Interviews

William Babatunde Fowler

The name Tunde Fowler sends jitters through the spines of individuals and corporate concerns in the State. But here, he looks  disarmingly harmless, unassuming  and charming. A sharp contrast to the fiercesome look, usually the trademark of tax collectors. However, you will let down your guard at your own peril if you underrate him. Fowler is the Tax Collector- in- Chief for Lagos State Government and on this, he has no friends. He superintends the Lagos Internal Revenue Service as the executive Chairman. Much despised by many  for  his prying eyes, there is no denying the fact that he raised the revenue profile of the state to an all time high, last year nudging above N20.5billion. He is expecting to surpass that this year.  Fowler  loves water sports,  and cherishes  spending time with family. Even though he is not football crazy, he loves the national football team whether it is  playing well or not and would readily pitch his tent with Manchester United in the English Premier league. His  philosophy and attitude to life is to seek God first and serve the State. Fowler comes across as a man who still has so much to give in terms of service. The passion with which he makes his points leaves you desiring more. Ibrahim Adeduntan interviewed him recently

 

How does a typical day begin for you?                                                          

A typical day begins with meetings. And because of what I do as a tax administrator, there is always something happening. When I have meeting, I usually prepare for those meetings the evening before. I give directives on  the meetings to be held the current day. And then I always have files to sign off on. I go out for other official engagements. Everyday is just different.

What was growing up like for you?

I would say I have had a very interesting life growing up. Starting from secondary school I went to Igbobi College just like my father did and I had very interesting teachers that worked hard to make us the best that we can possibly be. At that time although we were about a hundred in number when I joined in form one and somehow they knew us all by name. Anytime we saw them we made sure we did not get up to any mischief or get into trouble because you know that they know you by name and even know at least one of your parents. All these things have changed nowadays but it kept us in check then.

I had wanted to study business administration in university. My father being a doctor and my mother a lawyer,  one would have thought that they would have influenced me one way or the other. But they were both vey liberal about it. However, there is one issue my father brought up which was that it is good to be a professional at something before studying business or going into business so that was how economics came about. I remember at that time the University of Wisconsin had an exchange program for professors with University of Ife. My father took to me to University of Ife and we met some of those professors from Wisconsin. After some more research I ended up at the University of Wisconsin studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Economics with a minor in Political Science.

Thereafter I did the GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) to get into graduate school. I got an internship with Evon Products in New York where I worked under the VP in charge of Africa to get some practical experience before I started my MBA in California. At the same time, because I had an interest in international business I enrolled for another bachelor’s degree in California State University Los Angeles. So, I got another business degree and also an MBA.

 

Which were your favourite and worst subjects in secondary school?

Actually the subject I enjoyed most was literature. I enjoyed reading  books and found it very interesting. I was able to do well in literature at A levels where I got a B. If I have to choose a subject that I disliked most of all that would be chemistry. Until the time I did my A levels I wanted to keep my options open by taking both art and science subjects just in case, but I really wanted to do a business course. My teachers then always had the idea that you should choose a profession that either your father or your mother is involved in. My father was in science while my mother was in the arts so that also influenced the balance.

 

Do you have any regrets about your eventual choice of study?

I have no regrets whatsoever. I have come to realise that even when you want to serve, you don’t have to be a professional like a doctor. You can just be involved in generating the revenue to pay the professionals like doctors to carry out their service.

 

When is Tunde Fowler Happiest?

There are two times when I am at my happiest. but I have to be careful as to which one I prioritise over the other (laughs). I believe I am happiest when I am with family and we just talk about different issues especially now that I have grown up children. Even from when they were teenagers, we used to have what we called family debates where we just discussed issues. It makes me feel happy being around them. Secondly when I am working. But I am happiest around my family because family is what I cherish the most.

 

What value do you cherish most in your workers?

I would say its dedication, because for what we do here at the Lagos State Internal Revenue Service, you have to have a certain level of dedication and loyalty. You have to realise that you are serving the people of the State. What we do is generating revenue for the state and empowering government considering the fact that many people don’t want to pay taxes. You could easily find yourself in a situation where you might make enemies or you walk into a party and people feel uneasy around you. But you have to develop a tough skin and let people know that you are doing your job the way it should be done. Anyway it is very seldom you see a tax man being liked by so many people. If you are tax man that is well liked then it means there is something wrong somewhere. So, you have to be dedicated.

 

What will you change about yourself if anything?

It’s a difficult question but I don’t think I would change anything

 

Who are your heroes?

I will call my heroes the businessmen who have put together both their skill and their money to create employment for Nigerians. I was at the chamber of commerce representing the governor a while ago and I remember talking with the elderly who were talking about how they had set up businesses 20 to 30 years ago and the challenges that they are having. But you see each time someone sets up a business in Nigeria or in Lagos it is an avenue to create wealth not only for yourself but for the people that you employed. So even under these harsh conditions with issues of power, infrastructure and unstable federal policies, they still decide to risk their wealth in this society. To me,  they are heroes. Also to the individuals who have also decided to do the right thing by paying their taxes to make Lagos what it is today because without their contribution and cooperation Lagos could not have transformed to what it is today.

 

So how does Fowler  relax?

I am from Lagos and Lagos is the land of islands and nice beaches. So when there is free time I go on the water and enjoy the free ocean breeze.

The rumour out there is that you have resigned?

Well, you are with me here right now in the office, so, you know that is not true. I have not resigned

 

Is there any indication that it is coming soon as the rumour is out there?

I believe that there is a time for everything and when my time here is done, I will certainly make it known.

What do you dread most in life?

The passing on of any loved one is certainly something that I dread.

What do you value most in friends?

Oh! I value loyalty.

Have you ever had cause to doubt that?

Oh! It is part of life, my brother.

William Babatunde Fowler

Why do you think people don’t like to pay taxes?

Well it is taking away money from people and for starters nobody likes to part with their money without instant gratification whether they worked hard for it or not. Also, taking into consideration that Nigerians never believed that the government was putting their money to good use, they find it difficult to part with their money in the name of taxes. But in Lagos, since they have seen the difference now, they are a bit more encouraged to pay taxes.

 

Now, tell me pointedly, what is the IGR  Lagos State?

Pointedly, the commissioner of finance will give you the audited figures but for last year the IGR was an average of N20.5 billion per month.

 

With what you generate, can Lagos State do without federal allocations?

Look at it this way. On an average we currently generate almost 3 times what we get from federal allocations but whether Lagos would be able to meet up with all its requirements is another thing entirely. You’ve got to realise that there is a lot of work still left to be done and there are still a lot of expectations from the residents of the state and there a lot of major infrastructural project requirements which involve transportation, water, health and others. But with what we generate you can say Lagos can meet up with its recurrent expenditure but there is a lot more to be done outside that.

 

How much of the informal sector such as Okada riders, tailoring shops, hair dressing salons and the like has Lagos State been able to capture through taxation?

Maybe I will surprise you a bit with this. You see, the category of workers you just mentioned actually do pay their taxes. The main areas we have problems with are the high net worth individuals who are in the in formal sector like the professionals who work for themselves and own cars but don’t pay taxes. We’ve had situations in the last 2-3 years where we have apprehended close to 10, 000 car owners in Lagos who have never paid one kobo in taxes, because before their vehicles are released they have to be checked for their tax payments. So those are the people we have major issues with. Last year the governor met with such professionals and appealed to them as opinion leaders they should live by example and pay their taxes. We are talking about engineers, doctors, architects and so on. They are people who may have travelled abroad and admired the kind of services that the government over there provides but they are not willing to pay taxes.

 

How do you handle this?

Well, the governor also mentioned to them in addition to his appeal that we do have power to prosecute and we have started to prosecute such individuals.

 

Let us go to the issue of duplicity and multiplicity of taxes in Lagos State, taxes should be decreasing instead of increasing and if I am not mistaken we have up to 20 different tax bills?

Let me correct you on that. The tax issues in Nigeria are federal laws. So, firstly, all states have the same taxes and have the same rates which are passed and approved by the National Assembly. Now a state is empowered to reduce new taxes and levies. What you are referring to is the consumption taxes such as the hotel occupancy tax which Lagos State just received favourable judgement on. Not in terms of the core taxes, they are by federal law and the same in every state of the nation. Whether the tax administrations in those states are efficient or effective is another thing but it is not that the tax rates would be lower than in Lagos.

 

But the FIRS recently said it was looking at  streamlining taxes because of complaints like this, what is your reaction to this?

Not streamline exactly. What basically happened was that MAN (Manufacturers Association of Nigeria) and other businesses spoke about the multiplicity of taxing. A committee was set up and we met as part of the joint task force to find out what taxes are being charged in every state. Where we found out that some individuals were charging illegal charges as tax. We mentioned that every state chairman should ensure that they apprehend these individuals or stop those charges from being levied. We also asked that for all new taxes that are being passed by the respective Houses of Assembly in any state should be forwarded to the joint task force and that would be made public to everyone in the very near future.

 

The federal Executive Council recently came up with a pronouncement that state governments should stop using consultants for the collections of taxes, is Lagos state in compliance with this?

Let me first of all explain what it means. The information we received was that some organisations and individuals are collecting money on behalf of certain states and local governments. The law clearly states that only the board of internal revenue is mandated to collect taxes in terms of cash. That does not stop the state from using consultants to gather data but the law says that consultants cannot do assessment; meaning they cannot determine how much is due in terms of taxes. That also has to be done by the board of internal revenue. That is basically the case in Lagos State and has been for a number of years. We also have the policy whereby all taxes or payments to the state government are made directly to designated banks because government used to allow collection of N2, 000 and below by staff but we have a policy where staff is not allowed to collect any cheque or cash regardless of the amount and any staff found to have collected any payment is dismissed. That policy has been in place since I joined the Lagos State board of internal revenue.

 

What do you think is possible for the state to collect or what targets have you set?

I won’t give you an amount but I will tell you that our target is to make sure that 99.9% of residents in Lagos pay their taxes. If you look at the amount of business that is carried out in Lagos, you might not get the true picture.

 

What motivates you?

In terms of this job, what motivates me is seeing the transformation in Lagos. I drive through Lagos everyday and I am always happy seeing the changes in the state and listen to people appreciate the development. Also that we have a governor with a vision but the truth is that without the money to carry out that vision, it remains a dream. We also have to thank the tax payers because they could make our job a whole lot harder than it is. Looking at where we are coming from and where we are now we can really see the impact of what the government is doing.

 

You’ve been on this job for 9 years what would you say is your greatest achievement?

Apart from the increase in revenue it will be the acceptance of payment of taxes in Lagos as the biggest achievement. I believe we’ve been able to educate people. We’ve been able to send young people into the open market without policemen and they are not being harassed by the public. Having the community’s acceptance is a great achievement. I believe the crowning point was the rally during the May Day celebration and one of the union leaders asked us to take part in the march past and also told people that it is good to pay taxes. To my knowledge I believe it is the first time in Nigeria that the union has called on the tax body to take part in a May Day celebration.

 

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