By Obi Nwakanma
It has been reported once again by the newspapers, including the Vanguard, that Mr. Anayo “Rochas” Okorocha has imposed a local tax of N3000 per adult in Imo State as what he called “Community levy.” The announcement of the Okorocha administration’s tax of Imo adults was made by the commissioner for Community government, Culture and Traditional Affairs, Mr. Louis Duru. From the get-go let me acknowledge that taxation is the means by which governments all over the world generate revenue to provide services. Citizens ask, “where does my tax money go?” and governments provide them detailed, direct and visible reports and evidence of where their tax goes.
It is through this means that citizens control their governments. They pay their taxes, when they feel invested in the programs of government, or they become tax resisters, and risk garnishing when they choose to defy their governments who use their taxes for funding programs that they do not agree with. The Igbo have always had a tax process, through community levies called “Utu,” by which they have run their affairs at local or community levels. Such contributory levies have always been used to conduct community development.
All the Community schools built in Igbo land, the Health Centers, the markets, the local security programs, even sometimes the church buildings, or Town Hall buildings, and such things have been built by local taxes. Paying one’s tax is the highest form of civic responsibility and the truest commitment to citizenship, and the shared burden of public service. That’s where the theory of the “consent” of governed comes in. People control their governments through taxation. The idea that there can be no taxation without representation holds very true, because it is the basis, unless it is the tax of the Caesars, that one’s tax naira matters. It is the means by which the Nigerian subaltern can speak.
In this case, Okorocha’s tax is the tax of the Caesars. It is forced and compulsory levy, and as Louis Duru puts it, every adult in all the Communities in Imo state have been “ordered” to pay it! Ordered? Something keeps worrying me about Okorocha and his sense of his powers in Imo State. With a dead legislature, there is really no democracy in Imo State. No one speaks nor protects the interests of the people.
The government seems totally embodied in a single executive branch, and the judiciary is papier mache, incapable of delivering or enforcing judgement, while the legislature in Imo State, those elected into the most powerful arm of government are either illiterate, ignorant of their roles, or plainly lax and uncommitted to the oath they swore to defend the constitution, and be the true legislators for their people, representing the interests of those who elected them to speak on their behalf, and make laws, and contain the tyrannical power of one branch over the other.
This failure of public governance in Imo State has created “Emperor Okorocha,” who can now “order” Imo people to pay tax or what he calls “community levies” without the backing of an appropriate act of the Imo State legislature to give force and legitimacy to citizens’ taxation. One is dumbfounded by such ignorance: that the governor does not understand that the executive has no power without the force of a parliamentary act, to impose or collect any tax on behalf of the state government.
Taxation of citizens is founded on a state tax law, and the current laws in Imo State do not grant the government of the state the power to impose arbitrary taxes until such a mandate has been framed by the House of Assembly whose powers and essential duties is to determine the tax regime for Imo State, and provide the basis for its collection by the agency of the state empowered to collect tax, the Treasury department, or the Ministry of Finance as we know it. In other words, the only institution of government mandated by the constitution to impose tax on the people is the Legislature, while the collecting agency is the Executive through the Government’s Treasury Board.
All monies collected by taxation are paid into government’s coffers, under trust and scrutiny of the State Assembly, and cannot be spent, or appropriated outside of legislation. To do that is to break a fundamental law of public governance, and this is the actual meaning of financial crime, which can lead to impeachment proceedings and prosecution. The executive branch of government – in this case the governor of Imo State – cannot therefore just wake up, and by his own whim order taxation or the levy of the public as though he were Augustus Cesar. Even Augustus could not impose tax without the imprimatur of the Roman senate.
On what basis, by which laws, and to what end therefore is the “order” by Mr. Okorocha to Imo citizens to pay a forced and illegal levy? There are three tax collecting levels of government in Nigeria: the federal government: the State, and the Local governments. Okorocha has virtually imposed an autocracy on Imo State by illegally appropriating the powers of local government without sanction or consequence, and in collusion with the Imo state House of Assembly.
In any case, none of these governments can simply, arbitrarily, impose a tax, or levy the citizen without an act of parliament framed within the annual financial laws, which legislates through the budget process, the tax regime for the year to match the budget profile as passed in an act of the legislature. These are the fine constitutional issues in Okorocha’s move to impose a tax “from the throne.” There is no throne in Imo state, according to the constitution of the Federal Republic.
There is an existing legislature in Imo state, even if it is a comatose and irresponsible parliament, and they have passed the annual budget of the state with no tax proposals submitted to it, discussed, and passed, which places a new tax burden on the citizens in Imo state. Even then, there is also a limit to government’s taxing authority. While the legislature has broad powers to impose taxes, there are constitutional restrictions on this power too. The only tax not subject to a general referendum is the General tax. The state may authorize but not impose local taxation.
The laws of Eastern Nigeria, which is the frame of the laws still in use in Imo state is quite clear on local taxation. This level of ignorance has to stop. I do not know whether Mr. Okorocha consults his Attorney General to advise on the limits of his constitutional powers, or whether in fact his Attorney-General is schooled well enough in the law to offer the governor and the State Assembly, both to whom he constitutionally reports, adequate constitutional advise as the Chief Law officer of the state and adviser to government. Okorocha is not “the government” of Imo state.
The Imo state government has three branches – the legislature, the executive, and the Judiciary. The other two is an abeyance. Okorocha is running rampant with all kinds of illegality. Then there is the moral question, aside from the constitutional question about this imposition of the adult levy. First, is the question of accountability: according to some estimates, Imo State might have generated about 5 Trillion Naira in the seven years since Okorocha became governor, both from federal revenues, including as an oil producing state, and in the allocation payoffs and in other local taxes, like sales, property and income taxes, available to government aside from these federal allocations.
Okorocha has also seized allocations due the Imo local governments in the period. Yet, he has not accounted to Imo people the use of these monies. I have seen some of the shoddy public work Okorocha is doing in Owerri, including to be fair to him, opening up some road access hitherto closed, but none of these reflect the proper use of the monies that have been available to him. Imo state government is in default in many quarters: it owes pensions to retired public servants, it owes salaries to civil servants and teachers; there is no visible, long lasting or sustainable development in Imo.
We have what we can describe as “Okorocha’s wonder.” The more you look, the less you see. It is immoral, quite aside from being illegal, to decree taxation on Imo people who have no jobs; who enjoy very little social services from the state; who do not see the benefits of the money they are now being forced to pay.
Besides, traditionally, before a levy is imposed at the local levels, communities discuss it, and agree, and there is often buy-in. It is true that Okorocha grew up in the North where they do things differently, but in the Igbo areas, no one imposes a tax on the people. It was a lesson which even the British colonial powers learned the hard way in 1929 when the women themselves rose and drove away those “warrant chiefs,” collaborators with the British to tax them.
So, here’s the deal: Imo people should ignore Okorocha’s order to pay the N3000 levy. First, the governor does not have the constitutional power to impose a levy. Secondly, he has not accounted to Imo people the use of the revenues accruing to Imo. Imo people should refuse to pay this levy, and be prepared to run anyone out of town who comes to them to collect this levy. Unless Imo people are now “mumu,” Okorocha does not have the police, nor the jails, to enforce this order. It is an illegal mandate, and of no effect.