By Jerome Uneje.
It’s a hot Monday afternoon, sun is high up in the sky, temperature in the city of Makurdi is as high as the afternoon sun. In the hallowed chambers of the Benue State House of Assembly, a plenary session of the House is being held. The cool and serene atmosphere is in total contrast to that of the weather outside of the building. The legislators’ present are spellbound by the eloquence of Mrs. Mimi Adzape Orubibi the new Chairman of the Benue State Inland Revenue Service (BIRS). The young amiable and dynamic economist who recently assumed the position of the head of the State Revenue Management Agency is presenting her proposal on Revenue Generation to the State Assembly. The seasoned tax officer outlined some innovative approaches that would enable the realization of her Two billion (N2b) naira a month revenue generation target for the State. One of her most potent strategy is the unveiling of a proposed tax regime in Benue tagged the “Daily Tax Collection”. In her proposal, Mrs. Orubibi has proposed a presumptive tax of fifty naira daily collection from the informal sector. Her proposal mandates micro business operators in the State to pay as much as fifty naira daily as income tax. At the end of her brilliant presentation, the honorable members applauded the tax czar and her ingenious revenue generation strategies.
Elsewhere in the State, Mrs. Iorlaha (not real name), a Katsina Ala market woman dealing in fresh tomato and her ilk especially Women are not applauding. Fifty naira daily for a fresh tomato dealer amounts to 18,250 naira annually. That is a huge sum to tax a poor woman who lives on less than a dollar day.
Now the daily tax regime as introduced in Benue is an adaptation of the Federal Inland Revenue Service tax product based on presumptive taxation. This is a form of assessing tax liability using indirect methods such as income reconstruction or by applying base-line taxation across the entire tax base. Presumptive methods of taxation are thought to be effective in reducing tax avoidance as well as equalizing the distribution of the tax burden. The presumptive tax regulation is based on the provisions of Section 6 of the Personal Income Tax Act, 2011, which inserts sub-section 6 to Section 36 of the law. Specifically, the new sub-section states, “Where for all practical purposes the income of the tax payer cannot be ascertained or records are not kept in such a manner as would enable proper assessment of income; then, such a taxpayer shall be assessed on such terms and conditions as would be prescribed by the minister. These regulations shall apply to the informal sector, including micro businesses that have an annual turnover of N6m and below.”
As laudable as this innovative tax regime is, it seems to be a bit of too much burden on the majority of the operators of the informal sector at whom the proposed tax regime primarily targets especially Women. According to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative Report of 2014, Benue is ranked as the 15th poorest State in Nigeria. Of it’s over 5,000,000 populations about 1,664,418 or 34% form the working population while the remaining 66% are comprised of the under aged, the elderly and the unemployed. Going by the United Nations Development Programme country report of 2014, over 75% of Nigerians live below 1 USD or 195 NGN per day. As it stands, majority of the operators in the informal sector fall below the poverty index as stated above. If therefore, these people are taxed based on the proposed fifty (50) per day tax rate then they are left with just a hundred and forty five naira per day to contend with amidst a bourgeoning inflation rate and other economic variables milking away their meager resources.
The informal sector of Nigeria is about 35 percent of total GDP. This is more material and significant in Lagos, the national commercial hub; with an estimated informal sector of $48.2 billion as at 2012. The informal sector is incidentally predominated by the Women folk all over Africa especially Benue State. Women in the labour force in Nigeria generally have low participation in the formal sector. Many of them take up self-employment in the informal sector. The women mostly operate in a hostile environment and are ignored as far as public policy is concerned. Often, they are seen as illegal traders to be harassed by law-enforcement agents. The women in the informal sector generally have limited access to start-up and working capital, and other resources, such as credit and technology beside other socio cultural constraints. The consequences of all these is gross poverty and penury occasioned by high mortality rates, unsafe abortions, high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates and low human development indices amongst Women and young girls in Benue State. Subjecting these poor and vulnerable women to a high tax regime is at best being insensitive to their economic and cultural rights.
Given the dwindling fortunes of the State evidenced by a consequent drop in the monthly allocation to the State from the Federation account on one hand and the increasing financial demands of the State on the other, there is an understandable need to increase the income of the State through internal generated revenues. The proposed daily tax collection of fifty naira as ingenious and laudable as it sounds does not favour the poor and the vulnerable especially Women.
This piece therefore is a clarion call on the State Inland Revenue Service ( BIRS), the State House of Assembly to review downwards the proposed daily tax collection to the most poor and vulnerable especially Women. The Personal Income Tax Act, 2011 failed to specify the exact indices for determining presumptive tax regulation. It suggested that the presumptive tax system be applied on businesses with a turnover of six (6) million or below. Going by the provisions of that law, a supermarket with a six million naira turnover in Makurdi will be subject to pay fifty naira (50) daily as the Akamu hawker in Otukpa. The law has failed to enhance equity and fairness in its provisions. It promotes everything else but Tax Justice. In order to protect the rights of the poor and the vulnerable in Benue State especially Women, we would suggest that the proposed daily tax collection regime be reviewed downwards with Women paying 20 naira daily as tax especially those whose businesses have a turnover of one million naira or less. This way, the economic capacity of the Benue Women and its attendant gains will be protected and enhanced.