Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday shocked many citizens especially the business community with his nomination of Muhammad Nami for the chairmanship of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), the country’s second major cash cow.
Buhari nominated Nami as the new Chairman of the FIRS thereby putting an end to the tenure of Babatunde Fowler, a close ally of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and ruling party leader, Bola Tinubu who many in the business community had thought would naturally be rewarded with a second term due to his close affinity to powerful politicians and businessmen.
Fowler was qualified and had been optimistic that with the gradual increase in collection of revenues in the past year, he deserved a reappointment despite an initial presidency query which subtly showed President Buhari was unhappy with the drop in previous yearly revenue collections.
Nami’s nomination is subject to the confirmation of the Nigerian Senate which would screen and confirm the nominee upon receipt of an executive communication from the presidency.
Monday’s presidency statement described the nominated tax chief as “a well-trained tax, accounting and management professional with highly rated qualifications and professional practice and licenses from relevant professional bodies.”
Nami has about three decades of practical work experience in auditing, tax management and advisory services to clients in the banking, manufacturing, services and public sectors as well as non-profit organisations, the statement said.
President Buhari also approved the composition of the board of FIRS which comprise of a member representing each of Nigeria’s six geographical zones and statutory representatives from a select number of ministries and government agencies.
Fowler, whose term of office expired same day of the announcement was asked “to hand over to the most senior director on the board, who will take charge, pending the Senate confirmation of the new board.” Shehu said.
Fowler’s sack and political intrigues –
Fowler had been nominated by President Buhari in 2015 and his confirmation by the Senate elicited favourable reactions within the business community which is largely based in Nigeria’s south with a larger presence in the commercial city of Lagos.
He had previously been in charge of the local tax authority in Lagos state and was a member of one of the most powerful political family in the southern part of Nigeria led by Bola Tinubu, who has been Buhari’s ally since 2013 after entering an alliance of smaller parties that fused to become the All Progressives Congress (APC). The party would then go on to form a North-South alliance that later defeated then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) at the centre in 2015.
The Tinubu political family had nominated Yemi Osinbajo, a Professor of Law as Buhari’s Vice Presidential candidate and when the APC won, several offices were shared to the bloc including that of Fowler who naturally got nominated because of his closeness to Tinubu and Osinbajo who have governed Lagos for years.
But trouble started for the former tax chief midway into his four-year tenure when allegations of sharp practices hit the FIRS and reduction in Nigeria’s tax receipts led to an outcry even from the presidency.
A presidency query on August 8th this year signed by Buhari’s Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari had demanded explanations from the FIRS boss over discrepancies in tax revenue remittances between 2015 and 2018 compared to that between 2012 and 2014.
Fowler in his reply attributed the declining performance of the FIRS between 2015 and 2018, to the low earnings from crude oil and the recession, which hit the Nigerian economy in the second quarter of 2016. He also said while the FIRS management has control of non-oil revenue collection figures, oil revenue collection figures were subject to more external forces.
The former FIRS boss had in the August 19 reply disclosed that the total actual collection for the said period under the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan was N14.527.85 trillion, while total actual collection between 2016 and 2018 under Buhari’s administration was N12.656.30 trillion.
Highlights of the data presented in the letter showed that during the period 2012 to 2014, out of the N14.527.85 trillion, oil revenue accounted for N8.321.64 trillion or 57.28 per cent, while non-oil accounted for N6.206.22 trillion or 42.72 per cent.
Similarly, during the latter period of 2016 to 2018, out of the N12.656.30 trillion, oil revenue accounted for N5.145.87 trillion or 40.65 per cent and non-oil revenue accounted N7.510.42 trillion or 59.35 per cent.
In his concluding reply, Fowler had told the Presidency that notwithstanding the increase, FIRS had in line with the Nigerian government’s revenue base diversification strategy, grown the non-oil tax collection by over N1.304 trillion (21 per cent) when the total non-oil tax collection for 2016 – 2018 is compared to that of 2012 – 2014.
He remained optimistic that the current strategies and initiatives “adopted by FIRS will improve revenue collections and meet the expectations of government in the coming months,” Fowler said.
But Fowler’s explanation seemed not to have hit the right notes in Aso Rock as President Buhari came out smoking on October 1, where in his Independence day speech he warned of huge consequences for revenue generation agencies that were falling short in their targets and remittances.
“Our revenue-generating and reporting agencies will come under much greater scrutiny, going forward, as the new performance management framework will reward exceptional revenue performance, while severe consequences will attend failures to achieve agreed revenue targets,” Buhari had said.
With such a warning coming six weeks after Fowler had replied the Presidency query, it was all too clear that he was the target of Buhari’s independence day broadcast.
But Fowler did not go to sleep as he unleashed his political machinery and friends within business circles close to the presidency to assuage Kyari and other known powerbrokers in Aso Rock. But as he was doing this, his traducers also stepped up their accusations by sponsoring protests against him including a lawsuit by a legal practitioner, Stanley Okwara which accused the FIRS boss of “overstaying his tenure.” The courts later threw the case out for lack of a locus standi.
Nigerians react to non-renewal of Fowler’s term –
Many Nigerians in their reactions to the non-renewal of Fowler’s tenure at the FIRS said it was not surprising as Buhari had once more shown his tendency to promote sectional interests in his government.
They wondered why Buhari had refused to renew the tenure of a southerner and replaced him with a northerner if the decision was not politically motivated and meant to quash the 2023 presidential ambition of people like Tinubu.
Others who supported Buhari’s action see it as the right step “to prevent an abuse of the FIRS by Tinubu’s boys ahead of 2023 presidential election,” one analyst said.
A known critic of the Buhari administration, Olushola Olufolabi wrote on Twitter that “A FINANCIAL AND TAX ‘TODDLER’ WHOSE EXPOSURE IS JUST KADUNA AXIS, HAS BEEN NAMED TO REPLACE THIS PROVEN AND SEASONED FOWLER. WE KEEP BRINGING THE WORST OF US TO LEAD THE BEST OF US”……
But one of President Buhari’s supporters, Theresa Tekenah said: “Fowler’s tenure expired and Mr Nami was appointed. Is he competent? Yes! Why are youth here wailing and bringing ethnicity to this? Focus on the issues! Just stop!”
One critic blamed Fowler for his fall. Usman Okai Austin said the former FIRS boss did not tackle the allegations against him properly. He also rejected reports that Fowler was sacked. “Not true, his tenure expire and the president refused to denies it. Fowler is a bad accountant who don’t deserves second term in FIRS. Everything in FIRS under Fowler are being handle by consultants from Lagos and Lagos, while the real staffs trained are left idle.”
Former Minister and ardent Buhari critic, Femi Fani-Kayode also said Fowler’s sack was not surprising. “Finally Fowler of FIRS is out and, just as I predicted, he has been replaced by a northern Muslim. When will Tinubu and Osinbajo finally accept that they were outflanked, outmanoeuvred, fooled and scammed into betraying their own people by the Fulani cabal. More to come!”
Some supporters of the presidency said the change at the tax authority was necessary as Buhari’s commitment to rebuild Nigeria through massive infrastructure development in his second term can only happen if the country has more access to funds, especially from increased tax revenues to reduce constant foreign borrowing.
With the recent dismantling of many political positions previously held by politicians loyal to Tinubu and stripping of Vice President Osinbajo’s office of many powers he had previously exercised including the recent refusal of President Buhari to transmit powers to his deputy while on about three week’s vacation, as previously done, it remains to be seen how the presidency will tackle allegations of a proxy war with previously known allies and accusations of sectionalism through “pro-north” policies in a country known for its deep North-South political divide.