehicle has run out of fuel so send money or fuel first before they can come to your aid.
And this is without mentioning electricity, water, home and neighborhood security and the like. I think it’s about time the government started paying us for these services…But then, maybe that’s just me.
Equal in the eyes of the Taxman
The Nigerian system presents an interesting case because, while tax has always been on the books, like traffic lights and command responsibility, it has been largely ignored. This probably has something to do with the oil boom and the kind of quick, easy money that comes with black gold; access to such funds makes enforcing tax laws too cumbersome to be bothered with, essentially the money that comes out is not worth the effort. Compare it with oil which you don’t really have to extract yourself either, you just let foreign companies do all that hard work and pay you after while u swing your massive bulk of a belly around, barking orders and making the rules. Who wouldn’t prefer that?
But now that the oil money is drying up, government is broke, they are looking desperately into tax to fill their coffers. So what’s to be done?But even though they recognize that proper tax collection can fetch them loads of money, they are still unwilling, unable or otherwise to put in the actual work that would be required to create a system whereby tax is properly calculated, efficiently collected and transparently used. A classic example is the infamous telecoms tax bill (PDF, 11 pages). While it is fronted as taxing communications companies and network providers, what it is really doing is placing a tax on every second their countrymen (and women, gender is no exception here – women don’t pay lower tax percentages even when they are paid less than men for the same work) spend on the phone, as well as every kilobyte of data you use. So they are in essence wanting to tax every single Nigerian who uses (including those who don’t actually own) a mobile phone. Yes, including the children. The only difference here is that they are mandating corporations to act as middle men and handle the tax collection on their behalf. It is not far-fetched to expect the corporations to take a little extra for their troubles, also.
I Should Pay You
But the question still remains, so what? Shouldn’t the citizens pay tax? Like a true Nigerian, I shall answer that question with another; why should citizens pay tax to the government?
Probably the simplest argument for not paying tax to the government is that the dividends that are supposed to come with paying tax, things like electricity, roads, water, healthcare and stuff, all these things that are supposedly in the social contract signed between a government and the people are already being taken care of by each individual household and/or business. So much so that one could argue it is the government that should be paying us tax.
After all, if you think about it, taxes are meant to serve, in part, as income for government officials to do jobs that they have patently refused to do, therefore we have to do those jobs for them. By rights, we should also collect that salary, then. It is also meant to support common resources, such as police and firefighters(hahaha). But guess who provides the raw cash for police, customs, road safety and other officials to get by? That’s right, the average Nigerian. So, if I pave a road, provide free healthcare and tuition to strangers, pay a policeman’s salary, as well as generate my own electricity and provide water to my neighbours who can’t afford to drill a borehole, should I not be entitled to some sort of compensation?
There seems to be the argument that this is a fresh government, etc etc, and that they are not to be punished for the sins of their predecessors and blah blah blah. Hogwash, I retort. First of all, this government is so unfresh that there are arguably as many ex-governors within it as outside of it. And with so much of the same faces, the methods are fundamentally unchanged, as is the smell of corruption and persecution that follows after them. Even of the few new to the game, I really wouldn’t be inclined to give them a pass either because, frankly speaking, nobody begged them to take up these positions. They actively campaigned for us to vote them in, knowing quite well what comes with the office. Some seem to separate the office from the person only when it comes to the crap, but not the gold. That’s why failures are blamed on previous administrations, but credit belongs to the current one. But by virtue of sitting in the same seat, you are automatically stained by the crap left by your predecessors and must work extra hard to clean your backside.
Borrow-Borrow make you Shine
Another argument I hear is that because there is no money in the government coffers, they need to tax we poor citizens who are going through the worst recession that most of us can remember, in order to keep the promises they made during the election campaign. I have two arguments against that.
First of all, you don’t try to fill a leaky bucket. Someone asked recently why, if the government is “recovering” all these billions in looted funds, they still feel the need to borrow from abroad. I replied that we are attempting to run a sustainable country here – we borrow today so we can recover again tomorrow. Satirical, but probably true because when an opposition party eventually comes to party, the current occupants of government will be probed just as passionately.
Secondly, I’m of the view that the people have suffered enough, that they have carried government for too long when they come up with ever more “ingenious” projects. It’s a bit like being sponsors of the adventures of “Pinky and the Brain”, because the government does not appear to have a clear long term policy, but keeps coming up with these bright ideas and expecting us to join the circus. As an example, this article explains how the new ban on tomato products will have to eventually be revised, just like previous bans on other items before it. So wait a few more months and you will get the next episode where someone comes up with this bright idea of how to take Nigeria to the next level, only to eventually revise or ditch the plan, while we pick up the tab. And pick up the tab we will, because the amount of money being borrowed by the government right now is, to use someone else’s words, “mind-boggling.” As the former Central Bank governor, Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II explained recently, the crazy borrowing is unsustainable and unlikely to bring growth the way investments would. In his words:
“China will lend you $1.8bn to build light rail. This light rail will be done by the rail workers from China. The trains will come from China. The engines will come from China. The labour comes from China. The driver is Chinese. At the end of the day, what do you benefit from it? You borrow money from China to invest in trains so that your citizens can ride on them and go for weddings and naming ceremonies.”
So, in conclusion, should we pay tax? Probably not. Will we pay tax? Probably yes, but they’ll have to catch us first.