VAT (Image from Independent)

By Dele Sobowale

“The wrong war, at the wrong time and the wrong place.” — US five-star general, Omar Bradley, 1893-1981

When the Kennedy and Johnson administration   got  the USA more deeply involved in the Vietnam  war, General Bradley voiced the minority opinion among the  military establishment. He was ignored. America suffered its first military setback then. Billions of dollars and lives – American and Vietnamese, were lost before wisdom prevailed. History is replete with examples of wars started by politicians — which would later claim lives and properties.

“Politics is war by other means…”

Ask any Nigerian state governor if he considers the country almost at war. He would probably be shocked that any sane person can ask such a question. He will most certainly deny it. The reaction is quite understandable.

Most people think that a war has started when people start shooting. In reality, violent resolution of disputes follow total breakdown of peaceful resolution of the matters.  

The first “shots” were fired by the Southern Governors when they unanimously passed the no-grazing laws, state collection of the Value Added Tax, VAT, and the demand for power rotation in 2023.

An objective observer would read all these declarations as non-negotiable demands. The problem with issuing an ultimatum is that it gives the recipients no choice. They either accept or prepare for battle or issue their own conditions for peaceful co-existence. Unless cooler heads prevail, war follows.

On September 27, 2021, the Northern Governors Forum, NGF, published their reply to only one of the three southern decisions. It amounted to “forget the Presidency in 2023”. At least that ball has now been sent back to the Southern Governors’ Forum, SGF. Nigerians wait to find out what the response will be.  

Noticeably, the two sides have discarded their political parties, religion, or ethnicity in this face-off. All Progressives Congress, APC, and Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, are represented in the two camps. That makes it dangerous. Without realising it, the Governors have defined the war front for us.

Let us reduce tension and face our real threats

“If you don’t intend having a compromise, you don’t negotiate at all.” — Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.

Invariably, when politicians, reacting to the mob – believing that “the voice of the people is the voice of God” – have boxed themselves into tight corners, they need third parties to get them out. Our governors have locked themselves in; they need mediators to get them and us out.

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The beauty of negotiated settlements and agreements brokered by third parties lies in the fact that nobody loses face. It is a win-win solution to stalemates. 

The central aspect of the process is compromise. No party gets everything; no party loses everything.

VAT appears as the logical place to start the process of working out the series of compromises that could bring us back from the brink of war – which is not in the interest of all Nigerians.  

Despite the litigation; and perhaps because of it, we can still settle this matter amicably out of court. Let me quickly explain why settlement is better than confrontation.

Nigeria is getting poorer; not richer. Climate change imperils our future as a nation if the advanced countries accelerate their efforts to reduce the consumption of fossil fuel – especially crude oil and its derivatives. As a nation we already are experiencing a “shrinking piece of cake” for sharing. It might get smaller rapidly. We need all of our collective ingenuity to escape the grinding poverty which will destroy us. We need  each other now – more than ever.

In September this year, the Federal Government, States and Local Governments shared N692 billion for August Federation Account Allocations. But the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, has already served notice of less contribution for October sharing.

In 2014, the three tiers of government shared N720 billion in one month. The official exchange rate in 2014 averaged N250/US$1. So the revenue shared was $2.88 billion. The N692 billion shared last month, at N420/US$ was worth only $1.70 billion. That is our real predicament. The effort being placed  on VAT redistribution merely seeks to decide who will cut the cake getting smaller. It won’t increase it.

Perhaps, if we turn the problem around and look at it from this different angle, we might be able to lower the tension. Contrary to “the voice of the people”, the North is not the sole cause of our economic woes. We are all contributors.

Furthermore, there is something fundamentally wrong with a proposal which will benefit only three states and impoverish thirty-three, the FG, as well as the Federal Capital Territory, FCT. Like it or not, the capital of Nigeria is in Abuja. It still needs a lot of funds to serve us well – as long as we remain one.

Time for political solution

Fortunately, we have had some experience with this sort of revenue sharing dispute before. When former Governor Victor Attah of Akwa Ibom State appeared to have hit a brick wall in his litigation for RESOURCE CONTROL; and militants were getting set to start wrecking oil production facilities in the state, a political solution rescued the country from oil and blood spilling. From there, the 13 per cent derivation principle emerged. It was not ideal; but it saved the situation. The country moved on. We have done it before; with goodwill on all sides we can do it again. Here is how.

Appoint 12 wise, patriotic Nigerians

President Buhari should, as a matter of urgency, appoint twelve wise and patriotic Nigerians, preferably not active politicians – one from each zone. They should be given the assignment of mediating the VAT dispute; offer solutions and help remove VAT from out list of problems creating tension nationwide. We have them. My  “Principal Librarian”, Eric Teniola, has been publishing a series on the last of the Super-Permanent Secretaries – Chief Asiodu. I hope our Elder Statesman is still in fairly good health. Somebody like Asiodu would offer great advice which would take into consideration the needs of all Nigerians. “Beggar thy neighbour” cannot be the right solution to dwindling revenue. 

That might make regional or state sense. It will destroy the country if not amended. With open boundaries everywhere, the fortunate states will soon find themselves invaded by refugees from hunger and malnutrition from those deprived of the little they had before the change. A nation faced with imminent economic collapse cannot afford the luxury of internal warfare. 

The sooner the major leaders of this confrontation realise this, the better for all of us.

LAST LINE: As I anticipated in my column a few weeks ago, the Organised Private Sector, OPS, has waded into the  VAT controversy. Expectedly, Nigeria’s business class are opposed to a change which will force them to be dealing with 38 tax authorities on VAT. Even those who were still trying to crawl when VAT was enacted  years ago can easily see how disruptive the entire thing will be. Cost of doing business will rise – at a time we want them to decline.

This is surely an ill-wind which will blow nobody anything good.

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