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Real independence is self dependence

Real independence is self dependence

There is now ongoing frenetic activity with plans for the 50th Independence Anniversary celebrations of the Republic of Sierra Leone in 2011.  In a country where the economy imploded in the 1980s and exploded in a brutish civil war in the 1990s, spin doctors would be hard put to point to areas of significant growth that would justify celebrations after 50 years of  ‘Independence’.  One public sector institution that the nation must take pride in at having burnished its independence credentials is the National Revenue Authority (NRA).

Established by the NRA Act 2002 as a near-monolithic autonomous revenue arm of  the Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL), it merged the two previously autonomous agencies of the Customs and Excise Department and Income Tax Department into one body.    Within two years of its operations (2003 to 2005) the NRA increased revenue for government by over 60 percent! So impressed was the GoSL with this meteoric rise in revenues that in a Cabinet Conclusion of 2004 the GoSL empowered  the NRA to embark on the collection of revenues in all Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).  Thus, the NRA’s Non Tax Revenue Department (NTR) was born in 2005.

Within a year of the NTR operating, there was an incredible spike in revenues – with revenues rising from about Le9.8 billion in 2003 to Le41billion in 2005. (Unprecedented in the revenue sector in the history of Sierra Leone, that was  313% rise in revenues in the non tax revenue sector within just about two years!!!). Said one senior government official about this dramatic rise in revenue: “I have been in government for over twenty years; and if anyone had told me a few years ago that such huge sums of revenue were even existing in the country and collectible by government, I would have sworn on my Poro and my Jesus that it would be impossible.  The NRA has wrought a revenue miracle for Sierra Leone”.

This ‘revenue miracle’ of the Non Tax Revenue Department (NTR)  in the National Revenue Authority (NRA), in spite of occasional hiccups, still continues today: in the year ending 2009, a target of Le56 billion was set for the NTR by the GoSL and the IMF – and the NTR collected Le68 billion!!! The NTR collected  about Le11 billion over the target set for it by the GoSL and the IMF. It is hardly a wonder that since 2002 government keeps on expanding the yearly target for the NTR by an average of Le12billion.

A senior staff of the NTR in the NRA beamed with pride at the challenges placed in front of his department with higher targets: “Well, we have achieved this tremendous increase in revenues so far because of considerable support from some government Ministries, Departments and Agencies; with more support from them, with greater education of the taxpayer who would become more tax compliant, I am sure that we can sustain this revenue base, and, could even collect far more revenues”.

A retired senior government official said he is proud of what the NTR has done, and ashamed of what had happened before the NRA established the NTR: “Before the NRA started collecting revenues in 2005, government officials would simply collect revenues in their ministries and put it into their personal pockets.  Some would collect revenue for one year, and buy bearer bonds with it for their personal benefit, before giving government a part of the revenues collected at the end of the year”.  The NRA has put a stop to all this by demanding the law that revenues collected for government must be deposited in the Consolidated Fund within the time stipulated by law.

Since the NTR’s collection directly and indirectly affects nearly all the citizenry (with the NTR collecting fees and levies from MDAs ranging from mines, fisheries, energy and power, transport and aviation, agriculture, information and communication to births and deaths, prisons, tourism…) sustainable success would only be guaranteed with massive support from the citizenry; and the representatives of the citizenry who they have elected as parliamentarians”

‘”Independence Means Dependence on Domestic Revenues”: the NRA’s NTR performance would give meaning to that slogan found on billboards put up by the NRA.  Last week, during the  Policy Hearings for the Financial Year 2011 to 2013 (Midterm Expenditure Framework Budget),  the Acting Financial Secretary, Mrs. Avril Cummings, said that the GoSL initially estimated budget support from their development partners to amount to Le234.8 billion,  which is about 3.2% of GDP. Of this amount, she informed the audience they had received, as of end of June, 2010, “only a total of Le59.5 billion from their development partners…”  The  GoSL cannot continue making its financial computations for even recurrent government expenditure  based on foreign ‘donor support’.  Thus, national pride mandates that we transcend our internal differences and give National Security emphasis to all our revenue streams, and moral, administrative and political support to revenue success stories like the NTR.

As we move towards celebrating our 50th Independence we must all put hands on deck to do what is necessary to stimulate real independence – which means hard physical and mental work; work which will be taxed; and the capacity of government enhanced to stimulate better goods and services for the people.  Of course, Civil Society – through some of its leaders like Charles Mambu, Falla Ensa N’dayma, et. al – have been invited over the past five years in the NRA (in Roundtable Discussions at STOP PRESS and JOVANA restaurants in downtown Freetown in 2005 and 2006 especially; in dozens of seminars/workshops…) and challenged to collaborate with the NRA.   The NRA, a national institution, has to be owned by the people.   This should mean not only payment of taxes and dues in a timely manner, but, also the people monitoring the NRA’s activities, and cooperating with it round-the-clock – to stem menaces like smuggling, where government is estimated to be losing about 30 percent of its revenues.

As we go to ‘donors’ cap-in-hand, like beggars, asking for money not only to build roads, hospitals, schools, etc. , but also donor support for even payment of the salaries of some of our government workers, let us have in mind that the money that is given us are actually the taxes of people in say, United Kingdom, Germany, and United States.  If we don’t work hard enough, it is like well-muscled men sitting down idle most of the day (which is literally happening in Freetown today, where one sees hundreds of thousands of youth  hanging around street corners in interminable debate about European Football, and when they see moneyed people passing by, ululating, and supplicating,  ‘u borbor dae ya, O’) and asking other men to work hard to feed them.  If we can measure the ‘economic power’ in each of the idle people in our country, especially in Freetown,  if we can harness these idle muscles, our GDP will increase a hundredfold.   We are dependent on foreign donors because we have largely failed to goad our people to work hard. We must end this disgraceful dependency syndrome if we are to give meaning to 50 years of our independence – work and taxes are part of the essence of real independence.

Oswald Hanciles, Freetown

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