Can Fowler Replicate Lagos in Abuja on FIRS’ Top Job?, By Williams Ekanem

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Fowlers’ skills in generating revenue for Lagos State that is said to rely more on internally generated revenue than on federal allocation would be very relevant. This is more so with the dwindling oil price that has seen the nation struggling with lean resources in recent times and trying to make ends meet with accruals from the non-oil sector and tax income.

When the Senators resume from their recess, one of their duties would be the screening and confirmation or otherwise of a string of appointments made by President Muhammadu Buhari while they were away.

On that list would be Mr. Babatunde Fowler, the new helmsman at the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). His appointment during the week as the Chief Executive Officer/Executive Chairman of the revenue agency will likely increase the rating of the Buhari administration as people around the country consider it a plus for the reform being carried out by President Buhari.

Considering that the FIRS, a first-class federal government agency has not had a substantive chairman since the departure of Ifueko Omogui-Okauru in 2012, the confirmation becomes even more urgent.

The process would indeed be less cumbersome for the Senators because of the credentials Mr. Fowler brings to the table.

Before his appointment, the new FIRS boss, was the Chief Executive Officer/Executive Chairman of the Lagos State Board of Internal Revenue for about ten years running from 2005 to 2015.

Keen followers of Fowlers’ tenure in Lagos point out it had never been so good for the tax situation in Lagos, as the state recorded an astronomical rise in internally generated revenue, growing from an average of N3.6 billion per month in January 2006, to an average of about N20.5 billion per month in 2013, and over N30 billion by this year.

If Fowler’s appointment is an insight into what to expect in the much awaited cabinet formation by President Buhari, then the nation can be said to be in for a new beginning in the era of change and this can widely be said to be a change that would work.

This is because besides Fowler’s outstanding credential of growing Lagos State internally generated revenue by over ten fold during his tenure, he is also said to have done that in an efficient manner, such that as much as 4.5 million residents now voluntarily pay their taxes on monthly basis, according to reports.

This is largely due to the ease of payment method put in place by policies enunciated during his tenure, in addition to the fact that people could see what their taxes are being used for and are thus encouraged to pay to aid further development.

Now, at a national level, would Fowler be able to replicate same outstanding feat?

This question becomes necessary going by different and bigger challenges at FIRS, especially at a time the federal government is focused on fighting corruption in the country and a time of drop in oil revenues.

Staring the new chairman in the face would be the perennial problem of the agency-insider dealing by staffers who would prefer to connive with tax defaulters to defraud the government of tax income.

There is also the age-long issue of tax evasion in both small and large scale organisations, corporations and even multinational companies, an issue that has seen the nation lose considerable income over the years.

Inadequate funding of the agency, as manifested in its protracted battles with landlords on rent of its scattered offices across the nation as well as out-dated tax laws amongst others, are challenges Fowler would have to deal with to leave an equally good impression at his exit.

With the immediate past acting chief executive staying barely five months in office, there is a baggage that Fowler would inherit and how he manages that to steer the agency forward is without a doubt, an imminent task.

In this direction, Fowlers’ skills in generating revenue for Lagos State that is said to rely more on internally generated revenue than on federal allocation would be very relevant. This is more so with the dwindling oil price that has seen the nation struggling with lean resources in recent times and trying to make ends meet with accruals from the non-oil sector and tax income.

As it is now, the FIRS is said to be the second highest revenue generator for government after the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) and that means more than ever before, all income is needed and no messing around with figures.

It is not by any means a tea party for Fowler, but if his precedence is anything to go by, it could be said that he is equal to the task.

In assessing the role of the FIRS, Uche Aneke, a public affairs analyst stated that the revenue profile of the agency has grown over the years from billions to trillions. According to him, “In 2009, the FIRS turned in to the national coffers revenue of N2.19 trillion and in 2010, a total of N2.83 trillion was achieved while in 2011, it generated N4.6 trillion.”

The agency which was granted autonomy in 2007 with the enactment of the Federal Inland Revenue Service Establishment Act (2007) is solely responsible for tax administration in the country. And indeed, the FIRS has undergone several reforms and seen many chief executive directors since its establishment.

Fowler is replacing Samuel Odugbesan, a former Coordinating Director at the agency, who was appointed to the position by ex-President Goodluck Jonathan in March this year. Odugbesan took over from Mr. Kabir Mashi, who took over from the last substantive chairman, Mrs. Omogui-Okauru. The FIRS has not had a substantive chairman since the departure of Ifueko Omogui-Okauru in 2012.

Fowler had his higher education in the United States, where he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Wisconsin and a Master of Business Administration degree from the California State University. Before joining the service of the Lagos State Government, he worked in the banking sector for about 20 years with long stints at Credit Lyonnais Nigeria Limited and Chartered Bank.

Fowler, is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria and the Business Management Association of the United Kingdom.

He will serve as Acting Executive Chairman of FIRS until his appointment is confirmed by the Senate. When he’s finally confirmed, it would put and end to the temporary nature of executives that have headed the agency for some years now and Fowler will no doubt have more strength to act.

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