“When you believe in something, fight for it. And when you see injustice, fight harder than you’ve ever fought before.” —Brad Meltzer
By Omoniyi Salaudeen
The Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, is again in the news for leading the right indignation against the perceived injustice inherent in the Nigerian federal constitution. Though restless and extremely irascible, Wike has become a major phenomenon in the political landscape through his seeming rascality. Rascally sometimes for the good of all and sundry, and sometimes for self-preservation!
This time around, he took his penchant for controversy a notch higher by single-handedly challenging the right of the Federal Inland Revenue Service to collect Value Added Tax (VAT) and Personal Income Tax (PIT) in Rivers State and he is getting applause for the initiative. And for that bold initiative, he symbolizes a renewed struggle for justice, fairness and equity.
On that note, there is now a seething cauldron of anger in the Southern part of the country against the lopsided arrangement foisted on the nation by the past junta who held sway before the return to democratic rule in 1999. Injustice in whatever guise is like cancer; unless it is diagnosed early and nipped in the bud, it will metastasize and gradually destroy its victim. Nigeria is a victim of its own circumstance and structural defects. The foundation upon which this “behemoth” is built is not only faulty; it contains within itself its own seed of destruction. And the looming danger of collapse is not just threatening; it has been there right from its creation by the British imperialists. All along, the future of the entity and its people has been laced with dark foreboding. It is the primary reason for ethnic suspicious, general discontent, and all other forms of negativities that have accounted for its arrested development.
Lamentably, owing to the fact that some sections are beneficiaries of the flawed system, no single past leader has thought it necessary to address this fundamental cause of instability. But now, it has reached a tipping point. A whirlwind of change is brewing, not by force of arm, but by a subtle means of the court process.
To put the records straight, the Rivers State Government in suit number FHC/PH/CS/149/2020 had filed a case against the FIRS and the Attorney General of the Federation over demands, threats and intimidation of the state residents to pay the Personal Income Tax (PIT) and Value Added Tax (VAT) by the tax agency.
What was his grouse for this rabble-rousing, if you may want to ask? He says he could no longer contend with a system that allows the federal tax agency to rob Peter in order to pay Paul. A clear case of injustice!
According to Governor Wike, this past June, Rivers State generated N15.7 billion VAT revenue, but got only N4.7 billion, while Kano State which contributed N2.8 billion in the same month got the exact amount (N2.8 billion) it generated as its own share of federal allocation. Could that be a mere coincidence? Certainly not!
Therefore, among other things, the state government prayed the court to declare that the power to collect VAT could only be exercised by the state or other authority of the state and no other person.
In its ruling, a Federal High Court in Port Harcourt presided over by Justice Stephen Pam directed the Rivers State government to take charge of the collection of both taxes. The court further declared that the defendants were not constitutionally entitled to charge or impose levies, charges or rates, under any guise or by whatever name called, on residents of Rivers State and any state of the federation.
In a smart move to beat the FIRS’ desperation to lobby the National Assembly lawmakers to insert VAT into the constitution through the constitutional amendment process, Wike had swiftly taken the battle to the Supreme Court. This would be the mother of all battles if Rivers State eventually wins the case. For it will embolden advocates of fiscal federalism to synergise and take on the federal authorities on various other matters of serious concern.
Already, the 17 Southern governors, rising from their meeting in Enugu, Thursday, have thrown their weight behind Wike with a collective resolve to pursue the matter to a conclusive end.
In a six-point communiqué read by the Governor of Ondo State, Oluwarotimi Akeredolu (SAN), the forum said the governors had resolved and affirmed the position that the collection of VAT fell within the powers of state governments.
“We resolved to support the position that the collection of VAT falls within the powers of the state.
“The meeting reaffirmed its earlier commitment to fiscal federalism and emphasised the need to pursue its inclusion in the Nigerian constitution through the ongoing constitutional amendment,” Akeredolu stated.
Without a doubt, this is a masterstroke in the struggle against excessive control of the states by the power at the centre. If ultimately the case scales through the Supreme Court, not only that the 2022 budget proposal will suffer some shortfalls, states that hitherto enjoyed free money will also have their fair share of the sour taste. The alternative is for them to buckle down, reinvent themselves and evolve innovative solutions that would enhance their capacity for Internally Generated Revenue. At present, only three states out of the 36 states of the federation are said to be financially self-sufficient. These are Lagos, Rivers, and presumably Delta State.
Others depend largely on subvention coming from the centre, a scenario some pundits have rightly described as “feeding bottle federalism”.
With the renewed struggle against such indolence, it now behooves on the various state governments to begin to look inward so that they could explore their areas of comparative advantage for the ultimate goal of promoting development and healthy competitiveness among the federating units.
Governor Wike in his latest exploit is taking full advantage of his position as a lawyer. Beyond that, unlike many lily-livered politicians, he is a fearless and dogged fighter. He doesn’t embark on a war he cannot win.
Optimism is high that he will come out of the case victorious.
Prior to his election as the governor of Rivers State, he had served as Minister of State for Education and later got appointed as the acting Minister of Education following the sack of Mrs Ruqqayatu. Pursuant to his desire to govern Rivers State, he resigned his appointment to contest for the governorship election in 2014 on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and won. Up to date, he remains a strong financier of the party. His aspiration to take a shot at the presidency in the 2023 general elections is still in the realm of speculation.