• Govt Should Widen Tax Net, Not Increase Taxes
The Director General of the Development Agenda for Western Nigeria (DAWN) Commission, Mr. Oluseye Oyeleye spoke on the strategy to curb insecurity in the Southwest, and how the precarious situation forced the commission to postpone its Investment Summit for the zone. Muyiwa Adeyemi (Head South West Bureau, Ibadan) reports.
How has DAWN Commission been coping with the burden of insecurity in the Southwest?
I think the commission was created for a time like this. We’ve been here for about six years and our job has been to manage Western region’s development agenda. Of course, there can be no development without security, just like there can be no economic growth without security. When six states want to confront a challenge together, they need a body to manage it for them; a body that will ensure the six of them speak with one voice. That cannot be delegated to the six bureaucracies of the six states. It is a good thing they had the foresight a few years ago to create a commission like this to speak and work for them.
When we were saddled with that responsibility, it was just an added challenge, which, in conjunction with our partners, we are more than capable of addressing. The first step we took was to organise a three-day security summit. A lot of work went on behind the scenes, addressing the issue of insecurity in Western Region. For emphasis, Western Region comprises Lagos Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Osun and Ekiti States. After the in-depth deliberations, we came up with implementable solutions, which we submitted to the Western Nigeria Governors’ Forum.
What are those things you discovered as causes of insecurity and how to solve them?
At the discussions, we looked at all the issues holistically. We understood the fact that it is not just a matter of one ethnic group. What we discovered was a lot of social problems. Why the sudden upsurge? We’ve had Boko Haram in the Northeast for the past 10 years. The children of 10 years ago are now in their 20s. These are children that have been neglected for the better part of 10, 15 years.They have grown up, with nothing to do. They are hopeless and they also want to live a good life.
So, you have an army of able-bodied men and women that have chosen criminality as a means of survival. We have had this war in the Northeast, and we’ve neglected the victims. They were not catered for. Many of them are now Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), who for 10 years have been poor and deprived. A lot of them have been exposed to carrying arms and they need to survive. So, they chose criminality. That’s just one group.
We also discovered that technology has increased criminality, and this is not talking of Internet fraudsters. If someone comes to knock on your door at 1 a.m. to rob you, unless he wants to cart away your TV set, there is nothing to steal. You don’t have cash at home like before. All of us now use our Automated Teller Machine (ATM) cards or transfer money.
The robbers of those days have also moved on to something else. They now see banditry or kidnapping as an easy way of making money. The other day, I was told a kidnap victim paid N7m ransom in a part of Western Nigeria to secure his release. I don’t know how true this is, but what I’m saying is that it has become an easy way of making money. Keep someone for four or five days, get N7m and move on. If you come to my house now, you will probably not get N7, 000. So, they would rather go and kidnap somebody.
We discovered that the face of criminality is changing. How many times have you heard of cars being snatched? It has gone down. People have moved on to other things. What’s the point in snatching a car, which takes ages to sell in these days of technology, when you can easily track a car anyway?
What the security summit did was to dig deep to unearth the reasons there is an upsurge. It didn’t happen overnight. If you combine this with illegal mining, which has brought in people from Niger, Mali and Senegal, then it is compounded. These are here as illegal miners. Add that to the army of jobless youths all over and mix them together and we have the current scenario.
They are all over in the Southwest forests, and on the highways. We looked at all that and some of the solutions we proffered to the governors include looking at the issue holistically. This is not a challenge of carrying guns to start killing people. We are not going to solve the problem that way.
We can only solve the problem by looking at it socially, and finding socio-economic solutions to it. How do you create more jobs? How do you make the hopeless have hope? What are the social things that need to be put in place? How do you reduce the number of out-of-school children? Those are the areas we offered solutions in our report. But while some of the solutions are immediate, others are medium and long-term.
The immediate are just things that will calm down the temperature, so that the people will see that states are actually interested in our security. The medium-term measures are things that we need to do. Someone once said executing armed robbers never stopped armed robbery. If you go out there and say let’s prevent these people, you are chasing them somewhere else, which won’t solve the problem. We need to find a holistic socio-economic solution.
Your agency had been dealing with education, economic, health and other developmental issues. But suddenly, security became the biggest issue. Now that it seems you are concentrating all of your efforts on security, won’t this shift your focus from the core mandate?
There can be no development without security. They are all linked. For instance, the commission was planning an investment summit for the whole region, where two or more investors would be brought together over a three-day period and we would showcase our states, with all the states actively involved. We planned this for October this year. We started going round, talking to one or two potential partners, but suddenly, the issue of insecurity took over and some of the people we were engaging started highlighting insecurity. These are foreign investors.
I remember speaking to a Consul General of one of the embassies here about two months ago, and he said they would be part of it. But then, he raised a question about the rightness of time. He said he was going to tell his country’s investors to come down and invest, but was worried that the first thing they would do is to pick up their phones and iPads and check news about Southwest Nigeria. He said if what pops up is kidnapping and banditry, they would not embrace the invitation.
So, we told ourselves we needed to focus on insecurity. This is the main thing. A governor can go abroad and speak all the grammar, trying to bring in investors into this region. The investors will listen to you. As you are leaving, they are checking out your state. If the first thing they see is someone murdered on the road, someone kidnapped on the way to that state, there is nothing you will say that will make them come. They are not mad people.
So, we told ourselves we don’t want to be selling the right thing at the wrong time. We can step down on the investment summit and hold it at a later date. Let us first of all change that narrative. There was a day I went to Google and typed in Southwest Nigeria. Everything on the first two pages was on insecurity. That’s a bad narrative.
Really, we don’t see it as being taken away from our core duty. Some DAWN Commission’s aims include making Western Nigeria the place of choice to live, invest and to work. If you want to make it a place to live, it has to be secured. Investors abroad have these colour zones: the red, amber and green zone. This is still only the green zone in Nigeria, and if the green zone is suddenly turning to amber, going into red, we have to do something.
If we call ourselves the region’s development agenda commission, our primary duty is to ensure it remains the best zone to live, invest and to work.
President Buhari recently met Southwest traditional rulers on security. What is your rating of that meeting?
The first thing I would say is that it gladdened my heart. The language we put out there matters a lot. Recently, the language has not been temperate. Yes, we are facing challenges, but you don’t want to cut off your nose because you don’t like your face. Some people may be attacking our farmers and stuff like that, but it does not mean the next thing we should do is pick up cudgels and cutlasses and guns and start fighting wars.
If you listen to some of the language being spoken, you would think we are going to war tomorrow. Some of my friends cancelled their trips back home from the United Kingdom because they thought we are on the verge of going to war. My job covers six states. I have to move around and I tell some of my friends I’m on my way to XYZ state and they are asking: ‘Do you have police escort? Do you have this, do you have that?’ We invited someone for a meeting in one of the hinterland states and he said unless we provided police escort, he would not come. When the Ooni of Ife led traditional rulers to the President and he came out to tell us the measures being planned, I was happy. I must commend the Ooni for this in particular. That, at least, the language coming out of the Kabiyesi was aimed at bringing down the temperature. He said we don’t want war in this land. Nobody wants war. Every ethnic group has its own criminals. Why should I then label a whole group as criminals because some of the miscreants among them are causing mayhem in my region? By leading the other traditional rulers to Mr. President, the first thing he achieved was calming frayed nerves. Let the President know that we are engaging. The quickest way to go to war is when you don’t talk.
I tell some of my friends on social media that it is not everything you read you should share, because you don’t know who will read it one day, pick up a gun and go to Sabo and start shooting. You can start a war through that because there will be a reprisal attack. Nobody can contain that.
What the Ooni did was to let the President know we have challenges in our region, and that government can do a lot more. He didn’t go there to pat him on the back. Rather, he was trying to say: ‘We want to see improvement. Engage us, we are the chief security officers of our domain.’ When he returned, things like community policing and providing technology emerged.
Coincidentally, these are some of the things that also came out at our security summit. I was a young man working in the UK civil service during the Rwanda genocide. Anyone who witnessed the killings between the Hutus and the Tutsis will not wish that on anybody, not to talk of your own country. Over a million people were slaughtered in six weeks.
We saw it in Europe. We were exposed to it, and after the killings, the foreigners went back there to start picking up the pieces, interviewing, finding out what was the reason. They realised that more than 70 per cent of the killings was based on unfounded rumour. Someone would just come up and say they had killed 100 Tutsis over there. Then the Hutus will retaliate. Nigeria is such a big country, and we don’t want bloodshed here. Let us find better ways to tackle the problem of criminality we are facing. Please, don’t let us ethnicise it.
How have you been able to help the states on structured taxes to improve the region’s economic wellbeing?
The issue of taxes is more like a chicken-and-egg situation. We clamour for development. We want things overnight. Maybe because of past experiences on how our country was run, people are a bit reluctant to pay taxes. For instance, let’s take free education. Awolowo was able to give free education by raising taxes to fund it. If we want infrastructure today, our government needs to be more creative in the area of raising taxes.
Look at Oyo State, there are several ways to increase the IGR and people would gladly pay. But if you are telling people to pay taxes, they must as well see that the government is responsibly and judiciously using the taxes. It is an issue we can run away from. Presently, the Lagos-Ibadan railway is being constructed. It is going to change the way we do business and travel in this region once completed because in an hour, you can get out of Moniya and end up in Ido at Ebute Meta.
There are about 10 stops along that route. Those are 10 new potential economic zones. The government is funding that, but government does not print money, it comes from taxes. If government is showing signs of judiciously using our taxes, I think it then behooves us as responsible citizens to pay. I am not an advocate of everything has to be free; it doesn’t work that way. I spent years in an environment where everything is taxed.
I was in Ghana last year on a fact-finding mission on how to raise IGR in this region and the experts we engaged in Ghana said, ‘your country is not serious because your tax to earnings ratio is probably the lowest in the world.’ And I said we don’t earn much, that’s why we pay little. He said it doesn’t work that way, explaining that if you want to grow your country and you want proper infrastructure, something must also come from the people. But unfortunately, our tax system has not been properly designed. So, you have a billionaire telling you that he paid a tax of N10, 000 for the whole year. There was a presidential aspirant late last year, who said he paid a tax of about N100, 000 over the last five years and I laughed. It shows the loophole in the system.
Nigerians are crying out for development, but to achieve this, you cannot exclude taxes. Government must cut off your excesses; let the people see the infrastructure being built. I will be eager to pay tax if I see more of Lagos Ibadan rails. Taxation needs to be reformed. Government needs to find a way to widen the net. You don’t need to increase taxes.
How do you navigate through the different political parties, ideologies and philosophies in the six states?
Development has no political colouration. If you are an advocate of development, there is no partisanship to that. Oyo State is being governed by a different political party and we have interacted with the state governor. He is super and focused. I’m not even sure he talks about his party politics, when you engage him. This is a man who is in a hurry to see development.
In his interaction with his colleagues from the other parties in the other states in the region, all they talk about is development. The classic example is how they addressed the security issue. They forgot partisan politics and agreed to work together for the common good.
Over the years, we have positioned ourselves as an organisation that is apolitical. The only politics we talk about here is development. Any governor that comes in finds it easy to key into what we do because of that. I am also old enough to walk into any governor’s office and introduce myself as Director General of DAWN Commission.
Our aim is to keep it as such. Leave politics aside, and let’s focus on how we can fast-track growth in the region.
Source: Guardian Newspaper