By Patrick Obia, Glorita Agba and Maxwell Effiong
Agents of the Cross River State Internal Revenue Service (CRIRS) have continued to illegally collect taxes from petty traders and low-income earners in total contravention to the provision of the State’s Anti-Tax Agency.
Petty traders and low income earners exempted from taxes paid by the State Government are daily being coerced and humiliated by agents of the State Internal Revenue Service in their illegal operations.
An investigation by CrossRiverWatch, revealed that agents of CRIRS have been illegally collecting taxes and harassing tricycle (Keke Napep) operators, mechanics, petty traders, artisans, hairdressers, shoe makers, etc. And sometimes confiscate goods from these people when they refuse to hand out what the forceful tax collectors demand.
This medium documented pieces of evidence of tax payments by these groups of people to officials of CRIRS, who at many occasions operate in a gang like manner.
Few months after assuming office, Governor Benedict Ayade had on August 19, 2015, declared that his Government will not impose taxes on what he called “the poor”, who struggle daily to survive. “Let our desperation for taxation not allow us to heap the burden on the poor. This must stop. Definitely, God has a purpose of bringing me here as a Governor and I must not disappoint my creator.” The State Governor, Sen. Ben Ayade said.
This was reiterated by the Governor in 2017 when he said, “I will rather tax my intellect to prosperity rather than taxing my people because we have sufficient education, exposure and experience which we need to bring to bear for the prosperity of our people, which is why they elected us.”
To that effect, Ayade’s administration initiated an executive bill abolishing all forms of taxation for low-income earners in the State, culminating into the establishment and subsequent inauguration of Cross River State Anti-Tax Agency in May 2020. The Agency is to among other things ensure that commercial taxi drivers, petty traders, tricycle (Keke Napep) riders, hair salon, civil servants earning below fifty thousand (N50,000) Naira do not pay taxes.
Tax Agency Betrayed Trust As Affected Tax Payers Lament Ordeals
When the Agency was inaugurated under a renowned Bishop, Emmah Isong of Christian Central Chapel International, Cross Rivarians heaved a sigh of relief, believing that the cleric will religiously end the illegal extortion and actualize the dream of the Governor.
However, When CrossRiverWatch visited the two populous markets in the State capital (Watt and Ika Ika Oqua), strategic junctions and roundabouts as well as taxi drivers’ parks, staff of CRIRS were seen collecting taxes and issuing tickets to Governor Ayade’s “poor”.
In these locations, the supposedly exempted taxpayers told CrossRiverWatch of the consistent harassment and countless face-offs with the tax collectors who come in large numbers and sometimes with Police cover.
These categories of persons when approached, refused to speak to this reporters on video nor audio for fear of been victimized or their business close-down by these taskmasters who may see it as exposing them. This reporters went undercover to get the facts, keeping their names and businesses anonymous.
At Marian market located at the hub of the city, petty traders share their encounters. A Shoe Maker said: “I have been paying for a ticket every day, there is nowhere and nobody in this market that is exempted from paying tax. I do not know how the people are bigger than the Governor’s order; honestly, I don’t know.
“I heard that the Government has constituted Anti-Tax force headed by Bishop Emmah Isong but they cannot stop it,” saying that, they are paying dues to some key people whom he described as “enforcers”.
“Do you understand that people who keep their things on the verge of the roadside for sell, pay over a thousand (N1,000) Naira for a ticket every day. If you don’t want to pay as they want, be ready to fight because 90% of the ticket agents are gangsters (cultists),” he added.
A home utensil seller said payment of tax is a daily routine to him, though he does not have a formal shop. “Even this edge of the gutter where I keep my things, I am paying 50 Naira ticket every day.” He went on to reveal that, “Everybody selling on the roadside is paying 200 Naira, or over 1,000 Naira a week. We used to have a union but these ticket agents have spoiled it, so in this Marian market there is no union.”
A middle age watermelon seller who was fuming at the time this reporter approached her claimed that, she spends more than 1,200 Naira for a ticket. “They used to come and harass us here. They used to fight our colleagues, it happened recently; they fought and stabbed themselves. Sometimes, they used to come in a group of 4 or 5 persons,” she said, looking around to confirm no one was watching her at the time she was speaking with CrossRiverWatch.
Fairly used clothes (Okrika) seller, in a loud voice, screamed, questioning Governor Ayade’s “political talk” adding that, making pronouncement without action is just self show.
He said: “Who told you people that we have not been paying for ticket to sell in this market, had you come earlier than now you would have seen the ticketing agents who are just leaving my shop not quite long ago (gesticulating). The Governor has announced the exemption which we are hearing on the radio and newspaper without follow-up with due action; it’s just a political talk, action is different from talking. If there was a good action, they wouldn’t have been coming around but there is no action attached.
“Outside of this market some people are paying over 100 Naira, some people pay about 500 Naira for ticket to sell in this market. The ticketing agents come in group and they are more than 6 sets of persons, especially on a Saturday,” he said.
A groundnut seller at the ever-busy Watt market revealed that, they were still buying ticket, alleging that some local politicians are benefiting from the deal. “We are paying for ticket, and why we are still paying for this revenue is because House Members and Councilors of different Wards are getting a share of this revenue.
“After the Governor’s pronouncement, the politician met with those ticket boys, people like Hon. Essien Ayi and the Councilor of this Ward have revenue points in this Watt market, so, why would the traders do not pay for ticket? The tax exemption was only enforced a week after the Governor’s pronouncement but immediately after that week, the boys have always been coming to harass us for ticket.”
Furthermore, the angry groundnut seller revealed: “When we asked them why they have been coming to collect tax from us, they said the Governor didn’t discuss something like that with them. And if they come for the ticket and you refuse to pay, they would torture you. If you go to the Police for their arrest, those boys would stand there and call their oga (boss) to come for their rescue and their oga (boss) would call the Police to release them and they will be released, almost immediately. They collect even from pure water sellers, if they refuse to pay, their goods would be seized from them.
Another petty trader who for fear of victimization didn’t want to be mentioned in print that sells cosmetics on wheelbarrow described his daily struggle with the tax collectors as a war-like situation. “They usually come with different strategies, and if you are a newcomer in the market, they would keep on coming to seize your goods until you get tired and close down the business or comply. So, my brother, what we are facing in this market is more than a war against this people.”
Meat-pie seller expressed dismay that the Anti-Tax Agency that was supposed to come to their aid was no were to be found.
A 5- year old boy hawking sachet water in a helpless tone said: “We are paying 50 Naira for ticket everyday, sometimes we pay for three tickets a day, you must pay if not they would seize your sachet water and the rubber.”
Water-leaf seller alleged that the Governor made the pronouncement and gave the contract to his workers: “We have been paying for ticket every blessed day, otherwise, they won’t allow you to sell in this market.”
In a conversation with a commercial minibus driver (white color) which was recorded secretly, he alleged that the Governor is aware of the illegality going on in the metropolis. His words: “The Governor who set a panel to check and arrest those who are asking for tickets is the same Governor when those people were arrested spoke with the Commissioner of Police to release them. All the tears he was shedding on television were stage-managed act; that is the kind of country we are living in.
“I had a problem with those boys because of tickets up to the point I even went to the Local Government (Calabar Municipality) and met with the Chairman. Unfortunately, the Chairman told me that the tax collectors are working to meet the targets given.
“The Chairman told me the Governor Ayade is aware of it. The price of tickets has gone up; five hundred and fifty (N550) Naira every day and they have different units. For Calabar Transport Regulatory Agency (popularly known as 100 Marian) is yearly and it is more than twenty thousand Naira while the Local Government own is every day. If you look at the back of this vehicle (stickers of tickets) then you will know how much I have contributed to the well-being of this State,” he disclosed, as he kept gazing at his car steering.
The anti-tax law has also exempted hotels with few rooms. However, as is the case with traders and marketers in the two popular markets, the hoteliers were made to pay the tax, despite the law and directives against it.
A key staff in one of the hotels in Calabar South Local Government Area of the State exclaimed in pidgin English: “Ehh … You say wetin? We no dey do wetin? If we show you our tax file you go fear. Which Governor said what? There are different tax we are paying for each year and they are still coming; the Governor said nonsense on TV and radio, you can ask another person if you think I’m telling lies. State Government will come, Local Government and others will come.
“Health will come, Environment will come even the dustbin we have here we are paying close to twenty thousand Naira. Many of them will come saying they are from this and that Agency and you pay heavily. Mr. Ayade was showing himself,” he added.
Another management staff in one of the populous hotel in Calabar Municipality Local Government gave a list of things like television, fan and others they pay tax for, saying it is too much. “If it is tax, we are paying heavily. Not one, not two, State will come, Local Government will also come. They tell us to pay television, fan and air conditioner tax. Any amount of them you have in each room, they will calculate and tell you to pay.
“They put forty-five thousand Naira price for just five televisions including this reception own. They go as far as telling you to pay for street numbering. The tax is just too much.”
Also, a hotel situated around Margaret Ekpo International Airport, Calabar Municipality, however, differed from others saying they take instructions from their union before they pay any tax. “It is not all the tax we pay. Most of the Local Government tax we do not pay, except only the ones from the State Government and Federal Inland Revenue. We are paying Health to Tourism Bureau, we pay for hotels license, 10,000 Naira a year, we pay for the fire extinguisher, we pay for the environment, we pay for the first-aid box still to the Tourism Bureau, we pay for health certificate for staff, this to ascertain that your staff is medically fit to serve the public.
“We pay for the waste bin, 10,000 Naira per year, we pay for business rate and business premises to the Local Government and we also pay 10,000 Naira for liquor license. These are the taxes we pay per year, any other taxes we do not pay except the hotels’ union authorizes us to pay, otherwise, send your tax to the union for approval. The union has to inform us about the tax we must pay.”
Cross River Anti Tax Law– A Populists Policy
Mr. Richard Friday Inoyo, the Chief Executive Officer of Carthinium Consult, a consulting firm specializing in tax and other business analysis, described the tax exemption law as “populist policy” positing that all citizens ought to pay tax in the State looking at the poorly Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) as well as the low allocation the State receives from the Federal Government.
“So, in a State where the IGR is very low and the Government suspends paying tax, it means the Government is going to have a very weak returns in terms of revenue, so it is not really a good thing if you ask me and that means the Government may not be able to pull off some of its projects,” he asserted wearing a serious look.
Tax Agents Harass People
It may be recalled that on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, Task Force Team suspected to have rooted from Calabar Municipal Council stripped a commercial taxi driver identified as Chucks Solomon, naked and his vehicle damaged in Calabar, the first Federal Capital Territory (FCT) of Nigeria.
Passersby and commuters were left in awe at the Council’s entrance, when a team of men in black and blue outfits harassed the taxi driver who was said to have refused to offer them 50 Naira only when apprehended at the point.
In a video that surfaced online, the commercial driver is seen beaten up and his car burner disfigured as well as his car battery removed with the boys who number not less than six rounding him up.
The Chairman of Calabar Municipality, Mr. Effefiong Eke, hastened foot to disassociate the Council from said illegal activities of the Task Force, saying their operation is illegal and they are not operating under the authorization of the Council.
When the ordeal spread like wildfire on the media, the Chairman quickly called the victim for a round table discussion which he later gave a token of five hundred and fifty thousand (N550,000) Naira only to get a fairly used Honda Accord (EOD 2006 model) car to quench the uproar and killing any intention of instituting legal actions.
Inside Source In Anti-Tax Agency Speaks, Accuses Greedy Politicians
Meanwhile, an inside source in the Cross River State Anti-Tax Agency, who spoke on condition of anonymity blamed some disgruntled and greedy politicians who still employ these uncivilized fellows.
“The Government had exempted some categories of persons from paying tax but, we still have some disgruntled politicians who still send their boys to the roads to destroy and molest people and collect money on the roads and markets,” the inside source told CrossRiverWatch.
In September 2020, some alleged impostors were arrested by the Anti-Tax Agency but there has been no news about their prosecution.
Not Everybody Is Exempted From Tax – Authorities
When approached about the findings by CrossRiverWatch, the State’s Auditor General who doubles as the Acting Chairman of Internal Revenue Service (CRIRS), Mr. John Odey, confirmed that “People earning about hundred thousand and below are exempted from tax. Obviously, those people selling water-leaf, vegetables and those table markets are exempted. For you to be exempted there are certain parameters that you will be exempted.”
“Mechanics are exempted because it is assumed that those mechanics are dealing on small cars and all that but, there are ultra-modern mechanic shops where you see them have diagnostic equipment they use to dictate faults. Those equipment, one is over 3-5 million; they have so much equipment.
“When the Governor mentioned that those people in the market who are petty traders are exempted, it is not everybody because there are people who are in the market who own warehouses worth millions of Naira outside the market,” he stated.
When this medium approached the office of Cross River State Anti-Tax Agency, a tall-light skin color young man stock his face from the gate and asked “who is there” having knocked on the gate for minutes.
Neither the Agency’s Chairman nor any key staff was found on a seat at the time of the visit. When this reporter asked the security guard on how to get the Chairman, they later requested the former to write a letter and submit it. A letter to that effect was submitted to the same office on Wednesday 2nd of June 2021 suggesting Friday 4 June 2021 by 10:00am as date time and venue for an interview but was never responded to date.
On the other hand, the State Chairman, Unified Commission Drivers Association of Cross River State, Mr. Thomas Ekeng, after series of postponement finally accepted to speak on the phone. His words: “When you talk about tax, it has its own enclaves when you understand the nature of tax.
“Ticketing is reduced to sectional thing because every section has its own peculiar name; it’s not a Government thing per say but if you look at the Government aspect I don’t think we are having any issues from that axis.
“When I say a sectional thing, like our welfare you can’t classify our welfare into ticket because welfare is for membership. Every section has what they collect at the little base where they know and I don’t see that as a big issue; it’s not a Government thing per say except there is some other thing I don’t know.” He skillfully obviated questions of his members being taxed.
This Story was Produced in Partnership with Civic Media Lab Under its Grassroots News Project with Support from the National Endowment for Democracy.