The Executive Chairman, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Muhammad Nami, recently fielded questions from some journalists in Abuja.
In the interview, the graduate of Bayero and Ahmadu Bello Universities gave insights into the challenges he has faced so far in office and the measures taken to overcome them. He also outlines plans to harness the stamp duty to bolster the nation’s economy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. ABDULAZIZ ABDULAZIZ curates parts of the interaction for PREMIUM TIMES.
Q: Briefly, how would you describe your experience thus far as the helmsman at the FIRS?
Nami: I can say so far it has been both exciting and challenging. Exciting because I am practising what I have been doing for almost three decades, and here I am also interacting with some of the best brains there are in the sector.
So it couldn’t be more exciting. It’s challenging because it appears I am having to build the entire structure of the Service again from the scratch in addition to meeting the huge target set for us by the Federal Government.
So, you can see that it is not an easy ride. But, so far I thank God that we are gradually patching things up. The members of staff have been very cooperative and supportive. They are quite excited now and willing to work harder than before because I have taken steps to return the functions previously given to the consultants back to them so that they can perform optimally.
Q: The public expects that things would change for the better at the FIRS under your watch. What can you list as your achievements in the first 100 days in office leading the service?
Nami: Well, I can say with all sense of modesty that we have achieved a lot since we came on board. Although I would have liked to leave this to posterity but a few points will suffice.
When I came on board, I found that the entire structure of the Service had keeled over. So I had the daunting task of piecing together the pieces. Now, you will agree with me that this is not an easy task considering the fact that FIRS is a large organisation with about 10,000 staff and I am new to both the environment and the staff.
In addition to this, some of the e-platforms on which the operations of the service depend have one issue or the other which required fixing. So far we’ve been able to couple together the structure and fixed some e-platforms and introduced automation solutions to drive the revenue collection process.
As you can see, I have spent my 100 days basically trying to rebuild the system and the confidence of the staff in the operations of the service. In addition to all these, I want to put on record that we have fast-tracked the issuance of TCCs through the window we provided in January.
We also lifted the lien placed on taxpayers’ bank accounts by the erstwhile management. These are all geared towards easing payment of taxes as well as creating conducive environment for ease of doing business.
We have also put measures in motion to introduce other e-platforms as a way of ensuring efficient service delivery. In line with this too we have opened new audit offices, segmented tax returns filing, organised stakeholder sensitisation programmes. So we’re doing a lot of groundwork to improve our collections in the coming months.
Q: The Finance Act 2019 was signed into law recently and came into operation on February 1, 2020. What is in the Act for the individual taxpayer and businesses in terms of tariffs or tax palliatives?
Nami: First of all let me say that the Finance Act is an instrument that is meant to strengthen taxation system in Nigeria and that it is not yet a perfect document. Having said that, the Act contains a number of important palliatives especially for the small businesses.
One of these is the exemption of companies whose turnover is less than N25 million from payment of Company Income Tax but they must file tax returns. Also, the Act stipulates a reduced Company Income tax of 20 per cent for companies whose turnover is from N25 million to N100 million. Again, the Act provides that early payment of tax attracts a bonus of 2 per cent of tax payable for medium size companies and 1 per cent for bigger companies.
Minimum tax computation has also been amended to 0.5 per cent of gross turnover. Bank transfer of N10,000 and above is now to attract stamp duty.
Q: COVID-19 is clubbing the global economy into a coma and a global recession is very likely on the horizon for all countries, including Nigeria. How can the FIRS help the nation out, if indeed, there is something the service can do to help Nigeria in these trying times?
Nami: Yes, you’re right. Coronavirus, or COVID-19, is currently ravaging the world economy. This is no doubt a frightening scenario for all nations and the global economy, more so for a developing economy like our own.
No doubt this is a very trying time for business owners and taxpayers generally. We feel for them, we sympathise with their situations right now, and we pray that the world overcomes this dreadful condition as soon as possible so that businesses can thrive again.
Against this seamy economic background, the Federal Inland Revenue Service is saddled with the task of raising N8.5 trillion in revenue this year. We are, however, determined to meet this target to help the three tiers of government fund their 2020 budgets.
We are determined to scale the huddles by doubling up our efforts to collect all taxes due to the federal government even though we are aware that the purchasing parity of Nigerians is dwindling right now and that people are generally reluctant to pay taxes.
The tax culture in Nigeria at the moment is really not encouraging, if you ask me. We are also going to work on that too as we move along. We will apply some level of diligence in collecting taxes particularly indirect taxes like VAT and the stamp duty which the Finance Act 2019 gives us the right to collect.
The FIRS is determined to do everything possible to insulate the Nigerian economy from a probable downward slide or recession which many are predicting would hit the global economy as a result of the pandemic.
Through the indirect taxes available to government like VAT and stamp duty, etc, we are confident that FIRS would be able to generate enough revenue for the government to fund its 2020 budgetary provisions (particularly the budget deficit) and make good its promise of providing key infrastructures, social amenities, fight insecurity, and stop further borrowing.
Q: You have brought up stamp duty and it is pertinent we bring up the controversy surrounding it in terms of which agency of government has more right to collect it…
Nami: Thank you very much for this question. It is not much of a controversy, really. To my mind, I think there’s a misunderstanding of the issues involved. Let me use this opportunity to set the matter straight.
We are all educated people and so we should not confuse postage stamp which traditionally belongs to NIPOST with the stamp duty. For the avoidance of doubt, postage stamp is a signage that is affixed on a letter, visa, and in some cases agreements, and it is sold by NIPOST.
The money that accrues from the sales of postage stamp is also remitted to the Federal Government’s Single Treasury Account (TSA). The sale of postage stamp by NIPOST is the practice across the world.
On the other hand, stamp duty relates to matters executed between a company and an individual, group or body of individuals. It is a tax on legal documents, deeds of agreements and contracts, electronic transfers, and electronic receipts on transactions in the region of N10,000 and above or transfers in like sum from one current account to another current account.
The position of the law on stamp duty as at today is that it is the responsibility of the FIRS to collect stamp duty on behalf of the Federal Government. This is the tenable position in the light of available evidence.
In the first instance, since 1939 the Federal Board of Inland Revenue (FBIR), which transformed to FIRS in 1958, had been collecting stamp duty. Similarly, the recently gazetted Finance Act 2019 has amended s.4(1) of the Stamp Duty Act contained in S.(8) of the Law of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 to give the FIRS the sole right of collecting stamp duty on behalf of the Federal Government.
Also, sometime in 2016, the then Accountant-General of the Federation, issued a circular mandating relevant bodies to remit all stamp duty revenues collected to the FIRS account with the Central Bank. More important, the stamp duties so collected as tax are remitted into the Federation Account for onward disbursement to the three tiers of government, from which NIPOST benefits.
These are the indubitable differences between the claim by both agencies of government. And so, the stamp duty is one key tax we intend tofocus on going forward. We are going to be diligent in collecting Stamp Duty as applicable under extant laws. We are very determined to make sure that all collecting agents of stamp duty, that is, the Money Deposit Banks and MDAs, remit it promptly to the FIRS account with the Central Bank.
Given that the FIRS has the sole right to collect the stamp duty, it has commenced solid arrangements to make stamp duty the goose that lays the golden egg for the federal government to shore up its revenue base in order to beat a likely economic meltdown as a result of the outbreak of the COVID-19.
To achieve this, I recently met with the chief executive officers (CEOs) of banks in Lagos to enlist their support to achieve 100 per cent compliance in stamp duty collection through the use of automation solutions now being rolled out by FIRS.
Q: What was the response like at that meeting?
Nami: Quite enthusiastic, very encouraging. At the meeting, I stressed the need for total compliance and aggressive revenue drive as a means to overcome a looming economic meltdown as a result of the recent crash of oil price from $50 to $29 which is likely to affect our projections in Petroleum Profit Tax.
Of course, this market situation is connected to the economic ravages of COVID-19, which have triggered a global economic lockdown. We cannot pretend that these have no unintended negative consequences on Nigeria’s economy.
Q: What informs this confidence that the stamp duty is the trump card for the nation in this perilous time for the economy?
Nami: It is from the measures we are putting in place and the volume of revenue that would come from the sector. We are upbeat that revenue from stamp duty collection can rescue the economy from a possible downward slide. We intend to make the stamp duty the goose that lays the golden egg for the federal government.
The good news is that stamp duty has the potential to yield tax revenue in trillions of naira. Presently, there are claims from many quarters that if the records of stamp duty on chargeable transactions as far back as the year 2000 are revisited, as much as N20 trillion unremitted stamp duty revenue are due from agencies charged with collecting it on behalf of the federal government.
This is more than double the year 2020 budget of the Federal Government. Again, from the initial analysis carried out by us regarding chargeable transactions in the banking sector, we discovered that in 2019 alone, the total volume of transactions was over N52 billion.
And that the total value of these transactions was over N613 trillion. You can imagine how much would be realised from this value if a stamp duty of N50 was charged on it. We are currently carrying out analysis of these transactions to determine the actual chargeable transaction. So you can see that my confidence is not misplaced. I assure Nigerians that this is the beginning of good things to happen to Nigeria.
Q: You are assuring the nation that the FIRS is competent enough to collect Stamp Duty, sir?
Nami: Yes, of course, the FIRS is the only agency of government with the right capacity in terms of manpower and technological know-how to track stamp duty collection. Right now we are working with relevant stakeholders to develop a workable remittance solution that will effectively block leakages and bring in more stamp duty revenue to the government.
In due course, we would be bedeploying cutting-edge technology to drive the process of stamp duty collection. Relevant bodies and stakeholders have already been put on notice to support and comply with the process that we have put in place to actualise this objective.
Every stakeholder is urged to be fully prepared to adopt the new compliance programme we are rolling out. So failure to comply is really not an option going forward because the cost of noncompliance is far more punitive than the benefit of compliance.
So I can say without mincing words that the federal government did not make any mistake in entrusting stamp duty collection to the FIRS. In the months and years to come this capacity would be demonstrated in the use of the stamp duty as a flagship tax to rescue the economy from the looming downward slide.
Q: As a parting shot, what would you say to the taxpayers out there, especially the individual or corporate tax-shy or tax-evading Nigerian?
Nami: Well, I want to urge them to continue to pay their taxes as a civic responsibility. You know tax payment has a ripple effect. What you pay as tax goes round and comes back to you in many forms such as salaries, capital fund for businesses, infrastructural development and the provision of social amenities.
If you don’t pay your tax, you draw back our country many years. But if you pay your tax, you have the basis to demand for better living condition from your government. So, it’s the obligation of every citizen to pay his tax.
Q: And a word to government?
Nami: I can only plead with the authorities that as taxes are paid, they should please use it judiciously to fund budgetary projections including timely payment of salaries to workers, provision of social amenities to citizens, fight insecurity to secure lives, property, and businesses, and support ordinary Nigerians in this difficult time.
I will also like to advise the government not to embark on granting tax holidays or tax exemptions at this critical period apart from the palliatives it is already giving through the Bank of Industry, Special Banks, and the Central Bank.
This is the time for every Nigerian to rise up in support of the government by promptly paying taxes. The government should educate Nigerians that in a time of crisis like now, the only way to avoid recession is by paying taxes so that government will not be constrained to go borrowing.