Tunde Fowler is a public officer, tax administrator and reformer in Nigeria. He is presently the Executive Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and in this interview with Boldfaces International he explained how tax works and how Nigerians can benefit from it.
Q: For the benefit of our viewers in Nigeria and in Diaspora, please tell us about your background.
My name is Tunde Fowler, I’m the Executive Chairman, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and I also double as the Chairman of the Joint Task Force. I’m from Lagos State. Both of my parents are from Lagos State. I had my educational background in both Nigeria and the United States of America. I attended Igbobi College Yaba where I had my O and A levels. Thereafter, I left Nigeria to University of Wisconsin USA where I had Bachelors in Economics and also Political Science.
I was also interested in international business so I also did Bachelors degree at California State University in Los Angeles. I also did MBA which is the Masters of Business Administration in that same university. So I came to Nigeria to serve in the National youth Service Corps (NYSC).
After that I had a brief time at Johnson & Johnson Nigeria then I changed to banking and after 21 years I worked with Lagos State Government as the Pioneer Permanent Secretary Executive the Chairman of the Lagos State Internal Revenue Service. After that, I was appointed as the Executive Chairman of the Internal Revenue Service in August 2015 by His Excellency, The President, Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Let’s talk about your family; marriage, children.
I have one wife Rosemary a lovely lady and have three children one girl and two boys.
Tell us about your career and duty as the FIRS boss.
The primary duty of any revenue Board is to generate funds. My duty as the Executive Chairman of the Internal Revenue Service is to generate revenue for all tiers of government. Many people don’t realize that the revenue we generate is shared between the Federal, State and Local Governments. I’m also the Chairman of the Joint Tax Board which means that I oversee activities of Immigration, Federal Road Safety, Nigerian Customs, revenue mobilization, Ministry of Finance, all members of these bodies we get together to ensure that there’s uniformity in payment of taxes. And we provide the best services for taxpayers.
Can we talk about FIRS operations?
We at FIRS understand that taxpayers are very important. In view of this, as a service-oriented organization we try to make things very convenient for taxpayers. For the last 18 months, we deployed a lot of technology to ensure that taxpayers are served efficiently and effectively.
We received new innovations that will be deployed in the next one month or thereabout. One such innovation is the electronic stamp duty process which won an award in South Africa and that is currently undergoing testing in Nigeria and it should be deployed in the month of October. So people who have documents they want to stamp can do it inside their bedrooms. It’s all electronic.
We have also reduced the registration page from 13 pages to one page. So it’s so much easier to register now as a tax payer. It applies to either individual or tax-paying organizations. We have also opened up new offices to enable taxpayers choose which location is easier for them to keep their tax files. Added to this a lot of transactions can be done on the phone right now.
For Nigerians, what are the benefits of paying taxes?
It boils down to asking what Nigerians want from government. Nigerians expect to have security, healthcare, education, infrastructure in terms of roads and other services. People travel abroad for holiday because the governments there provide these amenities. If people were not paying taxes the government will not have the resources to provide services they are supposed to provide.
Let’s use Lagos as an example. As at 2015, 70 percent of our expenditures came from tax. So when government has good leadership and the resources the people are happy.
What are the sanctions put in place for failing to pay taxes?
The popular sanction that tax administrators talk about is interest and penalty. It comes with the law. A tax paid late can incur interest and penalty. However these are not the major sanctions. The sanctions I believe are most significant are the impact it has on society. I gave a presentation in Ghana about tax compliance. One highlighted focus was that Nigeria has one of the highest infant mortality when it comes to malaria parasites. What can be done to alleviate the problem? It is just about five thousand naira. So it means that each time a person fails to pay his or her tax, it means that the person indirectly causes loss of life. It even causes people who want to come to the country to go somewhere else because only government can provide these services.
What is FIRS’ philosophy?
One thing we do now is not to wait for taxpayers to come to us. We go to them. We try to find out what their challenges are and try to fix these issues for them. We also create (FEET) FIRS Engagement and Enlightenment Tax Teams and we go about to make sure that there is compliance. We also use this means to register tax payers who are not registered and also register taxpayers both for States and Federal Government.
What are FIRS challenges?
One of the challenges we have is the managing of staff. Some fear being deployed while others fear being relieved of their jobs. The second challenge is the so-called arm-chair tax administrators who are used to staying in their offices. They find it difficult to go out and see taxpayers. Another challenge is enforcement. I believe that when you are running a revenue agency there are consequences. So for those tax payers who are not compliant after several discussions we have to embark on enforcement. That is one of the few things we started about six months after I assumed the office. We are now tackling those who have ability to pay but do not want to pay.
What are your awareness programmes for those who pay tax?
We have gone out to all sectors. We have radio programmes. We advertise in major Nigerian languages. We advertise in Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, pidgin English and English itself. We do these to all tax payers regardless of where they come from.
We have also gone out to meet the agricultural sector and other sectors. People are seeing us everywhere even at social concerts and other events. The reason we do so is that some of these people will not come to an office. We have had various meetings with different stakeholders. We have put adverts on newspapers, magazines and TV. These adverts show the advantage of paying VAT supporting government by paying taxes. I believe we have sent the message across Nigeria.
Is FIRS involved in CSR programme?
Yes. We are involved in a few projects but we don’t make them public.
What is TIN and how does it work?
That is Tax Identification Number. When you register, you will have what is called unique tax registration number. Any time you make a payment, you are able to track it through this unique number. Both individuals and corporate bodies can have TIN.
Now we have made it easy by joining forces with States Internal Board so that states that have different tax numbering are consolidated into one. This enables administrators to cross-check tax payers from another state. All he needs to do is query the system and he will get the information he wants.
How do you identify companies that are not paying tax?
We are fully computerized and also have access to corporate news and Corporate Affairs Commission. We simply match them with those who are paying tax. It’s that simple when we want to know those who are paying and those who are not.
For small businesses not registered with CAC, we give states tax information we have and they also give us the tax information that they have. Through this means we are able to see those who avoided registrations and we follow up on those. The FEET department also finds out about those who have not registered and try to find out why. They get them to register and start paying their taxes.
What is your perspective regarding religious organizations?
As far as the law is concerned, religious organizations don’t pay tax. But when they run commercial activities, they have to pay tax on those. This applies to religious organizations that run schools. However on all their spiritual activities they don’t pay taxes.
What about non-profit organizations?
We take a look at their activities, sometimes their activities outside of not-for-profit are also examined as in the case of engaging someone who they pay salary. That individual who is on a salary may be engaged with an NGO but have his salary subject to state tax.
How does it feel when you won an award?
The last award we won in South Africa was about the innovation on electronic stamp duty and some 38 African countries are benefitting from it. It has helped us to serve tax payers more efficiently. I received the award on behalf of all FIRS staff who took part in putting the package together. They were all happy to be part of it.
What would you say about the level or response from Nigerians?
Our mandate is to reach 90 percent with our innovation. A number of companies have not being paying taxes for years and we have to clear that backlog. We hope to reach about 40-45 million individuals with our services. Last year, we moved it from about 10 million to about 14 million. There’s still a lot of room for improvement.
When we are in a position to fund both federal and state revenues then I think we are satisfied.
How are you able to manage the staff strength of this huge organization?
I believe that when you treat all staff fairly and you give them what they need I believe you have empowered them. As a leader, you have to provide required resources and then they can do what is expected of them.
Here’s a general question. How do you feel about counterfeiting?
It’s very bad. I think it’s unfair that somebody sit somewhere and try to deceive you and I. There are laws in place and criminal consequences for counterfeiters. So I discourage anyone who has thoughts about doing this to stop and have a second thought. It not only damages the society it also damages the future of one’s career and family.
Please tell us about your family affair.
We try to make most of what we can out of the time we spend together. I sometimes have lunch together with my staff. We tend to talk a whole lot and I think it is much better to spend half an hour this way than going out for one hour. It makes my organization better.
What’s your favourite type of music?
I like jazz, hip-hop and what people call Nigerian music. I love all types of music even though they say sometimes the lyrics are bad. But as a music lover you listen to the beat. For young people who have negative lyrics it will be nice if they can change it but the beat goes on.
I have no particular favourite Nigerian artiste but I believe that are those making waves all over the world. A particular young Nigerian has his song played in over 16 countries and it’s also making waves in Europe. Many Nigerians have shown tremendous talent. They should keep it up and eventually they will start paying a lot of taxes. This will also be beneficial to all Nigerians.
Do you like sports?
I like water sports. Being a person from Lagos I like skiing, boating, fishing, when the opportunity comes and I have time. I jet ski, I go fishing. A lot of people will be surprised but we do have good fish by the Atlantic, we have barracudas, yellow fin, amber jacks and many other natural resources in water.
What are the bold steps you’ve taken in your life?
The bold step I have taken in my life is joining the Lagos State Government. I have been in the private sector for more than 20 years and by the time I met with former Lagos Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu he told me what the Lagos State Vision is and what he expected to be done.
He expected Lagos to be financially independent. I believed I could do it. I don’t think it would be fair if I take up the opportunity and not do well. Then I will be disappointing the entire residents of Lagos but thanks to God, we are making it. We have been able to grow the revenue of Lagos from 6.3 billion to 23 billion per month. This I believe is one bold step I have taken, having joined and serve at the federal level when economy was going down and having the opportunity to improve things. Regardless of the fact that the economic situation is a bit weak, we are expected to make up for the shortfall and fill the gap.
What’s your message to the masses and those that are giving up?
No one should ever give up. Whatever is happening right now there’s hope. Former Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu knew the challenges ahead and he knew we had resistance. He once told me: ‘Mr. Fowler, I have given you this job but to whichever God you serve, you should pray.’
I still remember that. Anyone who is not sure what the future holds or is going through challenging times should hold on to God and pray because with God all things are possible.
What’s your message to tax evaders?
Tax evaders, look behind yourselves. Realize that your non-payment of taxes is affecting someone who may be close to you. What we are looking for is just a token. So, join the family and contribute to the commonwealth and next time when you decide to spend your holiday choose home.