Insight

Imo: A state in a quandary (2)

CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK

Despite still smarting from the crippling effects of the coronavirus outbreak, residents of Imo State, particularly business owners, artisans, farmers and petty traders, are burdened by multiple taxes and levies by different organs of the Imo State government. This is in addition to civil servants and pensioners being owed months of salary and pension arrears, reports STEVE UZOECHI

The festering fight over revenue collection among government functionaries also points to the fact that the claim that the administration was running a Treasury Single Account (TSA) model may be a ruse. If these appointees were channelling the revenues to the TSA, there would be no need to fight dirty to the extent of escalating their disagreement into a ‘police case’ while serving under the same government. If there were no pilfering and all the revenues were indeed going straight into the coffers of the government via TSA, it would not matter who controls the markets and as such, it would not be worth all the ‘street fights’.

Similarly, while the Owerri Capital Development Authority (OCDA) is operating a task force on traffic management, the Environmental Transformation Commission (ENTRACO) of the state is also running a task force on traffic management and just recently, the Ministry of Transport also set up its own task force on vehicular traffic management.

Duplicity of roles is rampant and as a result hostility and confusion become inevitable. As a matter of fact, fatalities were narrowly averted when the task force from ENTRACO and that of the Ministry of Transport clashed at Ikenegbu area of Owerri over ‘territorial control’ occasioned by role conflict. And these seem to be the character of the present administration in Imo – poor supervision, poor ethics, role conflicts, and a massive scramble.

The scramble

At face value, one may conclude that functionaries of the state government are inspired to aggressively generate revenue to the state from every revenue source. But on a second thought, it seems inevitable to infer that portions of the revenues so generated may not find their way to the government till.

There seems a massive scramble to extract money at all cost from the citizenry by government officials and their proxies with many of these proxies demanding and collecting cash without receipts. Their operations are largely without close supervision as long as the proxies meet their daily monetary targets.

With the attendant battle for ‘territorial control’, simple logic suggests that if the fund was going into the same government coffers, there would not be any need for a fight and face-off among functionaries. A journalist (named withheld), whose vehicle was impounded by the task force working for ENTRACO a few months ago, was asked to pay N15,000 before his car would be released. All his explanations to the touts that constitute the task force fell on deaf ears.

The team leader of the task force explained to the correspondent that each of the 25 teams or thereabout is mandated to unfailingly make a return of N20,000 each day if they must retain the job. The reporter observed that returns were made in cash and didn’t look like fund that will end in government coffers.

He noted also that no receipt whatsoever was issued to owners of impounded vehicles after payment was made. In one of such scrambles to extort money at all cost, government officials impounded food trucks authorised by the Federal Government to deliver palliatives across the country while demanding as much as N100,000 from the truck drivers.

The Federal Government also issued drivers conveying such products with pass so as to allow them easy movement across the country. But the Imo State government through the Board of Internal Revenue impounded food trucks passing through the state. About the first week of May, over 50 trucks conveying various essential food items were impounded and packed on the premises of the Imo International Conference Centre (IICC) with each of them compelled to pay from N30,000 to N50,000 to agents of the state government.

Most of the trucks were conveying palliatives and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to various states in the South-East and the South-South. One of the affected truck drivers conveying beverages for Nestle com-pany, Mr. Louis Chikelue, said their vehicles were impounded despite the drivers showing the task force members the authorisation document from the Federal Government.

He said: “As you can see, what I am conveying is palliative materials and I have shown them the papers. But one of them told us that even though we have federal pass, we should equally obtain Imo State government pass because the government is looking for revenue.

Some of us who have perishable items have been begging them to collect N20,000 to release us but, they are insisting on N50,000. We have never been faced with this kind of problem before.” Another driver, who identified himself simply as Oluwatosin, said: “I am conveying pharmaceutical products to Aba and when we got to Mgbidi about 6.30pm, soldiers there stopped us from entering into the state with a reason that there is dusk to dawn curfew in the state. In the morning of Tuesday, we headed to Owerri and these task force officials impounded our vehicles.

“I brought out a carton of sanitizers to show them what I was conveying and they opened it and even used one. Yet, they still impounded my truck demanding initially N100,000 before their leader, Joseph Ayozie, reduced it to N50,000 “. All the impounded vehicles were hastily released following public outrage at the cost of N30,000 each. The scramble was that bad. Ayozie, who was then in charge of enforcement at the Board of Internal Revenue (BIR), Owerri, had said the trucks were impounded for contravening the law of the state while the then Chairman of the BIR, Mr. Emma Ononaku, disowned the task force, saying the members might have been people commissioned from the Government House.

What followed thereafter was a belated damage control and a flurry of press releases from the Government House describing the government task force as hoodlums, yet no one was arrested. Onunaku, the BIR chairman, was removed two weeks after the incident. At the time there seemed to be task forces in every corner of Owerri pursuing people for one thing or the other.

It was so much that even criminal elements at the motor parks created their own task forces and joined the fray, feasting on Imo residents. From people selling roasted corn and those selling engine oil by the roadside to Point of Sale (POS) operators, taxi and bus drivers, poultry farmers and newspaper vendors, to hostel owners and small business premises, none was spared the harassment of these rampaging proxies and touts. Commenting also on the issue of ENTRACO task forces, the SSA Media (Print), Nwamkpa, said “those criminal activities were not perpetrated by bona fide members of the commission.

We understand that some criminal elements may have infiltrated the ranks of the operatives of the commission and had subjected people to avoidable exploitation. That is unfortunate, but again, this is where you will have to commend the Governor, Senator Hope Uzodimma, for his recent proactive measure of stopping ENTRACO task forces from operating in the metropolis.”

The siege

While every proactive and citizen- centred government across the world and indeed across the country are trying to revamp the economy of their states and support the welfare of their citizens by offering lifelines, tax reliefs and economic stimulus to at least, Small and Medium scale Enterprises (SMEs), the Imo State government seems committed to further burdening and strangulating small businesses in the state by piling heavy taxes on business owners and as such creating an increasingly hostile business environment. Apparently, the need to improve the various indices that impact the Ease-Of-Doing-Business in a state tends to mean so little to the government of Imo State.

As far as taxation and post-COVID- 19 recovery policies are concerned, it is only Imo State government in the entire South-East and South-South regions that seems to carry on like the COVID-19 pandemic never happened and as if individuals and businesses really did not take a massive hit from the scourge. Before now, Bus Imo (Mini-Bus) transporters in the state paid daily levy of N150 but with Uzodimma’s administration, the management (taxation) of commercial transporters was contracted out to Lasbergers group at a closely guarded fee paid to the government. This empowered Lasbergers to recoup their money howsoever from the already overstretched people of Imo State. From the N150, Bus Imo operators now pay upwards of N250 to Lasbergers daily.

The ugly side of this taxation is that by 1pm every day, any Bus Imo operator who has not paid up will have his bus violently impounded by teams of touts designated for enforcement. No excuse is good enough. The state chapter of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) also collect N100 from the same Bus Imo operators every day. And all these fees which are paid daily from Monday to Sunday, are beside the N7,000 annual emblem fee that must also be paid with the attendant harassment of a section of the NURTW operating around the Arugo park axis that collects N1,000 from any driver they ‘contravene’. This is just an instant.

Consequently, it is easy to infer that Imo has the most expensive, yet chaotic transportation system in the entire South-East of Nigeria. Hawkers and non-owners of shops pay N100 in the morning, another in the afternoon and if they are there in the evening they still pay N100 to another team of touts totalling N300 daily for even petty traders selling just vegetables that are not worth up to N2,000 in total value.

Hotels are randomly served exploitative demand notices; truck drivers are harassed and charged as much as N10,000 to N20,000 just for passing through Imo State. Also, some of the government officials go to villages away from public glare, to intimidate and exploit struggling farmers who are striving to stay afloat after the pandemic, threatening them with government clampdown if they fail to comply with their exploitative demands. A poultry farmer at Uratta in Owerri North was intimidated into paying as much as N70,000 to some officials of ENTRACO. Shockingly, the receipt for the payment indicated that the N70,000 was among other things, fee for ‘environmental nuisance’, in a country that wants to promote agriculture and food sufficiency.

Not too long ago also, hostel owners protested that a government agent was charging them N180,000 for compulsory fumigation of each hostel, a job they could do for far less. When contacted, the ENTRACO General Manager, Macdonald Ebere, confirmed that the agent had the authority of the commission to make the demand. From available indications, Imo is inflicting excruciating economic pains on its people who are still smarting from the COVID-19 lockdown that shut down businesses, work places and literally dried up cash flow in many states.

From materials obtained from KPMG and additional internet searches, Imo is the only state in all of the South-East and South-South that did not offer any known form of tax relief or economic stimulus to individuals and business owners. By June 2020, Lagos had further reinforced its tax reliefs to its residents and business owners while Imo was yet to recognise the need to cushion the fiscal effect of the pandemic on all sectors of the Imo society.

By August, Ogun State announced tax palliatives for its taxpayers with waivers, discounts and in some cases, outright suspension of taxes for 2020. While the Kebbi State Board of Internal Revenue also announced multiple waivers and huge discounts on taxes for 2020 for its taxpayers in July, the Ebonyi State government same July, waived levies and charges for hawkers and petty traders. It also offered 40 per cent discount for other taxes, waived interests and penalties for outstanding tax obligations.

Other states which provided some forms tax reliefs for their citizens and business owners include Cross River (July), Edo (April), Akwa Ibom (July), Bayelsa (July), Delta (July), Rivers (July), Anambra (March), Ebonyi (July), Enugu (June), Abia (July) among others.

So where is the fund?

With salaries and pensions hardly paid, and as the ugly air of stagnancy persists in the state, there are more questions than answers as to what has become of the monthly allocations; local government funds, Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) and other accruable funds to the state. There is no major project under execution yet by the governor.

All the exit and entry routes to the state are all in terrible state of disrepair. About two months after Uzodimma announced that Julius Berger would soon commence work on some of those roads, Imo is yet to see one truck of Julius Berger in the state.

So where has all the money gone to? With neither salaries nor pensions fully paid and government increasingly showing that it is unable to fulfil its financial obligations, Imo people are left with more questions than answers. And the people are clearly at a loss as to where their common wealth is being channelled to. Consequently, not a few residents of Imo State are convinced that the state is flat broke with governmentlicensed thugs and touts unleashed on hapless residents of the state, aggressively milking and shaking down residents with reckless abandon, hiding under any excuse howsoever.

It is a tough time for most governments and citizens across the country but the state governments owe some responsibilities to the people. Particularly, government should not shirk the responsibility of navigating the ship of state out of troubled waters through innovative policy ideas. Citizens have already been stretched thin by the turbulence of the COVID-19 pandemic; turning on them again, under any guise, to ‘pay the price’ for the inability of government to recreate itself, would definitely be counter-productive.

CONCLUDED

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