Public service, especially in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural polity like ours (more so, when the office is supposedly seen to be “juicy”; a terminology often used by those I refer to as “civil service-preneurs”: i.e., rent seekers who use public offices to accumulate illicit wealth), is obviously not for the chicken-hearted. Howsoever conscientious one may be! Please pardon my verbiage.
Some days ago, after guesting on a national TV talkshow, I got an “anonymous” call. The caller, who was obdurate about not disclosing his identity all through the almost four-minute conversation, started by praising me on what he said was my “courage in always speaking truth to power” and went further to let me know he always took time out to listen to me whenever I was “on radio or television”.
After a couple of “thank yous” that I must have mouthed in sheer politesse, he regaled me with unsolicited details of what he called “the maladministration of Fowler at FIRS”. On his completion of the first sentences of the pre-meditated calumny, which he delivered with the oratorical staccato of a man fast-talking with hot potato in his mouth, I asked why he was obliging me such a delicate body of information on an agency that I knew next to nothing about either its governance or its politics? His somewhat pre-planned retort was that I was a well known public affairs commentator who could find the issues useful on some of the national radio and TV programmes I usually guest on. At this juncture, my intuitive deconstructionist psychological antenna was perceiving mischief in his motive!
The following points are some of my mental takeaways from the near-monologue of a phone chat. He alleged that Fowler, the chief of FIRS, was recruiting the establishment’s strategic new operatives in a manner inconsistent with laid down service rules. He went further to allege a blatant case of a N7 billion tax refund fraud. And the appointment of cronies as Special Assistants. Specifically, that he appointed one Mr. Abiodun Aina, who he claimed was Fowler’s Special Assistant in Lagos’ equivalent service, from whence he – Fowler – was himself appointed. Furthermore, he claimed that members of staff in the service were unhappy over insensitive transfers and poorly furnished offices.
He concluded his “devil’s advocacy”, as a friend of mine is wont to call the stigmatisation of others with vehemence, by referring me to www.corruptionreporter.com, where, he said, I could read more on Fowler’s alleged administrative “dictatorship”.
Having initially concluded that whosoever could make such a call without either giving me a followup number to call back on or disclose his verifiable identity couldn’t be taken serious, I (importantly because of the allegation of fraudulent tax refund to a construction industry giant) was inclined to want to cursorily check the story out.
So, I called a retired Permanent Secretary of Lagos’ Civil Service who is a mutual friend of Fowler and I. “Gbola, ma (don’t) worry, somebody from the team will soon call you for clarifications”, was what his musical four-decade-plus-honed broadcaster’s voice said. Less than an hour after a certain Mr. Anyanwu called me and he responded with the quoted passages below to my rough re-itemisation of the unidentified caller’s list of allegations:
“Tax refunds are legal and legitimate payments to deserving corporate taxpayers, who must have been ascertained through a transparent auditing procedure to have overpaid their due taxes. Payments are made after the diligent audit of such companies. It is funded through a dedicated account, opened by the Accountant General of the Federation. Monies for settling refunds are paid from the Federation Account and appropriated by the National Assembly;
“That refund to taxpayers is approved by Section 23 (1-6) of the Federal Inland Revenue (Establishment) Act 2007 after audit of such companiees;
“That when the incumbent Executive Chairman, Mr. Tunde Fowler, assumed office in August last year, he directed a review of all previously approved tax refunds to corporate taxpayers who applied for same in order to be sure due process was followed;
“That Julius Berger Plc, was one of the several companies that applied for refund and were paid. However, Julius Berger was not paid the sum of N7 billion as alleged in the story, but a relatively lower sum of N4 billion (which can be verified from the Accountant General’s office from whence the amount was independently paid) and due process was meticulously followed. Refunds are approved and paid to relevant companies after multi-layered audits;
“It is important to note that the Executive Chairman, Mr. Tunde Fowler, has not approved a single fresh tax refund request since he assumed office in August 2015;
“That the allegation that 250 staff have been employed is fictitious and false. Only 10 professionals, with proven track records have been engaged, mainly as Contract Staff, to enable the Executive Chairman realise the 2016 target of N4.9 trillion;
“That the transfer of experienced Deputy Directors and Assistant Directors to FIRS Training Centres is part of FIRS efforts to strengthen its knowledge transfer programme and expeditious development of the capacity of its workforce;
“That members of the public and hardworking FIRS staff should disregard the distracting, false and malicious publication on the website you alluded to;
“That Mr. Abiodun Aina was never a special adviser to Mr Fowler in Lagos. Mr Abiodun Aina is a qualified tax administrator with track records, who came from the private sector, as a matter of fact, he has never worked in the public sector before.”
From the above reported conversation and some of the carefully made remarks of Mr. Anyanwu, it is like the mischief could be a cloaked war from within and Fowler may be paying for not having the Kachikwu courage of clearing old and self-entrenched career civil servants, who may have over the years held the agency to ransom. It is like some of the people he graciously redeployed have now turned to internal distractions at a time like this when all hands should be on deck.
Gbola Oba is a public affairs analyst.