FIRS: Beneath The Storm Raging Against Fowler

For some not-exactly-difficult to fathom reasons, headship of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) is viewed as a “juicy” appointment. And on account of it being viewed as such, powerful political interests are keen on having their candidates appointed as FIRS boss, not on account of competence or integrity but for the potential for lavish patronage the position is thought to have.

The FIRS is not the only government agency that holds such attraction. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) Plc are desperately eyed by the country’s power brokers for their similar meatiness. In recent weeks, the FIRS has been in the news and, therefore, merits more immediate attention than other agencies in the same category.

Tunde Fowler, the banker/tax administrator and current FIRS Chairman, is being speculated as the successor to Godwin Emefiele, the CBN Governor, whose tenure ends in June. The speculations began last year and have taken a life of their own, with many believing there is some truth to them. As flattering as those rumours are supposed to be, they also carry the possibility of placing supposed favourite candidate in the gunsights of political interests keen on having control of the apex bank post- Emefiele.

Keen observers of political appointments in Nigeria know that the contest for such by sectional and socio-political blocs is everything but fair. It is a game of utmost savagery, with players deploying every available ammunition to maim or finish off rivals.

It is against this background that I view the current publicity around the FIRS, which revolves around an investigation by the the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) into alleged abuse of duty tour allowances (DTAs) among FIRS staff. It is an established pattern in contests of this nature for interested parties to seek to uncouple incumbents through probes of their agencies in the hope that they are culpable and their culpability.

In the case of the FIRS, there appears to be an attempt to present what is being investigated as disappearance of money paid in taxes in the expectation-not hope-that this will sufficiently enrage the public to present Fowler as unsuitable for the rumoured CBN governorship in addition to ensuring a fresh term, even if he desires it, is not a tenable proposition. What is the most likely source of these attacks? Powerful political interests, without a doubt. Sectional in nature, one can argue.

One of Fowler’s predecessors in office, Mrs. Ifueko Omogui-Okauru, ran into a similar storm over tenure renewal, which took her a mighty effort to get despite a consensus that she had done well. At the expiration of her second term, she was replaced by a man from the section of the country that always seems to want control of key state economic institutions. The case of Dr. Charles Soludo, former CBN Governor, was different. He failed to get reappointed for a fresh five-year term at the end of his first one despite the late President Umar Musa Yar’Adua saying the country owes him “a debt of gratitude to you for your dedicated service and uncommon sense of duty over the past five years”. His deputy, Mr. Tunde Lemo, however, had his tenure renewed. Soludo’s replacement was Mallam Lamido Sanusi, the current Emir of Kano.

About a year after his appointment as Minister of State for Petroleum Resources and Group Managing Director, NNPC, Dr. Ibe Kachiukwu, lost the latter position to Dr. Mikanti Baru, an engineer from Bauchi State. Kachiukwu’s removal as NNPC helmsman provoked disapproval from the Southern part of the country which, with some justification, complains that the Northern section of the country reserves the creamiest portions of the proverbial national cake for itself.

Despite retaining his cabinet portfolio and chairmanship of the NNPC Board, the development was interpreted as diminution in status, as he was considered less powerful than Baru. It did not take long for the interpretation to prove accurate, with Kachiukwu having to complain to President Buhari, via a memo, that he had been sidelined in the affairs of the NNPC. In the memo, Kachiukwu told the President that he was denied opportunity to make input into appointments and was never briefed about postings, which he learnt of only via the social media and press releases. The case of Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, former Minister of Finance, attracted similar criticisms from those who argue that the North desires to take every economic space available. Adeosun, who voluntarily resigned from office on the back of scandal, was expected to be replaced by a fellow Southerner. However, her replacement, initially in acting capacity, turned out to be Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, Minister of State for Budget and National Planning.

Fowler, who became FIRS Chairman in August 2015, many believe, is on the verge of becoming the latest victim of sectional power play. There are suspicions, fuelled by apparently coordinated negative media reports about the FIRS, that the power brokers are keen on shooting him down despite the his impressive performances, the highlight of which is the N5.3 trillion revenue collection in 2018, the highest ever collection figure recorded by the agency.

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