From Okwe Obi, Abuja
Forceful collection of illegal taxes and levies by touts and other self-appointed bodies has been a bane in parts of the country. It is most worrisome when the illegal activity is given a veneer of official cover by some local governments, who engage touts and give them identity cards to operate as revenue agents, who are unleashed on hapless citizens. But a new dawn is breaking and the Presiding Bishop of Christian Central Chapel International in the City of Testimonies, Calabar, Cross River State, Dr Emmah Gospel Isong, is the leading light of a new movement determined to end the scourge. He is the pioneer Chairman of the Cross River State Anti-Illegal Taxation Agency. In this interview, Bishop Emmah who is also the National Publicity Secretary of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) explains the primary purpose of the anti-tax body.
What provoked the formation of the Cross River State Anti-Illegal Taxation Agency?
On May 20, 2021, Cross River State Governor Ben Ayade was burdened by several factors. One, the post-COVID-19 communal activities in Cross River State that was closing down small and medium scale businesses due to inability to break even. Secondly, the governor was worried over the touting and illegal attitude of revenue collectors and contractors. Thirdly, he was worried that the 2015 Tax Exemption Law was never brought into existence by the politicians themselves. Fourthly, he was worried that low income businesses like shop owners, tricycle riders and taxi drivers were leaving Cross River State. So, we were experiencing capital flight and business exit to neighbouring states. Therefore, he called a group of four clergymen – myself, as chairman, Dr Julius Ada (a reverend father) who is a senior lecturer and an associate professor, Rev. Sister, Patricia Ollum and Pastor John Ekpenyong. The group of four formed what you can call the Cross River State Anti-Tax Agency. So that is the foundation and purpose of the agency.
How do you intend to go about it?
The agency, as you know, has already taken off some hiccups. We have established a secretariat at No. 206 State Avenue in Cross River State, Calabar. We have bought vehicles for operations. We have sensitised the people across the 18 local government areas, from Calabar to Obanliku. We have appointed local government representatives to liaise with local government chairmen who are mainly affected by the issue of revenue collections. We have instituted what we call anti-tax brigade. It is a group of paramilitary men and women, who join hands with security agencies to challenge, prosecute and arraign defaulters. We have gone national. As you can see, I am in Abuja granting this interview. We have also liaise with the internal revenue service (IRS). We liaise with other MDAs both at the state and federal levels to ensure that not only do we stop this illicit business which is like drug business. Though we have not achieved 100 per cent success, but by the grace of God we have had some impact in different areas.
What are the stipulated sanctions for offenders?
The legal punishment stipulated by law is to arrest, arraign and prosecute in a special anti-tax court approved by the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice and the Chief Judge of Cross River State and with the support of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice. If the defaulter is found guilty is liable to fines and jail terms depending on the scale of offence. We can also fine, if he is a first time offender and order the return of those properties. Because some of those shylocks will first of all seize the property of innocent citizens. So, they are expected to return those things and apologize. Regardless, we also profile that person. So, there is a profiling of offenders which after first or second rebukes, we take defaulter to court. But we are more or less operating like a reconciliatory and mediating agency with strong sensitisation and media engagement. We appeal to the conscience of the tax lords to desist from the business because we are now entering the part where we will bite very hard.
How hard do you want to bite?
Nothing more than five years imprisonment and not less than six month’s imprisonment including fines as the case may be. Once we arraign and prosecute you in a special court, it is going to be the State Vs You. We are just going to be witnesses.
How much is the fine?
The judge or magistrate will determine that. But you must surely pay as a deterrent for the crime you have committed. It cannot be business as usual for them. Do not forget that illegal taxation is as old as ancient history that is why some people say that the Anti-Tax Law is not working. I laugh because it is like a drug business in Mexico. Illegal taxation in Cross River is like the hard drug business you have in Mexico and Brazil. You know what I am talking about. We are dealing with a cartel. Illegal taxation in Cross River and in Nigeria as a whole is connected with drug trafficking. They are connected to political thuggery. They are also connected to cultism. They are not up to 2 per cent of those boys who are not members of different cultists, or who are not political thugs to their taskmasters. So, it is a chain that is intricately intertwined. So, just waking up and setting up an agency is not enough. A lot of research and background is being done. We are even thinking of rehabilitating some of those boys and getting them into farming which the governor himself has magnanimously opened up the Ministry of Agriculture and Farming. Although, like some will say that stolen water is sweet, some of those boys are like beggars on the streets because even if you tell them that you would give them a government job and pay them N100,000 a month they will not accept. They are just like as dogs that will always go back to their vomit.
Will the anti-taxation initiative not affect the revenue of Cross River State?
No. I will tell you that not even one per cent of this sector of taxation goes into the coffers of the Cross River State Government. It is mere job for the boys. And the question is: whose boys? So, I want to go for a chairmanship position of a local government, I belong to a cult group for a cartel and I need you to help and we grow on percentage. You will give us a revenue point according to the language and we agree on those revenue points. It is not the legal and statutory taxations. You have to understand that because these are grey areas or else the law cannot fight the law. The IRS works with us to differentiate the sectors and the IRS officials follow us to some of our operations because the IRS are jealous of these people because the boys are collecting and embezzling what the government is supposed to collect. That is why some people said that instead of the anti-tax agency, the government should legalise the illegal tax areas if not for the areas of operation, suppression and fighting. You need to see when these guys are on the streets you will know that it is not government that sent them. From their level of operation particularly the way they handled a 60-year-old woman and tore her wrapper. They come with machetes and short guns. They waylaid a driver on the road and pulled out his engine. They break windscreens and fight. This is not government’s mandate and revenue. Will it affect the Cross River State revenue? No. The Anti-Tax Agency will rather boost the Cross River State revenue because by the time you separate the wheat from the chaff you will get enough food for the children. God being on our side and we fight this illegal revenue to a standstill, then IRS would be more trusted and accepted in the corridors of genuine business because as it is, we are not only fighting illegal taxation we are also fighting multiple taxation. What I mean is that somebody comes to my shop and beats me up and collects N5000, then IRS still comes and collects N2000, then another group comes and collects money on behalf of the federal government. You will notice that a small business under this COVID-19 pressure pays taxation five times. If 20 per cent of that taxation goes to government, 80 per cent goes to tax shylocks. You can see that we are just clearing the bushes for farmers to plant well. We are not stopping planting and harvesting in terms of taxation.
Don’t you think stopping the illegal taxation will increase joblessness and criminality because most of them will not go into agriculture?
This is my analogy: how dirty will a pig inside the mud be? The person is already a criminal. He collects taxation in the afternoon while at night he goes into armed robbery. These are already criminals and touts. They go with machetes, guns and intimidation. So, the idea of whether they will become criminal is out of the question. Rather we should come up with strategies to profile them and call them for stakeholders meeting to join Governor Ben Ayade’s mass employment and empowerment agenda, mass industrialization and agricultural agenda. If this would be the amnesty our agency would proffer as a solution at the end I will be more fulfilled as a clergyman handling this humanitarian and governmental activity. That is how I call it. So, to say do not dirty the pig the more is tautology. It is a known fact that we are dealing with criminal elements and the only way to help them is to first of all stop them and challenge the status quo. When two to three of them testify that they used to live this kind of life then others will follow. I do not think their wives or parents are happy seeing them on the streets with sticks and nails pursuing a driver and hitting a windscreen that is if at all they have families. If your wife or classmates see you doing that I think to say the least, it is embarrassing.
As chairman of the anti-tax agency, won’t the assignment affect your pastoral duties?
The assignment itself is a pastoral duty. I have lost up to 800 members from my church in the past ten years due to illegal taxation. You hear them tell me: ‘Daddy, good morning. I want to leave Calabar to Port Harcourt. This tax people are troubling me.’ ‘My little barbing shop I cannot barb again.’ ‘Daddy, good evening, I want to leave Calabar for Abuja. The environment is no more conducive and there is no ease of doing business.’ And you keep praying and fasting for 21 days that God should take away the problem that are making people to leave your church. And one day by stroke of luck comes a governor who says we should take over the affairs of this government and then fight this area of illegality. Isn’t it hypocritical to step down or reject your opportunity? Isn’t it hypocritical to keep fasting for 21 days and expect angels to come and stop what is before you?
Except you want to leave Calabar yourself. So, to me it was a square peg in a square hole. Don’t forget that I am a man that understands taxation. I read Banking and Finance, and undertook accounting as a profession. So, nothing stops my clerical duties. I am sure you can see that I was more clerical than when I had not taken this responsibility. I do not only do Cross River State Anti-Tax, I work with the United States Embassy to fight corruption. I work with the PFN as their PRO. I also work with about 200 other organisations. So, anti-tax is about one per cent of my life. I handle other socio-religious activities. Even as I am here in Abuja for a live feature on NTA, still handle my activities and I still do my preaching. Do not forget that the person that stopped apartheid in South Africa was an archbishop, Desmond Tutu. The person that fought against Black victimisation in America was Rev. Jesse Jackson. If an archbishop was a champion of anti-Apartheid and Rev. Jesse Jackson was a champion of anti-Black discrimination movement, why won’t a bishop in Calabar be a champion for anti-illegal taxation movement? So, to me it is propaganda to think that a man of God should not participate in reducing criminality. He should be in the forefront.
Do you have the courage to nail offenders given the fact that most of taskmasters are in the same political party with the governor?
I have trampled on many people. I have friends in government who do not greet me again. I have two members who have left my church because of this activity. I have a politician who has challenged me openly on television and radio, and I defeated him. I have people around me who do not believe that illegal taxation should stop. Illegal taxation in Nigeria and in Cross River State is rooted and connected to politicians from the legislators to local government chairmen who themselves made the laws. I have told Nigerians that if I cannot stop illegal taxation in Nigeria or in Cross River State, I want them to do me one favour which is that anywhere they see the perpetration of illegal taxation, thuggery or extortion, they should hold the chief executive of that local government responsible. If it is Calabar, the Mayor of Calabar is involved; if it is Calabar South, the local government chairman is involved. Even in Abuja or Lagos where you see touting and illegal activities do not hold anybody else just go to the chairman of that local government and hold him responsible.