By Christian Terfa Msueaga
For years on, Benue state has been tagged a civil service state, one whose only source of finance is from the monthly federal allocation even as it brags as a state that feeds the nation, parading the toga, “Food Basket Of The Nation”.
The state recurrently used to fund its budget from this sole source of the federal allocation with nearly nothing generated internally especially with the absence of industries and multinational companies resident in the state. The only other source of revenue known to the state was that generated from PAYEE of civil servants which was Ill-coordinated, with various leakages arising from inexperienced tax administration.
All these became a thing of the past in 2012 when in search of alternative means of financing the state’s budget, the state governor, Rt. Hon. Gabriel Suswam employed the services of Mr. Andrew Ayabam who restructured the then Board of Internal Revenue with accompanying legislation which converted the board to Benue Internal Revenue Service (BIRS), where new viable tax heads were gazetted and novel vista for revenue and tax opened.
Benue state blossomed, the state earned more money, the employment impasse was solved with the employment of over 2000 adhoc staff and even the agro industry got feet.
The Benue tax administration has since developed with this introduction witnessing different approaches advanced by separate administrators holding sway and introducing various innovations even after the exit of Mr. Ayabam.
The state saw several administrators including persons Mrs. Mimi Orubibi-Adzape and Mr. Terzungwe Atser, drafted from the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), where Ayabam now served as regional director.
Even as those who had succeeded Ayabam left their various marks in the state tax history, the state revenue suffered a level of dwindling which became a source of worry for the state Governor under whom two Executive Chairmen served, Governor Samuel Ortom.
With the desire to raise the state’s financial situation to a reckonable height, he thus reappointed Mr. Ayabam in 2019 to once again weild his magic wand. This move was applauded in all facets of the state and even whipping up a frenzy amongst, farmers and the youth who were major beneficiaries in his earlier regime.
Unfortunately, this move which many saw as a master stroke has faced many impediments with the possibility of suffocating an already blooming industry.
It is already obvious that the state’s financial situation has once again began to meteorised with the new tax adjustments and blockage of leakages including the termination of tax consultancy, the introduction of single treasury account, the strict adherence to Point Of Sales (POS) machines and Bank accounts as opposed to the use of arbitrary accounts, plus the intense war against illegal tax point and activities which had become the norm state over.
These developments have proven result producing with already far reaching results as the state not only reaps fat revenue but the state agro industry has again began to be robust. Unfortunately, the dragons have reared their heads and thus the conundrum.
Within the period of 2015 to September 2019, the state had developed a new crop of self styled tax lords who were called tax consultants. They were awarded “tax consultancy” contracts in which they were supposed to collect revenue on various tax heads and remit same to the state coffers for a fee. These consultants invariably decided what the state got as their returns to the government were unfortunately decided by them, just as they decided their modus operandi not acknowledging the fact that it is constitutionally illegal for anyone to collect money on behalf of government.
This cabal in a hurry to enrich themselves employed even unconventional means to reap off tax payers and market people including arbitrary taxation and creation of illegal tax points without recourse to legislation.
As a result, the price of transporting agricultural produce hiked, forcing the patrons who all came from outside the state under price agricultural produce to the detriment of the local farmers who invariably decide the state commerce. The state in turn only got revenue as decided by these “Lords” that formed the cabal.
The local farmers suffered; the state finances suffered; the cabal smiled to the bank.
When the regime of tax consultancy prevailed, the consultancy contracts were handled by politicians and their protÃ©gÃ©s who ran these contracts on behalf of their patrons.
They were supposed to employ such funds generated from the proceeds of the consultancy into running the political machinery of the ruling party and also service political cronies of the state governor (as they claimed). They were powerful people.
This people were the real faces behind the cabal. They lobbied the government, got the contracts and handed to their proxies.
Since these contracts were doled out as settlement and party funding avenues; the beneficiaries were nonchalant towards remittance but claimed they were rewarded to ensure the party won reelection and thus exhibited an above criticism demeanor. They plundered the state revenue, extorted the local farmers, exploited traders, leaving the state coffers raped and empty.
Illegal Tax Point Operators
These were the foot soldiers of the cabal and the politicians. This cadre is made up of mostly youth who were employed by the cabal to man the tax points (gazetted and self created).
They served as the first beneficiaries in a long chain of exploitation. These youth served their pay masters with matching benefits for a wholesome four long years and were accustomed to the freebies that accompanied manning tax points. They were modern day “Lords of the Manor” and they cared little or less what the state or its indigenes suffered. They benefitted; their promoters reaped; the state finances suffered; the farmers and moan.
The New Comers
These are the new set of tax buccaneers. They are mostly security agents tasked with the responsibility of protecting life and property of all Benue indigenes and government interests.
When Mr. Ayabam took over the reins of leadership at BIRS in 2019, there was a revocation of all consultancy agreements and a war launched on operators of illegal tax points including those carrying out illegal tax activity. They were arrested, prosecuted and detained by the security agencies.
Unfortunately this created a crop of tax vultures who now feast on the carcasses of the apprehended illegal tax point operators; arresting the original operators and replacing them with their own operators, while providing them with security cover.
It has already been discovered that although men of the Special Armed Robbery Squad (SARS) have assisted in clearing these points, their counterparts in the state operated Operation Zenda (as exposed in recent viral videos) and Federal Highway Patrol have been fingered to be backbones to the new lords of illegal tax points.
Already it is common lore that the Operation Zenda is at swords drawn with the BIRS owing to the board’s antagonism of its resolve to maintain some tax points to “service” her operations not minding the fact that it gets proper financial backing from the state.
Then arrives the men of the federal task force, “X-Squad”, as they are popularly called. This crop of policemen have constantly (even in the days of Mimi Orubibi-Adzape), harrased the board and its staff under unofficial orders claimed to have emanated from the Inspector General’s office. They have become a willing tool in the hands of saboteurs.
With the forgone indices it certainly sure that Benue tax administration has been held in a choke hold and may not make proper impact since the tide is seemingly unsurmountable.
Seeing that as it affects the State’s general economy many watchers wonder why the state Governor who is a more direct beneficiary of the success of this venture, owing to the propensity to change the fortunes of the state by putting at his disposal funds for state development as well as encourage the only thriving sector – agriculture, has turned a blind eye to this draconian, hydra-headed but surmountable monster.
It is on record that the local farmers and their customers have already begun reaping benefits of fair taxation just ad the state has on its own part benefitted from a unilateral tax regime which has brought in the goods.
This is what watchers and the populace hope would me sustained to bring back the state to its glory days.
Christian Terfa Msueaga is a farmer and he writes from Gboko Local Government.