STEVE OKO reports that participants at a forum in Umuahia on taxation have decried the activities of touts and revenue collection agents who, with the aid of armed security agents, harass residents espe­cially market women and motorists demanding all forms of taxes and levies and blamed it on govern­ment’s docility and suspected connivance which were condemned by the forum.
The uncivilized and em­barrassing activities of touts who masquerade as revenue collection agents in Aba and Umuahia intimidating residents and demanding from them various kinds of taxes and levies were the focal point at a recent forum on taxation in Umuahia.
The forum under the auspices of Abia State Tax Justice and Governance Platform, hosted by the Foundation for Envi­ronmental Rights, Advocacy & Development (FENRAD) was attended by civil society groups , representatives of government agencies , and members of the public.
It was gathered at the forum that market women, tricycle operators popularly known as KEKE , as well as commercial bus drivers are the greatest vic­tims of the activities of these touts.
In its presentation, Youth Ed­ucation on Human Rights and Civil Responsibilities said its recent survey revealed that an average KEKE operator in Aba pays an annual tax of N56,960 as he pays a daily tax of N160; while an average bus driver pays an annual tax of N52,800.
Similarly, with a daily ticket of N20 a sachet ( pure) water hawker pays a tax of N5200 per annum in Aba.
According to the survey, 1000 KEKE operators pay about N56, 960, 000 million per annum; and with over 32,000 KEKE operators in Aba alone, govern­ment generates about N1, 822, 720, 000 from that revenue win­dow.
Corroborating the findings of the above survey, FENRAD Di­rector, Comrade Nnanna Nwa­for, said it was more annoying that such staggering amount of money never gets anywhere close to government coffers as the agents and their god - fa­thers in corridors of power stash them away into their pri­vate pockets.
He challenged government to go beyond lip services and clamp down on illegal and mul­tiple taxation which he said are giving the state bad image and driving away investors.
The touts collect illegal and heavy taxes and levies from hawkers and traders in different markets in the state. They most times seize goods of traders in­cluding vegetables and fruits until the owners part with some money to redeem such items.
Participants at the forum did not only condemn the rascality and impunity of these ‘ agents of torture’ but government’s seem­ing silence as they have openly operated without restraint.
Despite repeated pronounce­ments by government banning collection of revenues through agents, these touts have contin­ued to operate without checks. The forum regretted that any one of them is yet to be pros­ecuted as a deterrent to others.
The forum accused officials of the state Board of Internal Rev­enue as well as some bad eggs in government of conniving with these touts to inflict hardship on the hapless members of the public.
Security agencies were also not spared by the participants as the touts still move around in their illegal duty with some armed security men despite various radio announcements by heads of security agencies that their personnel were not authorized to escort revenue collectors.
Speaking at the forum, the Ex­ecutive Director of Women for Women in Distress, Pastor Vic­tor Alamba decried the effect of illegal and multiple taxation on women in the state.
He frowned at the uncivilised manner these touts under the guise of government revenue collection agents harass and ex­tort money from traders mostly women in various markets in the state.
Alamba, a retired Director in the Budget Office of the state re­gretted that sometimes the reve­nue collectors confiscate vegeta­bles , fish and some other wares displayed by women in the mar­ket during revenue drive.
“KEKE is the highest em­ployer of labour in Abia State: graduates, undergraduates and the unschooled all make a living through it. What government gets through KEKE is so much that the people should see the evidence”.
He wondered why govern­ment has continued to turn blind eyes to the activities of such touts who have continued to make life unbearable for the citizenry especially in the face of the biting economic hardship.
Another participant , Dr. Greene Eleagu, indicted the of­ficials of the state Board of In­ternal Revenue ( BIR), as well as the police hierarchy in the state for their docility while the so called touts/ revenue agents move around with armed police personnel coercing people to pay tax and sundry levies.
Other participants at the fo­rum were unanimous in their condemnation of the continued use of agents in tax collection, arguing that apart from being rude to the people, less than 10% of funds so generated never gets to government coffers.
The forum also condemned government for contracting revenue collection to cronies and for imposing executives on market associations and trade unions who rather than advance the cause of their members serve as government appendage.
Participants were of the view that government should no longer watch such exploitation but wade in and mandate the leadership of market and other unions to render annual ac­count of its activities to check­mate the rate of squandering among them.
In his remarks, Special Assis­tant to the Governor on Policy Development & Monitoring , Hon. Amaech Chukwu, ac­knowledged the menace of touts in the state, but regretted that government does not even get half of the revenue they collect.
He further said “Government has observed that we have con­fusion in our revenue collection machinery, and government is embarking on massive tax ad­ministration reform.”
He assured that the state’s Internally Generated Revenue Council headed by the Deputy Governor was working serious­ly to streamline taxes and levies payable in the state.
But in his response, an official of the BIR who was at the forum but said he didn’t have the man­date to speak for the agency said government had set up a moni­toring team to checkmate the activities of the touts.
He, however, regretted that most times those arrested were released shortly afterwards through intervention of top government officials.
He recalled that when the premises of a power distri­bution firm in Umuahia was sealed over tax default running into millions of naira “ the man­agement of the firm was even pleading to pay half the arrears but we insisted on full payment when suddenly a call came from ‘above’ and we were or­dered to reopen the place”.
“We completely lost out in­cluding the N1.5 million we used in effecting the seal off”, he lamented.
He said only N40 out of the N160 daily tax collected from KEKE operators in the state get to government coffers, while condemning the use of security agents in revenue drive, saying it is illegal.
“You don’t mount a road block or use police to collect tax; any­body doing that is a fraudster, “ he said, but noted that “ Abians are averse to paying tax”.
He blamed the issue of mul­tiple taxation on the greed of local government authorities who still demand taxes from residents on similar issues with the state using different names.
“When state asks somebody to pay business permit, LGA goes to the same person to col­lect operational fee”, he regretted while advocating the streamlin­ing of all taxes and levies by state and LGAs to reduce the burden on the people. - The Authority