Majority Leader of the Edo State House of Assembly, Hon. Phillips Shuaibu, in this interview with PATRICK OCHOGA, speaks on the recently introduced land use tax bill accented into law by Governor Adams Oshiomhole, saying it will create employment and diminish insecurity in the state. He also contends that the rich oppose it out of selfishness.

Can we know how this land use charge bill came about?
It is a government bill and as the majority leader of the House of Assembly, it is my responsibility to sponsor the bill in the House.

Since the House passed the bill, there have been pockets of protests; can you explain the content of the bill?
The content is to provide and consolidate all Land Use Acts, the tenement development and consolidate all of them into one single charge which will be paid annually. It is also to have a tribunal and a committee that will be consulted for the purpose of assessment, payment and collection of this payment.

It is to unify both the state and the local government into effective collection of this fund as against these monies going into private pockets as is the case presently. Most of the things there are not new – they are old laws. We are only consolidating them into one single charge call land use act.

A lot of people think that the law is going to create more poverty considering the tax regime that has been in place; are they right to think that it will create hardship?
Like I told you before, it is not a new law; a majority of these things already existed. Call it tenement rates or developmental rates, the problem has been enforcement. We had a leadership in the past that refused to make tax an issue and that has led to people not getting used to paying tax. In the past these leaders felt that taxing people will mean them asking question about what the money was used for, so they preferred to rely on Abuja money where the people do not have make any contribution to the substance of that government, and so they relied on Abuja money and embezzled it without anybody asking questions on how the money was spent.

You know that any system that introduces tax and effectively collects it, every citizen will have a stake in such government; they must ask questions and that is what the comrade governor has done to make politics in Edo State a two-way affair, both the governed and the government – so that what he has succeeded in doing. Today, people can ask questions because they are contributing their own quota by paying their taxes, and government can boldly hit its chest and say we are making use of the taxes paid to provide infrastructure and develop the state.

The issue of tax is just not an Edo issue, it is national issue, it is global issue, America election that we just witnessed was all about budget deficit and tax and as we speak now the issue of tax is still the issue; who is to be taxed and who is not to be taxed. And the generality of the Americans believe in Obama, believing that he should tax the rich, so that the middle class and the poor will benefit and the issue of deficit can be cleared, and you saw how they voted. When people were not sure Obama would win, you see that the American people voted for the rich to be taxed as against the Republicans that would prefer the middle class and the poor people to be taxed.

So in Edo State, we are saying that the poor should not suffer too much hardship because we don’t have a middle class here. The bill is all about the poor not having to be impoverished; it is for them to stabilise and enjoy the benefits of government. Let the rich pay very little and that little is the issue, and the rich have the facilities to make people think otherwise – they have private (media) stations, they have other means; instead of them using their finances to pay government so government can provide facilities, they prefer to go on negative publicity and tell people that the bill will impoverish the people the more.

This land use act will create wealth in Edo State, not poverty. It will create wealth in the sense that since the state is doing much in the public private partnership, the tax is private sector driven. This state, as it is today, is encouraging private sector investment in Edo State and the only way private sector can invest is to provide infrastructure, provide security, and the first step towards reducing crime and insecurity is to create employment. While the government is creating its own employment, it is creating an enabling environment that will encourage private sector participation in this government.

Edo State is strategically placed in this region, and you know what the hospitality business is all about: a majority of these edifices that are lying follow, when they now pay the land use charge, the owner will have no choice but to convert them into useful venture and this will in turn create employment, reduce unemployment and generate wealth. At the end of the day, the bill is all about creating wealth and not impoverishing the people.

How are you doing to sensitise the people about this law and why was there no public hearing prior the House passing the bill into law?
Yes, we have series of interactions with people; public hearing is the committee’s procedure to do the bill. If the committee feels that public hearing will help the bill, it can go ahead with it. There is no extant law that says a particular bill except constitutional amendment should go through public hearing. And for this particular bill, we all went back to our various constituencies to seek the opinion of our people. If you go to my constituency, for instance, a majority of them are in support of the bill; only the few rich people actually oppose it and it is normal.

Nobody including me derives pleasure in playing tax; nobody in this world, including the implementers, derives pleasure in paying tax. Tax is something that you are not willing to pay, but it is a necessity for you to pay to develop. So there is nobody that wants to pay willingly, and that is why in advanced countries, evasion of tax is criminal. Even in this country, to evade tax is a criminal act, because of the importance of paying tax.

Naturally it is not criminal; even the implementers will not like to pay tax, so I can understand with the rich people. Obviously, they would want to resist it because they don’t want to part with the abundance they have. Naturally there are persons, without even taxing them, they like to give, while some naturally will not want to part with any kobo from their abundance. So I think the tax is for the benefit of the generality of Edo people.

A lot of people felt because some names were mentioned, that there is some political undertone – that some people are being targeted?
Yes, I think the Esama (of Benin) was mentioned by me; actually I do not want to go into details why his name was mentioned, and if I have to go into details, there are so many things I have to let out. Like I said, those people that do not want to pay these taxes are the ones selling propaganda and selling negative rumours.

I actually want to agree with you that there was not enough publicity to educate the people, and that is why some of the people that do not want to pay are taking advantage of such poor publicity. And you should understand that the period we are passing this bill is the period when the executive arm of government is not constituted yet, and the information network is a bit slow, but as we go on, the people will actually know the importance of this bill. For some of these things that were mentioned, it was actually not targeted at any individual.

How are you going to guarantee that landlords are not going to transfer hike rents and put the burden on the tenants?
I think that question should be for the revenue people because they are the implementers of these laws, and they know the areas that are going to be taxed. Obviously, I am very sure that, very soon, we are going to commence work on another bill, which is going to be sponsored by me, on Landlord and Tenants Law where the tenant is going to be given serious priority.

We in the Edo State House of Assembly are progressive; we are not reactionary elements; we are conscious of the fact that the people must lead and the only way for the people to lead is for the vast majority of them to have a stake in government, and that is what we are doing and that is what the bill is set to achieve – to benefit of the majority of the people.

Sir, you will agree with me that why we are witnessing pockets of protests is because information did not get to the public in good time.
Yes, I agree with you

What are you going to do about this at your level?
I think it is the primary responsibility of the ministry of information to disseminate the information and enlighten our people about this bill, and I think in a very short while they will be able to do that. I have also had discussion with the Board of Internal Revenue chairman, and they are working on public enlightenment programme and sensitization.

And when you look at these fees that are going to be paid, they are very minimal. I worked out the formula in that bill and discovered that a property worth almost N90 million will pay less than N20,000 per annum. The rich people that are moving people against this bill, this is not money that they cannot pay for such huge properties.

You will also observe that it will also discipline us; you don’t just buy houses because you just want to buy houses or buy houses because you have free money. You should buy houses that will create employment. I think this law, by the grace of God, has come to stay and it has come to help the generality of the people of Edo State to create wealth and provide employment.

What is your take on the issue of ethnicity that some persons are trying to use in discrediting this bill?
I think the very revered Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba Nedo, Uku Akpolopkolo, Oba Erediawua, has laid to rest the issue of ethnicity in Edo State and it is buried for life. If anybody wants to raise the issue, I think that person is doing so at his own peril. The issue of ethnicity, I think, was already dealt with by the election, but in this bill I want to say that to whom much is given, much is expected.

If you look at the bill, you will see what they refer to choice and non-choice areas, and you have them all over the state. Choice areas and urban areas by law are all local governmental headquarters in Edo State. All the 18 local government areas are urban areas so if you want to own a house, for instance, in certain locations, you know where choice areas and non-choice areas are located.? The choice areas obviously should pay more; if you are not in choice area, you pay less. It’s a naturally thing and every society, every country has it. I think those who want to raise ethnic coloration are bereft of ideas.

Those that are bereft of ideas always want to look at issues from the religious or geographical plane. I think we should eschew ethnicity and look at the merit of the bill as we have discussed earlier. The merit of the bill is that it will create wealth and eradicate insecurity, because when the youths are adequately engaged, obviously insecurity will begin to diminish.

Nigerian and Edo State politics has returned to issues and not ethnicity, and the issue is whether the bill is going to create poverty or create wealth. And we have given statistics on how wealth and employment will be created, and how insecurity will be history in the state when the bill is created.