First, let’s deal with the praise, the plaudits, before ending this piece with the questions, the posers. Before I watched and heard him on television conduct an extraordinary “town meeting” with the business community in Lagos this last Monday, I hadn’t known much about Governor Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos State.
As a matter of fact, the very little that I knew about him was not exactly flattering, to say the least: the razor-thin margin of only 150,000 votes – out of over 2 million votes cast – in his electoral victory over his PDP opponent in the gubernatorial race of 2015; and in 2016, the ugly spats between Ambode’s wife, the First Lady of Lagos State, and a state-employed chaplain of a church that had led to the rather highhanded sacking of that man of the cloth.
Moreover, when the governor had come to Harvard last year to give a talk, I had been absent from my “duty post” at the time and thus missed the talk. All of which serves as the background to the pleasant surprise of the following things that I now report about Ambode’s televised meeting with the leaders of the business community this past week. It is a well-known secret that most of the governors and high officeholders in Nigeria do not write the speeches they deliver in public.
In addition, in general, once a speech is delivered, most of our rulers and politicians do not, indeed cannot, effectively field questions arising from speeches they deliver. T
his is one aspect of the foul underbelly of democratic governance in our country, this fact that our rulers are in general incapable of conducting meaningful public dialogue with the citizenry, especially in the English language.
As this is a huge subject, we cannot deal with it in this piece. Coming back to Ambode, I do not know if his speech on Monday was written by speechwriters; what I do know is that from his passionate and eloquent delivery, one can conjecture that he must have had a hand in writing the speech – if in fact he did not himself write it in its entirety. The speech was masterful in its combination of technocratic prowess with social vision. Within five minutes into the speech, I recognized that I was watching and hearing something extraordinary and I immediately started taking mental notes. This essay is written entirely from those notes.
The formal delivery of the speech was followed by “Question Time”. Again, Ambode acquitted himself brilliantly on this point.
The proof of this came from the extraordinarily impressive manner in which the governor dealt with all the questions posed to him, questions that went to the heart of the problems, challenges and crises confronting Lagos as one of the buoyant but festering megacities of the world. Here, I place emphasis on the word all – that is to say, all the questions without exception. As the questions were posed, Ambode took notes, copiously.
There were two sets of questions. The first set of questions were over a dozen in number; the second set had slightly fewer questions. In any case, as questioner after questioner after questioner had his or her say, Ambode did not stop taking notes. After the number reached 12 in the first set of questions and the questions did not stop but continued, the teacher in me became attentive and I asked of no one in particular, “why doesn’t the official directing the programme limit the questions to one or two at a time and how is the governor going to be able to respond meaningfully to all these questions”?
Needlessly and wordlessly, I answered my own question: “of course, he is not going to answer all the questions – he is a politician”!
But Ambode did answer every question – and painstakingly so! Please bear in mind, dear reader, that although all the questioners were from the business community as a very influential social group, the assembled audience of the governor’s performance at the “town meeting” came from an impressive diversity of interests and loyalties. And then, there were the women who spoke on behalf of SMEs, the small-scale enterprises. Please note, dear reader, that I say women.
There were only two of them, this made their under-representation at the forum rather coincident with the gender inequality that is so prevalent, so constitutive of economic and social power in our country and our continent. Significantly, both women spoke about industrial activities linked with the recycling of waste products and the training and retraining of our unemployed and putatively “unemployable” youths. In other words, of all the business people who posed questions to the governor, these women were the most upfront, indeed the most insistent on the social good that their industrial and business activities and products entail.
For this reason, I admit that I watched the governor’s response to them with much greater attention than I did with his answers to the others. I can report that the governor did not condescend to them and that his response to these two women, these two representatives of SMEs, was of the same passion and eloquence with which he engaged all his interlocutors at the forum.
An astonishing feat then, that Ambode responded fully and robustly to all these interlocutors equally.
Having been a teacher and a speaker at public forums for large segments of my adult life, I know what this implies: only she or he who is filled with passion, focus and dedication can respond to more than a dozen interlocutors with diverse interests, constituencies and loyalties as if every issue matters and everybody counts. But every experienced teacher, every gifted public speaker knows that although all pupils and all issues and their representatives matter and count, they do so differentially. I saw this knowledge, this intuition played out astutely in Ambode’s responses to a good number of his interlocutors. For instance, to the CEO of a company who posed a question about her and her company’s “tax fatigue”, Ambode was respectful while slyly justifying the crucial importance of taxes and even more taxes for a state like Lagos.
To big entrepreneurs who wondered about the logic behind the bloated number and scope of workers on the public payroll in the state, Ambode was polite, even deferential in his endorsement of the logic of rationalization on which big companies are run; however, he insisted that governments cannot, indeed should not, be run exclusively or even primarily on the same logic; human and social interests, the governor argued, should override logics of rationalization and profit maximization that drive the activities of big corporations.
I have stressed the fact that the interests, perspectives and constituencies represented by the governor’s interlocutors were quite diverse. I must now observe that it seemed to me as I took in the whole performance that Ambode felt that as diverse as these interests and forces were they not conflicting and whatever tensions and conflicts might exist between and among them could be reconciled to the advancement of the progress and development of Lagos State. The old Marxist term for this idea is “non-antagonistic contradictions” as opposed to and in contrast with antagonistic contradictions.
Ambode did not use these terms, but I was deeply moved by two particular instances when he expressed a passionate advocacy for contradictions especially characteristic of the city of Lagos in the apparent belief that they are nonantagonistic contradictions. Permit me to briefly relate these two cases. People think that one of the worst present and future nightmares of life in Lagos pertains to the number of cars plying the roads, relative to how many cars the roads, the streets, can take. Not so, argued Ambode passionately; the worst problem of street life, the governor argued, is the number of people on the streets with absolutely no provision for them to be on the streets in safety and comfort.
No pavements, no sidewalks, no margins at the edges of the asphalt for people to walk on in safety, relaxation and even leisure. You hear talk about cars and congestion all the time, Ambode declared, but who speaks for people without cars, people that happen to be the overwhelming majority of Lagosians?
As a columnist who has in the past both humorously and seriously argued for a “Pedestrians’ Bill of Rights” in our cities, I was particularly moved by Ambode’s eloquent and impassioned restatement of this issue. Even more moved was I by the governor’s playfully ironic joke that serves as the title of this piece: “We’ll keep them off the streets so that we can sleep at Banana Island!” The “we” here apparently refers to Ambode and his audience, his interlocutors at the “town meeting”, the crème de la crème of Lagosian society, the economic, social and political elites of the city and the state of Lagos. What of the “them” that are to be kept off the streets? These are the talakawa, the denizens of the “Other Lagos” none of whom was present, indeed could be present at that encounter between the governor and the business elites.
Of the 25 million that constitutes the population of the city and the state, “they” happen to be the vast human and demographic majority whose internal majority is a whopping 65% that are under the age of 35.
If we can find gainful employment for “them”, if we can keep “them” busy and engaged in productive activities that keep “them” off the streets, Ambode was in effect saying, then we, the elites, can sleep at night without being haunted by the spectre of their invasion of our homes, our rest, our peace, our security, our conscience. I do not think I have heard or read of a more powerful expression of the social contract between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless from any of our rulers and politicians in a long, long time, in fact since the days of Obafemi Awolowo and the People’s Redemption Party. In conclusion, I now go, briefly and succinctly, to my questions for Governor Ambode and indeed for all of us. I have only two posers.
The first one pertains to the forces and interests involved in the realization of the social contract. Basically, I ask: who is present and who is absent, who is included and who excluded in the adjudication of struggles over the social contract? At the “town meeting” of the governor with the business elites, the poor, the talakawa, together with their representatives, were absent. Would it have made a difference if they had been present and had also been vocal about their interests? Please note that as I stated at the start of this essay, Ambode’s electoral victory was about 150,000 votes out of over two million votes cast.
The two million was itself only a fraction of the population of the state, which is 25 million. Will Governor Ambode correct this massive disenfranchisement of the majority of the people of his state? Will he bring the “Other Lagos” directly to the table and not only raise their presence as a spectre that to disturb the peace and the good conscience of the rich?
Second poser: In the 1990 and 1999 Constitutions, Second Chapter titled “Fundamental Objectives and Directives of State Policy” it is clearly stated that it is unfair, as all previous Nigerian Constitutions had assumed, that the goals of development and social justice cannot be pursued simultaneously and indivisibly, that “development” must take place first before economic redistribution can take place. Both constitutions made it mandatory for the Nigerian state to pursue both goals together; however, this was made non-justiciable meaning that the Nigerian state and its functionaries cannot be legally forced to observe or actualize this provision, this clause in the Constitution.
From his speech last Monday, especially in the segment wherein he fielded all those questions, I conjecture that Ambode is on the side of this constitutional clause. Will he step forward now and say so? More to the point, will he state what forces, what allies, what coalitions he, his administration and his political party intend to mobilize to realise this objective? •Jeyifo writes via firstname.lastname@example.org. edu.
Worrying APC, PDP boycott of council polls
In advance of the 2019 general elections, a trend has developed along with the rush to conduct local government council elections across the states: That’s the tendency of political parties to boycott those elections on rather nebulous excuses.
For instance, of the elections conducted since late 2017 in eight states, four were boycotted by the two leading parties in Nigeria: the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
While the APC spurned the elections in Ekiti (and withdrew midway into the balloting in Akwa Ibom), the PDP abdicated participation in Osun, Kano and Edo states. Already, the PDP is planning to ditch the council elections in Oyo in May. Ditto the APC in Rivers in June.
The big question: Will the APC and PDP pass up the 2018/2019 elections in the states they snubbed during the council elections? For starters, will the APC evade the governorship poll in July in Ekiti, and the PDP doing the same in Osun in September?
Perhaps, the implications of this trend are not lost on the Chairman of the APC, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, who would rather the PDP abandon the rest of the elections in 2018 and 2019. He was reacting to PDP’s dumping of the March 3 council polls in Edo.
To him, participating in election is an “opportunity to mobilise and energise its followers,” failing which “the injury is to the boycotting party,” adding that, “from our history in this country, you do not boycott elections. If you do so, you are paying a heavy price for it and we wish it (PDP) luck. But I pray that they will boycott the others also.”
Certainly, Odigie-Oyegun isn’t “earnestly yearning” for the PDP to shun the polls in 2018 and 2019, but he’s only expressing indignation that a political party that prides itself as the “largest in Africa” could abandon elections at the grassroots.
Ironically, in the rush to judgement, the APC chair failed to allude to his party’s pulling out of the council elections in Ekiti, not once but twice in two years – in December 2015 and 2017, respectively. And to think that the APC is the dominant political party in the country!
It’s not unusual, though, for political parties to shun elections, especially at the national level, if they stand no chance of winning any seat that would qualify them to exercise political or administrative authority. This necessitates the calls to give recognition to parties, that so desire, to operate only at the zonal, state or council level.
Political parties adduce various reasons for ducking council elections: from the seemingly genuine, such as having legal issues with the State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs), to the tenuous and downright ludicrous.
For example, the Ekiti chapter of the APC withdrew from the December 19, 2015 council polls on the allegation that officials of the EKSIEC were card-carrying members of the PDP, and as such “they could not be trusted to conduct a credible election.”
Then in last December’s polling, the party had recourse to its ongoing legal action against the EKSIEC, promoting that it could not participate in an exercise conducted by an “unlawful body.”
In Edo, the PDP vowed non-participation due to “lack of confidence in the EDSIEC,” and urged voters to shun the exercise. It also challenged, at the state High Court, the “unlawful amendment of the notice of election, from 90 to 45 days, by the House of Assembly.”
Even in council elections that are earmarked for May and June in Oyo and Rivers, the main opposition parties in the states have given notice of their opting out of the voting. What are their reasons?
The APC in Rivers has cases against the leadership of the local government councils, which have run through the courts – High Court, Appeal Court and Supreme Court, and the “constitutionality of the RSIEC Law 2018” being litigated at a Federal High Court.
So, in bowing out of the council polls in June, the Rivers APC, through its chair, Dr. Davis Ikanya, reminded the RSIEC chairman, retired Justice Chukwuneye Uriri, that there’s “no vacuum” in the local governments, as the councillors’ tenures had not expired.
The Oyo State chapter of the PDP is “boycotting” the May council polls on the advice of a chieftain of the party in the state, Prince Adeyemi Arowosaye, who alleged that “information available to me” indicated that “the state government has perfected plans to rig the election in favour of the ruling APC.”
Actually, the fear of the controlling party, using its state governor and the SIEC to “manipulate” the system, is the beginning of wisdom for the opposition party to boycott council polls. Such abracadabra manifested in virtually all the states that had held elections in recent times.
To quote former Senator Domigo Obende (Edo North), “Political parties do not want to participate in elections so that it will not look as if they were defeated. They want the easy way out and to say, ‘We did not participate in the elections; otherwise, we would have won.'”
But the boycotters beware: Surrendering council polls undercuts a political party’s viability for the next big elections: State House of Assembly, Governorship, and National Assembly and Presidential elections.
According to the chairman of the Edo chapter of the APC, Mr. Anslem Ojezua, the decision of a political party to boycott council elections “is as good as signing its death certificate.”
So, haven’t the APC and PDP signed their “death certificates” in states they dodged council elections? Well, the Ekiti governorship in July and Osun poll in September will likely show how wise both parties were in ditching the states’ council elections.
VAIDS deadline: The taxman cometh
By March 31, the nine-month window provided by the Voluntary Assets and Income Declaration Scheme (VAIDS) for tax defaulters to regularize their tax affairs will close. From the look of things, the closure will be accompanied by a big bang. I await the VAIDS deadline day like a cup final.
The Federal Ministry of Finance, initiator of the scheme, has stated that it will name and shame defaulters, who fail to take advantage of the scheme when the window shuts. That certainly will provide titillating headlines, with tax debtors, including high net-worth individuals wildly lauded as role models, being outed as cheaters of the system.
It is something I look forward to.
This would be followed by using the law to ensure that penalties and interests on owed taxes are paid in addition to the tax debt as well prosecution, all of which the government offers to waive for those who truthfully and voluntary declare under VAIDS. Mr. Babatunde Fowler, Chairman, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), in a recent interview, gave a bold hint of government’s readiness to confront those who refuse to take the opportunity offered by VAIDS.
“We increased the legal fees in our 2018 Budget,” the FIRS Chairman was quoted as saying. The implication is that the government has enough ammo for the offensive against tax avoiders. Interesting times loom, with the added benefit of seeing those fleecing the system in the dock.
It requires no great insight to know that, as a people, our tax compliance records are spectacularly squalid, with near-total dependence on oil revenues, which have thinned out as oil prices plunged on the international market. Our Tax-to-GDP ratio, at six per cent, remains one of the lowest in the world. Fellow African countries, including Ghana, have considerably higher ratios. We expect development, like in “saner climes”, without wanting to do what in such climes do. We seem to consider wilful tax avoidance a sport, an activity VAIDS was conceived to stop.
Officially, the number of taxpayers paying N10 million as tax per year, as at 2017, was 943. Of these, 941 were based in Lagos, with only two based in Ogun State. The implication of this is that in all the other states and the Federal Capital Territory, there is no billionaire or multi-millionaire. That cannot be the case, given the assets scattered around the country and vehicles on our mostly decrepit roads. What it means is that many property owners in highbrow areas have not been paying or have been underpaying taxes.
I need to quickly own up that I thought the government was clowning when it came up with VAIDS. In our country, where even the most basic of data are difficult to come by, I wondered how the government would access financial and transaction data. No chance, I told myself in apparent ignorance of a changing world. This is a world of Automatic Exchange of Information, which means countries which are signatories can ask one another for information about individuals and corporate entities that transact business with their respective jurisdictions.
A number of countries have already volunteered to give Nigeria information on corporate organisations that own properties on their soil.
Even those skilled in hiding money and assets now look considerably less safe.
Nigerians with properties in the UK, for example, will find the Unexplained Wealth Order tough to beat. The law provides that if you are a British or a foreigner, you have a house and you cannot show evidence of tax payment based on the income you used to acquire the house or cannot substantiate the source of your income, that property would be confiscated.
Locally, VAIDS is using state land registries to know the owners of properties as well as the doing valuation of those assets. Data have also been mined from the Bank Verification Number, payment platforms, Nigeria Customs Service and the Corporate Affairs Commission among others.
A few weeks ago, Chairman of the Lagos Inland Revenue Service (LIRS), Mr. Ayodele Zubair, in an interview, said many individuals and corporate organisations have been approaching the agency for information on VAIDS. I find that encouraging and expect that those who have not taken that step should approach tax authorities relevant to their cases to make the move.
There is still time to make a declaration. There is more time, a maximum of three years, to spread payment of what is owed. The alternative is not as relaxed. Starting from naming and shaming, to payment of interests and penalties, exposure to tax audits and of course, court dates to face tax evasion charges.
VAIDS offers the country a huge chance to build a credible tax database and ensure a more sustainable and reliable revenue source for development.
• Bickersteth, a public affairs analyst, writes from Zaria
N13.5m: Senators and their monthly running-costs
The parliamentary arm of the federal government has seemingly remained a drainpipe that impedes economic growth in the country since the ongoing democratic system commenced in 1999. Comparatively, a Nigerian senator or member of the House of the Representatives earns several times more than their counterparts across the world. Still, corruption sways in the chambers. In fact, during the previous administrations, ‘Ghana-must-go’ bags with megabucks were practically turned into lobbying and legislative tools for screenings, confirmation of appointments and passage of budgets. As a result, reckless, profit-motivated and episodic impeachment motions became the order of the days on any president in power particularly during Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration which all ended in pecuniary deals. Later, it became a routine in the successive governments until the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. In effect, do-or-die politics ruled the polity as belonging to the parliament became the fastest money-making venture.
Notwithstanding the gross aberrations, the lawmakers advantageously allocated outrageous allowances to themselves. The recently exposed monthly-running costs of a whopping sum of N13.5million to each senator which if allocated to visible developmental projects across all the constituencies will no doubt, concurrently boost development across the nation, remains a nightmare. It is indeed heartless, iniquitous and greed that as much as the amount is self-allocated and collected monthly by each of the senators separately from consolidated salaries on inconsequentialities. Some lawmakers once in a while will fix a quasi-amenity but file up fictitious copious receipts without substantiation. Meanwhile, the people in their constituencies remain in misery, joblessness and poverty. Then, additional N200million for constituency projects is allotted annually, yet the polity keeps appearing pitiable and abandoned. Perhaps, it should be appropriately renamed paper-projects since they are nonexistent anywhere. Irrefutably, the actions fell below the bar of civility.
This believably, accounts for the unbending attempts to intimidate the chairman of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ibrahim Magu out of office to pave way for a companionable new helmsman. The fundamental question for the lawmakers is; how could the Public Procurement Act they passed into law specify how projects should be bid and executed but they indiscriminately allocated public funds to themselves albeit the council is yet to be constituted? Or is the country comparable to George Orwell’s Animal Farm where some animals are more equal than others? For example, Section 16(17) of the Public Procurement Act 2014 provides that “a contract shall be awarded to the lowest evaluated responsive bid from the bidders substantially responsive to the bid solicitation”. By the way, how could the legislature prepare and pass its budget and also clothe itself with powers to override the president? Indeed, this is a blinder.
The recent episodes are glaringly satirical. Lawmakers fantastically misappropriate public funds that could aid to improve the economy but always shed crocodile tears over unemployment ratio in the society. Sensitively, if the plights of the youths truly move them as portrayed on the controversial Peace Corps bill, the appropriate action should be to expand the budgetary allocation specifically as employment interventionist policy which will enable the executive expand its workforce including the existing security agencies thereby absorb more youths into their respective personnel.
Unfortunately, legislature’s budgets alone keep going up and up with outrageous masked allowances. Over the years, politicians often play on the sensibilities of the vulnerable citizens especially the youths during election periods. Interestingly, the red chamber is presently manned by unique identities; commonsense advocate, great anti-corruption crusader, voice of the new generation, defender of the down-trodden, economic empowerment strategist and many other titles who relentlessly criticize the executive every now and then. Yet, they collaboratively overlooked, concealed and promoted for several years the fraudulent running costs and constituency projects sufficient to improve the society in few years if prudently expended.
Presently, the 2018 Appropriation bill presented to the National Assembly early enough, precisely on November 7, 2017 by the President to stimulate the economy that was critically hit by recession, sadly still hops up and down at the end of first quarter. Incontestably, the lawmakers work for their personal interests. The constituency projects astutely envisioned has constituted conduits to the treasury. The bicameral legislature itself is the grand drainpipe. As a developing democracy, Nigeria shouldn’t have clichéd the developed system verbatim but modify progressively.
It therefore suggests that the anti-graft agency has a lot of works to do. No amount of propaganda should dampen the spirits from moving into actions towards recovering misappropriated public funds, however unselectively. It is absolutely ridiculous, height of aberration and totally unacceptable to enthrone mediocrity and expect developments. From 1999 the running costs and constituency projects came into existence, it is rare to find any such projects anywhere except few that managed to complete a borehole in one community or repaint a community-market with giant sign-posts. It is fittingly inhumanity to man that lawmakers freely loot public funds while the masses they use satisfactorily during elections are drying up in hunger and hardship. Egocentricity has clearly defeated the objects of constituency projects solicitously aimed at spreading rapid developments to the grassroots through the representatives. Probably, this is where Charley Boy’s “OurMumuDonDo” initiative will appropriately and effectually make sense than the defunct ‘resume or resign’ crusade. Until the legislative arm is reformed, things may hardly fall in shapes.
Umegboro, public affairs analyst wrote from Abuja via: email@example.com (07057101974 SMS only)
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