As we seek alternatives to the present failure, we must reopen the issue of progressive taxation, introduce property taxes and the benefits to be obtained in a dispassionate manner, as part of a strategic imperative for the future. Anthropologists are in agreement about the communal organisation of social structure in Yoruba land. Yoruba thought and culture are not averse to contributions for the good of the community.
Right after the treaty ending the Kiriji War was signed, a renaissance of Yoruba culture, norms and economic development was induced. The logical end result to cement the advances was the 1948 formation of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, which eventually transformed into the Action Group, a political party.
The Action Group ascended into power under the MacPherson Constitution, riding on a manifesto centered around making “life more abundant”, which had been largely inspired by the British Labour party’s inspirational and game changing 1945 platform, “Let us face the future”. To fulfill the promises made to the electorate, the Action Group needed resources outside the commodities export trade, largely centered on Cocoa. Taxation to finance commitments to the provision of social services, health and “free education” became the decisive territory of political thought and action in the Western Region from 1952. Throughout the 1950s, the anti-colonial struggle across the globe adopted the battlecry of the American revolution: “No taxation without representation”. In their struggle for independence, several nations agreed implicitly that taxation is a vital part of the social contract and a central pillar of democracy and representative government.
In the Western Region, revenue from commodities, with its inbuilt price instability, was never going to be adequate. Individual tax contributions had to be levied and enforced. For a political party in a nascent democracy, it was difficult. For one, there were bound to be issues of fairness in weighing the progressive distribution of the tax burden, not just between social strata but, crucially, between the urban and rural areas. A further dilemma was the distribution of the benefits of tax contributions vis-a-vis the equitable catering to the needs of the urban and rural areas. At the time, the key problem was the failure of the Region’s premier, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, to negotiate a “democratic agreement” and consensus to take the tax issue out of politics.
The opposition National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) stoutly refused to have a bipartisan consensus, much to Awolowo’s deep regret, as he was to point out in speeches and in books. In a principled forgoing of electoral consequences, tax was levied and enforced. Enforcement was sometimes a pitched battle. The level of taxation was high, reaching 63 per cent to the GDP ratio, which was certainly higher than just about everywhere else, including the United States of America. It nevertheless brought in the funds needed for an audacious trajectory of social engineering, sustainable development and elevation of living standards unmatched elsewhere. It crowned the Yoruba renaissance and the efforts of so many precursors, such as Ladipo Solanke and the his fellow intellectual activists in the London founded and based Western African Students Union (WASU).
The transformative effects have been well documented and have continued to be a benchmark often cited as the gold standard for sustainable development. It, however, came with a price tag. The Action Group suffered tremendous electoral defeats in the 1954 central elections (federal elections) to the Federal House of Representatives and local government elections conducted by its own electoral board in 1956 and 1958. The local government elections were actually a rout. The elections became a debacle for the ruling party in the region. Awolowo’s chances of cobbling together a majority in the 1959 pre-independence federal election was also gravely affected. Notably, taxation based development funding edified Awolowo’s presence of mind and principled commitment. He refused to make a U-turn and seek the convenient crowd pleasing way out. Mercifully, the verdict of history has been very fair and positive to his endeavour. A clear problem was the urban-rural dichotomy. The opposition swept the rural areas because of the perception that these areas (shades of resource control) disproportionately contributed the lion share of the benefits going to the urban areas. Flashpoints resonated on this issue of and on, most notably in the Agbekoya peasant revolt in 1968-1969.
The gains of the eventual acceptance of taxation must be lauded. By doggedly sticking to course and demonstrating the efficacious benefits of tax contributions, the Yoruba people accepted the need for taxation to the extent that in 1961, an attempt, for purely opportunistic reasons, to cut taxes on the eve of the local government elections was resisted. In actual fact, there was a riot, leading to scores of people bounded over to keep the peace.
It is sad that the political sophistication exhibited by the acceptance of the need for taxation was destroyed by the military takeover. In discrediting the politicians as punitive, the baby and bathwater were thrown overboard. After a succession of uncaring and self-centered military and civilian governments, the case for taxation as a very crucial necessity is going to be difficult to make, but it has to be made.
It is sad that the political sophistication exhibited by the acceptance of the need for taxation was destroyed by the military takeover. In discrediting the politicians as punitive, the baby and bathwater were thrown overboard. After a succession of uncaring and self-centered military and civilian governments, the case for taxation as a very crucial necessity is going to be difficult to make, but it has to be made. For right now the illusion of the sustainability of the rentier state, based on rent seeking, consumption and racketeering has been laid bare.
As we seek alternatives to the present failure, we must reopen the issue of progressive taxation, introduce property taxes and the benefits to be obtained in a dispassionate manner, as part of a strategic imperative for the future. Anthropologists are in agreement about the communal organisation of social structure in Yoruba land. Yoruba thought and culture are not averse to contributions for the good of the community. The present aversion is the result of the pushback against “state capture” and a retrogressive political class, which is anti-people. A case in point is Lagos. It is legitimate to ask questions about the use of taxes in Lagos State. There is absolutely nothing equitable about the distribution of the benefits of taxation from land use charges, signage etc. Nevertheless we must remember our culture and history and the great gains we once made and must reignite.
Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú, an advocate, strategist and political analyst writes this weekly column, “Bamidele Upfront” for PREMIUM TIMES. Twitter: @BamideleUpfront; Facebook: facebook.com/Bamidele. BAO
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