Archive for April 2009

Vaswani brothers and tax evasion

April 27, 2009

By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 26 Apr 2009

 There is this popular traditional musician generally perceived in Igboland to have mystical powers. He used to showcase this power during the annual Ikeji Festival in his native Arondizuogu in Imo State. Part of the myth around Perry Como Okoye in his heyday was his alleged encounter with tax collectors in a city I can’t remember now. According to the story, the taxmen carried him up in an attempt to bundle him into their vehicle. Just as they were about to do this, they reportedly became transfixed. They could neither drop Okoye nor even move from that spot. The man purportedly remained hanging in the palms of his assailants until a barrage of pleas softened his mind to release them.

This happened in those days when the fear of the taxman was the beginning of wisdom. Even as a student, you dared not visit such cities as Onitsha and Aba if you had some strands of beard on your chin. The taxman would harass you.

There seemed to be a lull in this type of aggressive revenue drive until recently when the global financial crisis precipitated a new drive by different levels of government to buoy up their revenue base. Unfortunately, civil servants and workers in some private firms are largely at the receiving end of this new drive.

Some wealthy Nigerians and companies are paying little or nothing compared to what they earn. Two Sundays ago, this paper reported that the Federal Government had lost billions of naira to tax evasion by companies operating in Nigeria. To these delinquent companies, there is no need to pay the correct duties for goods imported into the country.

 Many times, officers of the Nigeria Customs Service release reports of their exploits in combating smugglers. Most times, what they display on television are either tons of seized frozen fish or frozen chicken. Nobody can exactly say where the illegal arms and ammunition that flood this country come from. Nor can we say what exactly prevents our Customs men from apprehending car smugglers at the borders. What they do these days is to go and mount roadblocks at such places as Ore, Asaba, Shagamu, and Lagos-Ibadan Expressway to confiscate people‘s second-hand cars and demand outrageous fees, or fine if you like, before releasing such vehicles.

 This brings me to the case involving the Vaswani brothers and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Last Monday, the EFCC announced the deportation of the Vaswani brothers – Mahesh, Harish and Sunil. According to the chairman of the commission, Mrs. Farida Waziri, the brothers, through their company, the Stallion Group, evaded payment of N2.5bn duty on rice importation through the manipulation of documents.

 For instance, as at August 30, 2008, one of the first three vessels allegedly involved in the fraud, MV Golden, was said to be still loading in Thailand. Waziri said it was expected to depart on September 21, 2008 and arrive in Lagos and Port Harcourt on October 7 and 30, 2008 respectively. But even before the arrival date, the EFCC boss alleged that the officer-in-charge report seat of the NCS, Area 1, Port Harcourt, had stamped and signed the accompanying documents such as the Bill of Laden, cargo manifest, etc. by September 26, 2008. The allegation is that the Stallion Group did this to exploit the Federal Government’s duty waiver on rice importation of May 9 to October 31, 2008.

Upon the recommendation of the EFCC, President Yar‘Adua approved the deportation of 28 top officials of the Stallion Group and their banishment from Nigeria for a period of five years. The EFCC also vowed to prosecute Customs officers and those found culpable. The Obasanjo administration had deported the brothers in 2003 for allegedly short-changing the government of tax revenue worth about N4bn, but Yar‘Adua permitted them to return to Nigeria in 2007.

The defence of the management of the Stallion Group is that the action of the Federal Government was a violation of subsisting court orders and due process. It said it had a clean record for the past 40 years of business operations in Nigeria and other countries and that no single allegation of wrongdoing had ever been proven against it.

 It will be interesting to know why the Federal Government is after a company that is supposedly clean and of no blemish. Somebody should tell me why Yar‘Adua, who pardoned the Vaswani brothers in 2007, will be too eager to sign their deportation warrant less than two years after.

 The EFCC action against Stallion, if the company actually did what it was accused of, is noble. But since the company says it‘s in court, I think the commission‘s action would have been nobler if the court process had been allowed to run its course. That would have given the government enough ground, if the allegation is proven, to deport the directors of the company not just for five years but, perhaps, forever.

 The EFCC should not just stop at Vaswani. Many other companies, as the Federal Inland Revenue Service had alleged, are tax evaders. Nigerians need to know these companies and what punishment is being meted out to them.

 No serious government tolerates tax evasion by individuals or companies. In such countries, leaders lead the way in the payment of taxes. For instance, President Barack Obama of the United States and his wife, Michelle, made $2.7m last year. Much of this came from royalties from his books. As a Democratic senator from Illinois, he only earned $139,204 last year before leaving his seat on account of the November 2008 election. Michelle‘s salary from the University of Chicago Hospitals, where she was an executive, was $62,709. The couple’s total federal tax reportedly came to $855,323, or 32 per cent of their adjusted gross income of $2,656,902. They were said to have overpaid by $26,014 and elected to apply that amount to their 2009 taxes.

This is transparency at work. How many of our public officers will support and encourage the ideals of an open society? How many companies in Nigeria declare the true worth of their earnings? There is no need blaming any particular individual or company. Collectively, we are guilty. And it will take the collective efforts of all of us to change the situation.

The first step is to pass the Freedom of Information Bill. Many Nigerians have shouted and implored those who claim to represent them in the National Assembly to pass the bill to no avail. If we continue to do our things in secret, many more foreign companies will exploit that to cheat us in our own game. And like Perry Como Okoye, the country will remain transfixed in the palms of corruption.

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Seeking asylum in heaven

April 20, 2009

By Casmir Igbokwe

Published: Sunday, 19 Apr 2009

LAST Sunday, somebody close to me pleaded that I take her to a prayer camp. The camp, which is somewhere at the Idimu area of Lagos, belongs to the Foursquare Gospel Church. And it costs N300 to secure a place there. I had advised the young woman who sought my help against this move. Even her husband, who is in London, was against the action. We wanted her to seek medical attention. But she and some of her siblings insisted on going to the prayer ground to table their problems to God. Their belief is that the camp is a holy place and that God answers prayers quicker there.

 The woman had actually visited two private hospitals, but doctors could not diagnose anything. They told her that her problem was fear. And whenever this fear grips her, she will jump out of bed looking for somebody to clutch. Sometimes, the sickness comes in form of a headache. Sometimes, it borders on hallucination – seeing things that nobody else sees.

 I knew the problem was psychological. Here is a woman who had most good things of life at her disposal. Her husband was very rich. Suddenly he had setbacks in his business, prompting him to relocate to London to eke out a living. Things turned from bad to worse such that even to secure the usual menial jobs in London is not easy anymore, no thanks to the global financial meltdown. This is partly what has affected the young woman.

To cut her long story short, she arrived at the prayer ground with much expectation. Nothing much happened that particular night as not many people turned up. Only a few women trickled in with one of them humming, ”I‘m married to Jesus, Satan leave me alone.” After two nights at the camp, she went back home, claiming she feels better.

 This is what life has reduced many Nigerians to. Over 40 million youths are unemployed. Some of those working are underemployed. Even with their meagre income, they still take care of many relations. Infant/maternal mortality is on the rise. Millions of children are out of school. Many are homeless. Some sleep under the bridge. Some sleep in street corners. Each Sunday morning when I pass through Awolowo Way, Ikeja, to buy newspapers, I see mothers bathing their children by the roadside. You begin to wonder how and where those children passed the night.

 Many have died from police and bandits bullets. Kidnappers have added their own terror. Last week, there were media reports of a nine-year-old girl taken hostage by kidnappers at Ovim in Isuikwuato Local Government Area of Abia State. And that was the girl‘s first visit to Nigeria from her base in England.

 As it is now, many Nigerians will prefer to seek asylum in any country, be it Togo, Benin Republic or Equatorial Guinea. Recently, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees released the 2008 asylum data. It grouped Nigeria with Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan as nations top on the asylum-seeking chart. In the year under review, about 5,333 of our countrymen sought asylum in Italy, 1,008 in Ireland, 970 in the United Kingdom, 500 in Germany and hundreds of others in many other European countries.

There are some who are too happy to send their children and wards into slavery outside Nigeria. To such people, anywhere outside the country is better than the brutish existence here called life. Last week, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters said it rescued 809 victims from traffickers between October 2008 and March 2009.

 Have you seen why many citizens of other countries, despite our rebranding, will continue to see us with myopic eyes? Our situation has so degenerated that even the countries we used to refer to as banana republics are the ones now making us go bananas. The other day, scores of Nigerians were deported from Equatorial Guinea under questionable circumstances. The deportees, who claimed to have valid documents, lamented the loss of their boats and money running into hundreds of millions of naira. Some reportedly died in the hands of security agents in Malabo. Scores of others have drowned in high seas while trying to migrate to Europe.

It’s as if there is no government in place. Government‘s promises of a good life for Nigerians have usually ended up making the citizens more miserable. Contracts for the rehabilitation of roads usually result in more potholes. Hospitals and chemists are swelling with typhoid fever patients, whose only source of drinking water is untreated neighbourhood borehole or the one they call ”pure water.” Generator fumes have continued to kill people as we wait for December when electricity generation will increase to 6,000MW. Companies are closing. Some are relocating to neighbouring countries.

 Typical of our penchant for playing the ostrich, our government has come again with another mouth-watering promise – to create a million jobs for youths every year. Hence, the Federal Government, last week, inaugurated a steering committee on employment generation. Part of the job of the committee is to find out why there is much unemployment in the country despite the high growth rate of our Gross Domestic Product.

Let’s hope that this committee will not just be another avenue to compensate government loyalists. We don’t even need to go far to get the reasons behind our unemployment situation. A study of the life and times of Dunlop Nigeria Plc, Michelin Nigeria Plc and the ailing Peugeot Automobile Nigeria will reveal why our unemployment figure is swelling.

 President Umaru Yar’Adua and those singing his second term song say his agenda is to study Nigeria‘s problems in the first two years of his administration and then move into action subsequently. That moment of action is now. Yar’Adua does not need to devote his energy in many projects. He should concentrate on fixing roads and electricity and then relax to see the impact that would have on the economy.

Today, the refrain of most Nigerians is, “God dey;” “Only God will save this country;” and “May God help us!” Our President needs to convince us that he too can do something to save Nigeria. Perhaps, that will make our women have fond memories of their marriage here on earth first and leave their marriage to Jesus until they get to heaven.

The mischief of PDP governors

April 13, 2009

By CASMIR IGBOKWE

Published: Sunday, 12 Apr 2009

 AS a small boy in the early ’70s, I played a lot of hide-and-seek with my peers. In the night, we would hide under a lorry usually parked in our neighbourhood. Our main prank then was to startle passers-by. The more frightened a passer-by, the happier we were.

Our strategy was to put a big black rope on the road. And from our position under the lorry, we would pull the rope slowly in a snake-like way, making whoever was passing to shout, jump and draw back. Some brave ones would come back with a big stick to kill the crawling thing. On discovering that the presumed reptile was actually a rope, our victims would either move on stylishly or look under the lorry to teach us some bitter lessons. By then, we would have escaped, grinning from afar.

 Mischief! That is the only way I can describe the recent statement credited to the Peoples Democratic Party governors. Media reports last Thursday indicated that these governors had lent their support for the second term bid of President Umaru Yar’Adua. The chairman of the Governors’ Forum and Kwara State governor, Bukola Saraki, reportedly said the President had the constitutional powers to go for a second term and that the governors were in support of that.

 Mr. President’s constitutional right for a second term is indisputable. It’s unlike the third term agenda of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, which later hit the rocks. But my natural reaction when I read the story was, these politicians have come again. My take on it could be found in Saraki’s statement that politics is full of mischief. Some people, he reportedly said, could print posters of him running for the presidency, when he might not be interested in the position. We have also seen instances when some politicians said they were not interested in a particular position only to come out later to claim their people forced them to vie for it.

 Let’s even examine the governors’ grounds for supporting the President’s second term bid. Yar’Adua, they say, is sincere, focused, determined and has vision. I’m almost sure that even Saraki that made the statement does not believe himself. Yes, Yar’Adua may be sincere to an extent. He seems to be a true and pious Muslim, who observes his religious obligations to the letter. And soon after he assumed office in 2007, he declared his assets. Unlike most Nigerian leaders, he also seems less interested in material acquisitions.

 But the questions are: where is the focus? Where is the determination? And where is the vision? This is an administration that makes one policy statement today and reverses itself tomorrow. At a point, Nigerians created such phrases as policy reversals, policy summersaults to describe the lack of direction of this government.

 I can’t also see determination anywhere. A determined president should be the last to go to bed and the first to wake up. He should attend to every problem with dispatch and attend functions he has been pencilled to appear. Can we say these of our President? I don’t think so. Here is a president who does not respond to issues as fast as he should. This has earned him the nickname, Baba Go-slow. Sometimes, he cancels functions he is billed to attend without any explanation. A typical example is the launch of the rebranding project in Abuja last month. He was to attend, but at the dying minute, he sent the Vice-President without any explanation. This is the same manner he failed to honour a proposed state visit to Brazil last August and attendance at the 63rd session of the United Nations General Assembly last September.

 We can give him a little credit in the area of vision. He espoused the seven-point agenda and vision 20:2020. The latest vision is that we will generate 6000MW of electricity by December this year. When you look for concrete steps being taken to achieve these visions, you don’t see any. The seven-point agenda has remained what it is – a mere slogan. Now, they are giving all manner of excuses preparatory to the grand excuse of why we will not meet the December 2009 electricity target.

The President reportedly said his plan was to use two years to study the ground and then use the next six years to accomplish his vision. Let’s hope so. But Nigerians have since learnt how to view statements from politicians with a lie detector. Saraki was also quoted to have noted that the support for Yar’Adua‘s second term bid in the North was total. Does this support include Atiku Abubakar and some elements in the Arewa Consultative Forum?

 No doubt, Mr. President may have his supporters. But I know that a sizeable number of northerners are opposed to his second term plan and are seriously mobilising to undermine his ambition. Considering the rumoured fragile health of our President, I thought he would go home after his first tenure to have a good rest. But Saraki and Co. would want us to believe that the man is as agile as a cat and as strong as Mike Tyson in his heyday as a boxer.

They also commended his fight against corruption. Nothing else can be further from the truth. Which corruption case have we pursued to a logical conclusion? Halliburton? Siemens? National ID card scam? There are former and current public office holders who have been fingered in corruption cases, but rather than answer questions in the courts, they still move about with high shoulders and a swagger.

 Part of the problem we have is the PDP. The ruling party has vowed to rule for at least 60 years. But it has no ideology or blueprint to draw this country out of the woods. Some other parties are planning to form a mega party. It will be interesting to see how that will eventually turn out. Some of the leaders of the so-called opposition parties are defecting to the PDP. Atiku Abubakar thought, perhaps, that organising a phoney reconciliation with Obasanjo would grant him his political heart desires. It did not take long before he engaged in a verbal warfare with the ruling party. The next thing was that the police withdrew his security details. Typical of the reversals we are already used to, the police authorities reportedly returned two of the orderlies last Thursday night.

 President Yar’Adua should not go and relax and feel that the entire North and the Governors’ Forum are solidly behind him. He will be surprised that in the nick of time, one governor may even emerge to challenge him. By then, this whole idea of mischief will be clearer to him. And not even his presidential stick will frighten his traducers, as they will simply move to a corner and grin at his misfortunes.

Odili/Amaechi’s reconciliatory kiss and Yar’Adua’s regret

April 5, 2009

By Casmir Igbokwe
Published: Sunday, 5 Apr 2009
IN October 2008, an English woman gave her partner, Mark Coghill, what turned out to be a painful kiss. The man was actually celebrating his 45th birthday at Newcastle. Midway into the celebration, his woman, Tracy Davies (40), remembered that she wanted a baby but pregnancy eluded her. She grew upset.

Seeing her mood, Coghill reportedly went to comfort her. She asked for a kiss. He obliged. But within a few seconds, she planted her teeth on her man’s tongue. As a prosecutor told a Newcastle Crown Court early last month, the woman bit a third of Coghill’s tongue off. The man’s major regret is that he would never enjoy a curry nor distinguish between cheese and toast again.

No doubt, Dr. Peter Odili and Mr. Rotimi Amaechi still enjoy their curry and pounded yam. But what used to be a rosy relationship between the former and incumbent governors of Rivers State respectively goes beyond the crushing of a tongue. Trouble started when Amaechi’s ambition to govern Rivers clashed with Odili’s political interest. The two men fell apart. The rest, as they say, is history.

Between Odili‘s tenure and Amaechi‘s administration, a lot has happened. Different cult groups sprang up here and there. Gang leaders terrorised Rivers citizens. Communities fought against one another. Thousands of people died. Kidnappers added a new dimension when they started taking people‘s wives and children for ransom.

It was under this confusing situation that Amaechi set up the Kayode Eso Commission to unravel the truth of the crises and reconcile different warring parties. Eso and his team went to work last year. They listened to the tales of the warriors and their victims. They flipped through pages of memoranda. They even went to Abuja to hear from Odili and Co.

On March 10, 2009, they submitted their 571-page report to the Amaechi-led administration. The panel identified the problems of governance, cultism, chieftaincy and some others as the root causes of the crises in the state. Quite troubling was the idea of giving out N250,000 to militants in exchange for each old gun. They simply used the money to acquire more sophisticated weapons. The panel reconciled 15 communities, but indicted the Odili-led administration for hobnobbing with gang leaders.

As expected, Odili and his group have cried foul. They accused the Eso-led panel of bias and said Amaechi set it up to deliberately malign and indict them.

This is rather unfortunate. I do not think that a person of Eso‘s calibre would deliberately set out to undo anybody. Eso and his members, I believe, looked at issues before them critically before reaching their conclusions. Is it not strange and ironical, for instance, that the former governor denied allegations of insensitivity to the destruction of Okuru Ama community, whereas the evidence of the Police and the State Security Services indicated otherwise?

Odili and Co. had earlier shown their disdain for the panel when they failed to appear before it in Port Harcourt, citing security reasons. The major problem the former governor has with Eso is that the respected jurist had, in a public lecture some two years ago, condemned a court order stopping any trial of Odili with regard to what transpired during his tenure as the governor of the state.

Unlike most other panel reports that have not seen the light of the day, Eso‘s report could be an exception. Last Thursday, the Rivers State Government issued a White Paper on it. Among other things, the government ordered a further investigation of Odili and Abiye Sekibo and adopted the panel‘s recommendation for a fresh judicial commission of enquiry to investigate the killing of Marshal Harry and Gospel Bilogbolo.

As if on cue, President Yar’Adua the same Thursday announced amnesty for Niger Delta militants, who are ready to lay down their arms. He touched the heart of the matter when he regretted that Nigeria was not among the G-20 nations that met in London last week. South Africa happens to be the only African country in the G-20. He urged every Nigerian to reflect upon the sad scenario.

Mr. President, I have reflected and come to the conclusion that apart from the problem of poor leadership, the crises in Rivers, nay Niger Delta, constitute the greatest impediment to our growth as a nation. Oil, as we all know, is the greatest gift nature has graciously given us. The crises have drastically affected oil production and oil companies. A report in the Financial Times of London yesterday indicated that a potentially groundbreaking court case alleging that Shell Petroleum Development Company was complicit in the execution of the former President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Ken Saro-Wiwa, would open in New York on April 27.

While we continue to grope in search of solutions to our problems, it has become imperative to implore the combatants in the Niger Delta to lay down their arms. The starting point should be in Rivers. Guilty or not guilty, the honourable thing for Odili to do as a leader is to accept responsibility for whatever happened when he was in charge in the state. Going to court to stop the implementation of the report of the panel will not help the matter. Already, a Port Harcourt High Court on Friday reportedly rejected the moves by the former governor to stop the report.

I dream of the day when Odili and Amaechi and indeed all the warriors in the Niger Delta will drop their weapons, come together and share a genuine kiss of love, peace and reconciliation.