AMBODE REVIVES AWO’S LEGACY OF PUBLIC FINANCE

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BY KEHINDE BAMIGBETAN

It is forty years and 139 days after he joined the saints on May 9, 1987. Many folks – loyalists and admirers- will flock to the site of his imposing statue Tuesday September 26 to watch the dramatic re-emergence of the philosopher, statesman and politician. A few acquainted with his interest in metaphysics may tarry till the veil has been cast away. As one of Moses Olaiya’s comic offerings remind, the dead may resurrect amidst the celebration!

That would not be necessary in this instance because Obafemi Awolowo, never died. His works thunder across the landscape of the Western Region in the architectural prominence of pioneer accomplishments. His words speak to the thought systems of mankind and echo to the future the paths lit yet uncharted. Awolowo engaged all the philosophers who contributed to modern knowledge in formulating the principles which guide his politics, culture and economics. Popular democracy from Plato. Dialectics from Hegel. Democratic socialism from Marx and Engels. Metaphysics from Aristotle and the theologians. Public finance from Maynard Keynes.

The decision of the Lagos State Government led by Governor Akinwumi Ambode to position the sage appropriately for eternal adulation in the precincts of the power corridor of the state and within walking distance of the premier shoppers and tourists rendezvous highlights the need to bring the multi-dimensional impact of this avatar back into our daily narrative.

Consider, the legacy of taxation as an instrument of planning .Such a didactic exercise should be seen in the context of our current national political economy particularly the increasing state failure to perform basic obligations to workers, grow internally generated revenue to hedge mounting bills and attract loans for long term capital development. The disastrous consequence of a recessed economy is not in the low purchasing power of the citizens, the inflationary spirals and the cuts in production. It is the collapse of the world and culture of work. When days of joblessness roll into weeks and weeks into months, the simple act of waking up in the morning is dis-incentivised by the sheer fact that there is no place to prepare to go.

The crisis has become a major cause of frustration and produced aggression of various grades manifesting in the clamour to review  the federal constitution in the hope that autonomy for the sub-units or component parts (aka restructuring) will restore prosperity and autochtonous development. We are reminded that the period when we had regions was the best as if reversion to regionalism is enough magic wand to achieve stable economy.  The unassailable fact that the men who made it happen in Western, Eastern and Northern region- Awolowo, Azikiwe and Bello- aspired to apply those principles to the country from the centre is comfortably ignored. For instance, the Action Group made it clear that it adopted federalism because it was the best for a country with many ethnic groups and believed that federalism would make it easier for smaller states to join Nigeria to form a United States of West Africa.

It is clear that the most generous and accommodating structure of appropriation in a confederal or more federal system will only transfer the present patterns of accumulation from the centre to the units, enabling rapacious elite to gain greater access to the gravy while the commonwealth bleeds. Such a prebendal ambition, premised on the tweaking of the rentier state, would inflict serious injury on the memory of Awolowo, who, in his post-1974 period had begun to question the magnitude of the challenge posed to governance by primitive accumulation.

The fact of history is that Awolowo believed in taxation as the act by which responsible citizens contribute from their means to enable the community meet collective objectives. In his most quoted speech on taxation, delivered during the proceedings of the House of Representatives on August 15, 1954, he said: “; there is that broad, smooth road, with promises of no taxation, and efforts to get money from other places, leading nowhere but  perdition, poverty, disease and economic enslavement; and there is the other road people who go therein pay tax. They also have to apply self-help and self-sacrifice to get where they want. But this road, Mr. President, leads to success, prosperity and to the exploitation of natural resources by the people of this country …”

Awolowo arrived at this conclusion in his quest to discover how to accelerate domestic capital formation to liberate the economy from the foreign domination that the long years of colonial rule established. His strategy was the  empowerment of the domestic middle class to emerge as the national bourgeoisie that would create a fully indigenous economy where the production and distribution of goods and services would meet the needs of Nigerians. This was not possible without the creation of surplus funds for investment. Taxation of the dominant productive forces in the colonial economy- workers and farmers- was a key element of that strategy. Hitherto, taxation had been employed by the colonialists to service the metropole. In Awo’s template, this fiscal device will be used to empower the country.

The heritage of welfarism that the Western region, following the rise to power of the Action Group, bequeathed to the successor regimes was captured by the concept of Freedom for All, Life More abundant. It is based on the taxation of all adults who are rewarded with the implementation of social services such as education for all, health for all,  jobs for all, sound management of public resources and infrastructures to facilitate the promotion of goods and services.

In April 1953, as Leader of Government Business,  Awolowo introduced 10 shillings capitalization tax on all adult tax payers to raise revenue. To reward taxpayers,  he introduced Free Health Scheme for all children below 18 same year, the first minimum wage in 1954 and Free Education in 1955. The collection was so efficient that the folktales regale with stories of men who ran into the federal territory of Lagos to evade payment.

Although the rival National Council for Nigerian Citizens campaigned so negatively that the Action Group lost votes by 19 to 23 in the 1954 polls, the deployment of the revenue to the construction of public projects and programmes made it a temporary setback.

With these antecedents, the romantic celebration of the historic exploits of the Western Region government must therefore proceed with the admission that taxation and the judicious deployment of its proceeds for development is the template for any truly honest and purposeful government.

After two years of experimenting with other strategies for generating surplus funds for development, the Ambode administration has returned to the feet of the great master to pay homage to his heritage of public finance. As an administration that hit the ground running as soon as the governor was sworn into office, it began with the low hanging fruits of loans to activate infrastructural renewal. Gradually, the loans gave way to the bonds- longer term instruments- for financing public works.

Although bombarded by investors and bankers to take more loans and issue more funds, the administration recognizes that the interest sharks are out to post profit for their shareholders. Both windows work as advances on expected inflows. The logic, which Pa Awolowo defined long ago, came to the rescue. It is better to generate the inflows and reduce the interest paid to the creditors.

Governor Ambode will be relying on the achievements of his predecessors in generating revenue. A key contributor to this legacy is Asiwaju Bola Tinubu who fought tooth and nail to reclaim the taxable items on the residual list of the 1999 Constitution which the central government had hijacked during military rule. He also maximized the opportunities for revenue available on the concurrent list.

As the world celebrates the resurgence of Awoism in Lagos State today, it should expect a more efficient, hardworking, productive governance powered by the real franchise of development- the tax- delivered by those who have a stake in developing a new Lagos- the taxpayers.

For Governor Ambode, the unveiling of Awo’s statue comes with a challenge to surpass what was done by a man who put his brains and brawn at the service of the people over six decades yet stands head over shoulders over his peers till today.

Bamigbetan is the Special Adviser, Communities & Communications to Governor Akinwumi Ambode

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