Falana: Let’s Tax Big Business Churches

Femi Falana (SAN)- Photo: New York Times
Human rights lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Femi Falana, speaks on corruption in the public service and the temple of justice in this interview with LEKE BAIYEWU

You recently called for payment of tax by religious organisations. Why did you say that, since they are non-profit making organisations?

Religious bodies are not money-making ventures stricto sensu. The traditional churches, i.e. the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, have remained largely conservative with respect to the commercialisation of religion. But some of the prosperity churches have to pay tax because they are smiling to the banks. For example, the Pope doubles as the Head of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide and a Head of State but he flies the Alitalia Airline, the Italian commercial airline. The same goes for the head of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury. But today, there is a craze among the leaders of the prosperity churches for private jets. At home and abroad, they pay prohibitive fees for parking the jets at local and international airports. Since they earn fat incomes, they should pay tax to the state for development. It is unjust and illegal to tax the poor congregants, while multi-billionaire pastors or bishops are not subjected to any form of taxation. Many of us attended missionary schools and received treatment in hospitals founded by churches. The fees were largely cheap and affordable. But today, the secondary schools and universities established by prosperity churches charge tuition fees on commercial basis. There is nothing religious in those centres of commerce. It is so bad that the children of poor members of the congregation, who are even exceptionally brilliant, are driven away from such institutions on ground of poverty. My wife was on the board of one of those universities. She pleaded that the children of the poor be given scholarship or made to pay substantially reduced fees. She was asked not to bring radicalism to the church. She had to withdraw from the board.

Happily, Bishop Hassan Kukah and some religious leaders have spoken against the primitive accumulation of wealth by their colleagues. If religious leaders make money from their business outfits, they should pay taxes.

If a church is so rich to the extent of presenting a jet as birthday gift to its pastor, it should be able to pay appropriate taxes commensurate with its status as a rich religious centre. It is clearly stated in several parts of the Holy Bible that tithes are for taking care of the poor and the priests, as well as Levites who minister unto the Lord. Tithes are not supposed to be diverted for the establishment of commercial farms, bakeries and other businesses.

Many have scored the Nigerian judiciary low in terms of justice dispensation, particularly on corruption. Can you say the nation’s temple of justice is still efficient?

No doubt, there are bad judges but we must never be tempted to dismiss the Nigerian judiciary because we have some good judges. In the last eight years, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has concluded over 200 criminal cases. All the 37 ministries of justice in the country, put together, cannot boast of that figure. Even by global standard, that is a record which few institutions can beat. But because of the difficulty in the prosecution of cases involving politicians and other powerful people in the society, we dismiss the judiciary.

I know a judge in the High Court of Lagos State who has convicted powerful 419 kingpins and ‘queenpins,’ public officers and bank officials. Instead of encouraging the judge, it has been said that he cannot be elevated to the Court of Appeal because he is not from Lagos State. Even, the system is trying to frustrate him from transferring to his own state of origin.

Why is it difficult for successive governments to checkmate corruption, even when several hidden facts have been unearthed?

With respect to corruption, we have never had it so bad. In the First Republic, it was 10 per cent. In the Second Republic, it graduated to 20 per cent. Under the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida junta, corruption was institutionalised. President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration consolidated corruption. For reasons best known to him, President Umaru Yar’adua allowed the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission and the EFCC to be taken over by very corrupt aides.

Some of the governors under investigation posted their police orderlies and relations to man departments in the EFCC. While President Goodluck Jonathan has re-organised the EFCC, corruption is now carried out with impunity to the extent that the battle against corruption has been lost completely. It is as if no one is in control. Can you imagine that an ambassador of a foreign country has dragged a minister to the Presidency for corruption? Apart from the loss of over N2tn to the fuel subsidy scam last year, the Auditor-General of the Federation has just disclosed that N4.2tn collected by MDAs was not remitted to the Federation Account from 2006-2009. The Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative reported that oil companies have failed to pay into the Federation Account about $10bn from 1999 to 2008. The Nuhu Ribadu-led Petroleum Revenue & Special Task Force claimed that the nation has been short-charged to the tune of almost $100bn. All the people indicted in the cases of Siemens, Halliburton and other scandals are walking freely.

A reputable economist, Mr. Henry Boyo, said last week, that duty waivers running into several billions of Naira are granted to the rich by the Federal Government, while the poor people are burdened with all kinds of taxes and levies. The Central Bank Governor, Mr. Lamido Sanusi, has suggested 50 per cent reduction in the workforce as a stratagem to divert attention from the reckless looting of the economy by the parasitic bourgeoisie. That call came from the blues, as facts emerged that the CBN is involved in the illegal withholding of part of the N4.4tn diverted from the Federation Account. The statement was also made to cover up the role of the bank in the illegal release of N2.3tn for fuel subsidy in 2011, when N245bn was appropriated. It is a grave criminal offence to release any public funds without a legal warrant.

So, the heads of the federal ministries of petroleum resources and finance that recommended the illegal payment and the CBN, which released the funds, have questions to answer. But, these guys are displaying arrogance by making provocative statements.

As far as I am concerned, the Federal Government has, as a result of local and international pressure, provided an enabling environment for fighting the menace of corruption. We have a corpus of comprehensive legislations to tame the monster. But, Nigerians expect the government to fight corruption. No government does that. In the case of Nigeria, the media and a few individuals called anti-corruption crusaders were fighting corruption and abuse of office to a reasonable extent. With respect, the media houses are largely owned by some of those who are being investigated or prosecuted. So, the battle is no longer fought by the media with the commitment of the past.

The bar has no serious programme on judicial corruption because some leaders of the legal profession are deeply involved in corrupt practices. They serve as couriers for corrupt judges. Worse still, senior lawyers manipulate the legal system to frustrate the prosecution of powerful people in the society by filing frivolous interlocutory applications. In other countries, lawyers are recommended for discipline for filing processes designed to waste the time of the court. No lawyer should be allowed to manipulate the legal system in favour of his or her client to the detriment of the society.

In essence, the battle against corruption has to be waged by Nigerians and not by the government. And the concept of the rule of law transcends obedience of a few court orders by the government. It is a way of life. It is about compliance with the law by all and sundry, the government and the governed. The exclusion of certain people from arrest or prosecution is antithetical to the rule of law. Whereas the law is higher than individuals, however powerful they may be in a civilized society, the contrary is the case in a neo-colonial society like ours.

What I am saying is that certain institutions and individuals are higher than the law in Nigeria. Hence, they are entitled to immunity for life.

Prof. Akin Oyebode recently argued that the problem was not corruption but impunity. Why has the menace become pervasive even in a democratic system?

Professor Akin Oyebode’s prognosis cannot be faulted. Corruption is a manifestation of impunity. The Appropriation Act contains the details of the budget. The diversion of money that has been appropriated or the refusal to remit funds earned by the MDAs is the height of impunity. The system is too weak to punish criminality. Hence, impunity has become the order of the day. The menace of corruption has become rampant because of the lack of political will on the part of the government to arrest the culture of impunity. No society can have political stability without the observance of the rule of law.

There are several calls by stakeholders to cut down the size of government. What is the best to way to go about the reduction?

There is no doubt that the size of government is bloated. But, the CBN governor was patently wrong when he asked for 50 per cent reduction of the workers in the civil service. The available record shows that there are about 100,000 civil servants, while there are about 970,000 public officers, including political office holders. Only a tiny segment of the 70 per cent of the recurrent expenditure, which goes for maintaining the bureaucracy, is allocated for the payment of salaries and allowances of civil servants.

In 2012, whereas the CBN allocated N300bn for itself, the National Assembly got N150 bn. It has been revealed that the CBN under Sanusi has increased its workforce by over 1,000 employees. Up till now, the report of the committee on the restructure of the public service has not been implemented by the government. The report has largely addressed the bloated bureaucracy.

If you believe the CBN governor that the National Assembly takes 25 per cent of the budget, then, the CBN takes 50 per cent because its budget is 100 per cent higher than that of the National Assembly. These figures do not take cognisance of ghost workers, pension fraud, and non-remittance of huge funds to the Federation Account.

However, I believe that the public service has to be re-organised and restructured for optimal performance. Those who were sacked or downsized or retrenched should be reposted to other areas of the economy, which may require their services. But if you send them to the unemployment market, armed robbery and kidnapping will be intensified.

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