This week, the Followership Challenge is kicking off on a spiritual tone, comparing the scenario of this season in Nigeria’s political scene to an encounter in biblical times. As many people of that time were aghast and amazed at some of Jesus’ doctrines and miracles that were more or less mysterious and mind-boggling, they could not but queried his audacity and authority on certain critical and core matters of the law and state. In an instance, some legal luminaries testing the mental alertness of the Teacher demanded whether it is lawful to pay taxes or not to which Jesus retorted wittingly and tersely: give unto Ceasar what is Caesar’s and to God what rightly belongs to Him. They were stupefied and silenced! They congregated another time and were bewildered as Jesus told them plainly that their professed progenitor, Abraham, was glad to see him and swiftly they charged at him: “You are not even fifty years old!” they said. “How could you have seen Abraham?” (John 8 v 57). Then, Jesus, knowing their thoughts pointedly told them: “. . . I tell you for certain that even before Abraham was, I was, and I am.” The people picked up stones
The aforementioned biblical scene is akin to what is breaking forth in Nigeria’s practice of federalism. The trajectory of the Value Added Tax (VAT) phenomenon of which was recently spearheaded by the seemingly enfant terrible among the southern Governors, His Excellency, Ezebunwo Nyesom Wike, the Governor of Rivers State. Looking at it from one perspective, one may say it is not unexpected of an opposition Governor. Wike is a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The government of Rivers State took the Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS) to court and won a landmark judgement that awarded power to River State to collect and expend Value Added Tax (VAT). One needs to hear Governor Wike’s frustration in a seemingly skewed federalism: “Sometimes, you don’t want to believe these things exist … People say that let heaven not fall but sometimes I believe that heaven should come down so that everybody will rest…When we do the right thing, heaven is at peace. So, the right thing must be done at all times.”
It is high time the ship of Nigeria was steered towards true federalism and proper restructuring in such a way that each state should expend what she generates within her geographical context. On the heels of the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt ruling, the Centre of Excellence, Lagos State, the commercial capital of Nigeria, decided not to head for the court like Rivers State did. The State of Aquatic Splendour, as Lagos is referred to, took it a notch higher by going to the State House of Assembly with a bill to authorize the State government to collect and consume its VAT without recourse to the government at the centre, the status quo ante. Lagos, as somebody wondered, is not an opposition State as the government there is similar to the All Progressives Congress (APC) at the centre. Why then is this contention or controversy? Should not Lagos State align with the Federal Government in a matter like this since the Governor and President belong to the same party? Fiscal federalism is dictating the pace rather than partisanship. Presently, the 36 States governors are in court challenging the government at the centre regarding the sharing of the stamp duties collection. Indeed, in Nigeria, this is a season of leadership with no easy answers in the words of a leadership scholar and author.
Wike, Not Whittling Down
The outcome of the Federal High Court judgement in Port Harcourt sent shivers down the spines of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) resulting in approaching the appellate court to set aside the ruling of the lower court. In a swift response, the appellate court ruled that the parties should maintain a ‘status quo ante bellum’ which leaves many observers in the quandary as to what the appellate court really implied! In a swift reaction, the Rivers State Government, not wanting to let down the steam, approached the apex court, the Supreme Court, to weigh in on the matter. This is getting more interesting and intriguing even as many analysts and legal luminaries are reading different meanings to the whole saga. To some, it is better for the Federal Government through the FIRS to continue collecting VAT as many States do not possess the machinery except for Lagos and Rivers. To others, there is the need for the legislature to amend the constitution in order for the Federal Government to be legally empowered. This columnist, with the lens of the law, sees these perspectives as not only defective but jejune, puerile, pedestrian and parochial. Is it not within the same Nigeria that the candidate who scored the highest votes in a gubernatorial election was jettisoned and the court awarded victory to the candidate of a party that came third in the same election? Heaven did not fall! Anyway, the Supreme Court as the final arbiter in the matter will declare who is right at the end of the day. To this columnist, Wike, even though to many observers and opinion molders, may be seemingly churlish, brash and unpolished in his demeanour, is a winner, in torch – lighting the way to fiscal federalism.
Tinubu: Titanic Tinkering
Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the erstwhile Governor of Lagos State is many things to many people. This columnist wants to look at issues analytically rather than personalities. As at 1999, Lagos was virtually at par with some States in Nigeria with an internally generated revenue (IGR) base of around N600 million per month. All of Lekki, Ibeju Lekki and Eko Atlantic were partly slum or non-existent. It is on record that as a technocrat, coming from the private sector into governance, he donned his thinking cap, working with the best of brains, unlike today when most of the men in the saddle in the states are surrounded with surrogates, lap dogs and bootlickers. Perusing through the book: “Asiwaju: Leadership in Troubled Times” edited by the trio of Segun Ayobolu, Tunji Bello and Sam Omatseye, it was pointed out that Tinubu was erroneously conceived as “baba go slow” at the inception of his administration. Many did not know that he had assembled teams of seasoned technocrats who were thinking and tinkering with ideas whilst simultaneously gathering data needed for planning and governance.
This team criss- crossed and traversed the length and breadth of Lagos consulting and contacting people of all strata in the society. The outcome was the setting up of many functional agencies or institutions that are still beneficial to the running of government till now. The Lagos State Development Plan (LSDP) spanning 25 years was part of the outcome. It is noteworthy that successive governments have been building on this. Any wonder Lagos is now grossing on a monthly basis up to N30 billion. However, it was not a sweet song all along the way as the Federal Government of the day headed by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo apparently put a wedge in the strides of Tinubu. He, as a sagacious strategic leader that he is, navigated the way of his government off the storm to a safe haven. Obasanjo withdrew the monthly allocation from the centre meant for Lagos when Tinubu called off his bluff and created additional 37 Local Council Development Areas (LCDAs). The administration of Tinubu went to court and won but Obasanjo refused to release the allocation meant for Lagos while Lagos was functioning and running on all cylinders. The leadership acumen and sagacity displayed by Tinubu and his team, some of which are in the present government at the centre, rubbished the seeming subterranean schemes or shenanigans’ demeanor of the government at the centre at that time. Moreover, the Lagos State under the leadership of Tinubu, in testing fiscal federalism, initiated many cases against the Federal Government of that time and won virtually all. The present Vice President, a professor of law, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, who was then Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, was in court many times with the Federal Government or her agencies being the defendants. In essence, Tinubu was the pathfinder for the States to stand for their right in a seemingly skewed federal structure in which the states and local governments are tied to the apron of the government at the centre. Expectedly, many States in Nigeria cannot survive, talk less of thriving unless they chorus “our father who art in Abuja”, doing contrary may lead them into the abyss. It may therefore be wise to say, without mincing words, in the struggle towards true fiscal federalism, Tinubu towered head and shoulder above, albeit Wike is the seeming de facto champion of fiscal federalism. However, the Supreme Court, as the final umpire and arbiter, will determine how far Wike will be celebrated in this VAT saga.
The coming months will determine the demeanor of the National Assembly (NASS) to Nigeria’s quest to true fiscal federalism. There are two issues: the ban on open grazing by the men at the saddle in the many southern States and the battle of VAT collection before the apex court. It is on record that the NASS has been approached to help by the association of pastoralists, the Miyetti Allah socio-cultural organization, and the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). In the past months, the issue of constitution review was on the front burner in which our distinguished men and women were apparently foot dragging. The eyes of the whole world would be on the National Assembly now to decipher the steps the red and green chamber would take in “helping” these entities to amend the constitution. Is constitutional amendment as easy as some are touting it? The process is herculean!
The onus lies on the men in the saddle in the states to test in the law courts some aspects of governance that will curtail the flexing of muscles by the government at the centre that some referred to as “federal might”. This act will stop the federal government from arrogating or appropriating certain rights and privileges to herself which the constitution does not confer on her ab initio. This will be a worthy cause in the trajectory towards true fiscal federalism and restructuring which many political pundits have been clamouring for. This 9th NASS, apparently, has not lived up to expectation as many analysts view her as more an appendage of the executive than an independent arm of government.
There are three Governors that are in the forefront of the fight towards fiscal federalism – Governors Nyesom Wike (Rivers), Rotimi Akeredolu (Ondo) and Babajide Olusola Sanwo – Olu (Lagos). These three governors of PDP and APC respectively, who though persecuted, did not mind whose ox is gored, but are vehement on charting the way forward peacefully and proactively in a progressive manner in line with the dictates of true democracy, should be commended by the people of the region. Dissent, debate and dialogue are ingredients of true democracy for when we jaw – jaw, then we can avoid war mongering. This is the pathway to discouraging and dissuading separatists and secessionists’ agenda threatening peaceful coexistence in our country presently. Our leaders at the centre must embrace much of this while not pampering or spoon feeding one group against another or treating one with kid gloves. The President, Baba Buhari, is the father of the house. Nigeria is that big house containing all tribes and ethnic nationalities!