INTERVIEW: Property charge bill still open for public input – Usoro Akpanusoh

 

Member representing Esit Eket/Ibeno in the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly and Chairman, Committee on Finance and Appropriations, Usoro Akpanusoh, explains the benefits of the Maritime Sector Operations Bill sponsored by him and passed by the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly recently. He said the hotly debated Property Charge Bill also sponsored by him is also open for public input. In this interview with The Propellerng.com team, Itoro BASSEY and Iniabasi UMOH, the lawmaker outlines other salient issues in the maritime sector law and the property charge bill. Excerpts:

You were lead sponsor of the Maritime Sector Operations Bill which was recently passed into law by the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly. How do you feel about this achievement and what are the attractive aspects of the law vis-à-vis revenue generation for the state?

Thank you, I am quite pleased. The law is very important as far as the present situation in the country is concerned. We used to overlook certain areas of getting money for the state. This is perhaps because we used to have so much money from the federation revenue. But now that there is this dwindling economy, there’s need for us to begin to dust our books to begin to look at areas we can further generate money. So maritime regulation is one of the areas that we have identified as a revenue generation area.

 

Akwa Ibom state is an oil producing state, and, of course, my constituency, Esit Eket/Ibeno, is host to ExxonMobil, one of the multinational oil companies doing oil exploration business there. We also know that Seven Energy and Scepter Oil and Gas are hosted by my constituency. It is people that will come and buy the product after being refined by these companies. We discovered therefore that people come to do business of loading the oil without paying what belongs to the state. This is as a result of the lack of a law that would compel them to pay their own quota when doing business in the state in terms of revenue.


Some people would have said that the bill establishing the law is under exclusive legislative list of the federal government. But the constitution has mandated the House of Assembly to make laws to generate revenue for the state. The law is not about the extraction of oil or gas which is under the exclusive list of the federal government. Revenue generation is in the concurrent list, areas the state feels it can legally get money to fund programmes. The maritime sector operation regulation law is one of the laws which will address the issues of registration of vessels that come within the coastal areas of the state to buy crude oil. That is essentially what the law is going to address.


Now, the law has also made provisions to address the fact that there are some vessels of government that are used in the area of security: the federal government, police, Navy, and Army, are excused from the law. Vessels that are seen coming for commercial purposes within the territorial waters of Akwa Ibom state will be bound to pay some amount prescribed under Schedule One of the Maritime Registration Law. This will help boost the revenue of Akwa Ibom state.

What informed this was basically that, as chairman of finance and appropriations of the house of assembly, it is also my responsibility to explore avenues within the context of my office to bring on board everything that the legislature could leverage on to strengthen the state financially. These achievements will be a legacy for subsequent occupants of the office since I will not be here forever.
Another attractive area of the law is going to be in helping the state to monitor security in the coastal waters. If we have a busy waterways, it will help in checking security issues like piracy within the coastal areas of the state. We are going to need manpower too, thereby generating employment for our youths. So the benefit of giving people gainful employment is also one of the major advantages of the maritime sector operation regulation bill which has been passed into law.

Talking about maritime operations being in the exclusive list of the federal government, experts in the sector are of the view that the law may be difficult to implement given this position. Is this correct?

People who will be directly affected may tend to turn the law upside down. These are the people doing oil and gas businesses. Some of these people don’t want the law to come into operation. But then some are commending the law, saying that it is timely. What is important is that the execution of this law will not be difficult. Very importantly is that we will need to sit down to extract the commitment of the major oil company in the state which is Exxon Mobil. The sale of crude oil is the major business of Exxon Mobil.

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Truth is that some of the laws that we are making are merely federal laws that we are domesticating. The House of Assembly has the power to domesticate some laws or acts of the National Assembly. For instance, the Due Process Law. We need due process in our own state, not only at the federal level. So the maritime law which we are domesticating seeks to make us know how many vessels are coming to take crude oil within the coastal waters of Akwa Ibom State and the modalities for us to regulate their activities and generate revenue from their business engagement within our state. Remember that when you are talking about property, a vessel on water is often times bigger than a house. It has capacity to carry more than fifty or hundred workers, and the vessel can be stationed in a position for more than three to four months. By right, that vessel is supposed to pay their PAYE (pay as you earn tax) to the state in which the workers are residing, that’s what they are supposed to do. And they are also supposed to pay money to the state government for coming into the area to do business, that’s why we enacted the Maritime Regulation Law. Our duty is to make laws within the areas where the constitution has given us powers. So there’s no inconsistency at all with the federal government in making this Maritime Regulation Law. Yes, there may be some level of difficulties in terms of enforcement. But then we need to seek the cooperation of big companies like ExxonMobil. When once they given us the cooperation, all what we will need to do is to find out how many vessels are coming to take the crude oil from the company. The company will now agree that, let ExxonMobil alone not be the one to be confronted by the state government to pay their own dues of taxes, let them also give their responsibility to other companies who are coming here to do businesses to also help them in paying their taxes and Mobil taking their cooperating social responsibility. So if Mobil gives us a list and Mobil can also help the state in that the companies coming to do this business, owners of these vessels, we will be remitting the monies directly to the state government.

Does the state have what it takes to enforce this law?

For a new law like this, you don’t expect immediate takeoff. There will be a process. What machinery do we need to track down those vessels, for instance? Truth is that we need to work in partnership with NNPC (Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation), and, overtime, the government of the state will begin to independently machinate ways of ensuring enforcement of the law.
First and foremost, we need to create awareness for the law. Secondly, we need to engage stakeholders for a meeting intimating them that this law is in place, how we must get to enforce it. We don’t need hammer to enforce it, just negotiations, stakeholders discussions, and everybody will understand. Why it is so is that the state government too is responsible for the security of the citizens of the state, whether you are from here or not.

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You seem to be so much interested in revenue generation for the state. For instance, the two bills you’ve sponsored recently have something to do with revenue generation. As chairman of the House Committee on Finance/Appropriations, what is your office in particular, and the House in general, doing to ensure accountability for the internally generated revenue (IGR) of the state?

When we came into the house of assembly, and I was given the opportunity to chair the appropriations aspect. Requisite machineries were activated to put in place the checks and balances which are encapsulated in the presidential system of government. One of the things was that I did a memo to His Excellency, Governor Udom Emmanuel to centralize and have what we called one consolidated revenue account whereby all government revenue will be swept into one account for us to be able to know actually how much is due to the state as internal revenue every month. That decision was applauded and accepted and even the resolution of the executive council was passed conveying that the state has approved one consolidated revenue account which is in operations today. This is to check the issue of corruption and the issue of accountability in terms of internally generated revenue.

Secondly, in our meeting with the (revenue) consultant, we asked him to give us a model where we are going to have an e-Receipt instead of people paying money cash to revenue agents, and which was also approved by His Excellency the Governor. We have long started e-Receipt payment in terms of remittances on taxes. You can even generate your own tax receipt online in the state now. We have also made our position known to the state government that there’s need for government budget to be put online because budget is a product of revenue. In this regard, the state executive also obliged us. If you go online now you’ll see the state budget. So these are the things that have been put in place to check issues of corruption, accountability, leakages and all that.
Again, we also established the fact that we needed to be going out for oversight functions . In the first, and part of the second quarter of this year, we met with ministries and they are sending to us the reports of what has so far been released to them, and we are also going to check actually what they have been doing with the monies that have been released. This is also part of our responsibility.   

Now, having interest in revenue generation is because I have seen that we need to make more money in order to give Akwa Ibom people more development. Sometimes people will even think I am having this much interest in revenue generation because I am benefitting from the revenues. Truth is, not even one kobo of the state government revenue has ever entered my pocket except from the salary I take. But I have this interest knowing full well that if we allow this tempo of development to drop in Akwa Ibom state, having seen what the last administration did, and what the present administration have done so far, there would be negative effect with regards to the reaction of the people towards supporting the government. So we have to continue to do things that will give people the willingness to continue to give support the state government.

Is this what inspired your introduction of the Property Tax Bill?

Yes, development is what inspired the property tax bill. If I am living here in Akwa Ibom, I must be prepared to pay my taxes here. People pay taxes when they go to Lagos and Abuja, but when they come here they say ‘no, we can’t pay’. Whereas if you look at it very well, we have more good roads here in the state than what we have in some parts of Lagos and Abuja, apart from the fact  they Abuja is the federal capital territory. How does the government achieve results without revenue generated from taxes? There’s no toll gate in this state, but when you go to Lagos, you enter VI (Victoria Island) you pay N100. But when we come here, when the government wants to build a road now under public private partnership arrangement and say construct this road 20 kilometers, do your toll gate and collect your money over the years, people will ask why you want to collect tolls, they will complain and go to social networks to blast government. And sometimes if you look at the people talking these things, they are teenagers who do not understand the benefits of the property tax. Some of them do it because, maybe, they are on all other side of the political divide. We don’t have to behave like. There is still more opportunity for us as individuals to continue to support government so that when you have the opportunity in a position of authority, some other person will not  condemn every good work you are trying to do.

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There’s this issue with ROM-FLEX Networks Limited, the IGR consultant to Akwa Ibom State Government, that they actually engineered the Property Tax Bill and made inducements to you, the money which was also extended to House members. Is this true? Could it be that ROM-FLEX wants to maintain and expand their monopoly in the state as the only revenue collectors using the state assembly as the tool as alleged?

The issue of money with ROMFLEX is untrue, unfounded and false. Somewhere people just gathered somewhere to blackmail somebody who was doing good for the state. ROMFLEX is the second consultant that came to the state. The first one was Emation. Emation came, government awarded the contract to them. It was a registered company with corporate Affairs Commission but their core mandate was not to generate revenue so they were finding it difficult to generate revenue for the state. The state government terminated the contract and re-awarded it to ROMFLEX. ROMFLEX has always been here even though not on a full scale of revenue, it was strictly on plate numbers. When ROMFLEX came in, we discussed with them on the need to expand the scope of the revenue generation. In the course of our meeting, areas of more discovering of revenue were discussed. The recent bills that we have passed, the Urban Furniture  bill, the Property Tax Bill (still undergoing legislative processes) were also part of the discussions that we had. The monopoly you are talking about, we know that one consultant should not be the only company handling every revenue aspects, it has to be broken.

In terms of PAYE, PAYE is already a prepared tax arrangement. There should be no cease for revenue consultant to begin to go and collect PAYE because PAYE is government and sometime we also need to go out of the state to other companies to see now we can mop up the PAYEs. If we are giving someone the PAYE, let us ensure we are giving only to consultant. And, like the Property Tax, if we are giving it out, that is if it is passed into law, we will only give it to one consultant. If we are doing this maritime registration, we give it to another consultant. The state government is thinking of breaking the monopoly of one person being the only consultant to generate revenue in the state. Therefore, issues of ROMFLEX having the monopoly shouldn’t have arisen because they are at the mercy of the state government. Their terms of condition of service is clearly spelt out on their appointment letter. Now that the government is saying that it wants to break it, the company has no option than to work in line with what government wants. Also, I’m not aware of the blackmail of money passing through me to members. If I have issues in term of delivering on the core mandate of my office, I’ll approach the governor though my Speaker. I am a man of integrity. I won’t begin to go outside to beg people to give me money to do my own job.

Maritime sector operators do face security challenges such as attack by sea pirates. Given that revenue is to be generated in that sector, what measures have the house of assembly taken to help mitigate this problem?

It is good for us to really understand this issue of exclusive and concurrent lists. Security is under the exclusive list of the federal government. This is why they own the police, army, navy and others. It is by assumption that the state governor is called the chief security officer because of his responsibility as a state governor. Truth is, as state government, you cannot close your eyes and watch things go wrong. Every state is part of the nation. So if you don’t do certain things to protect your area, you could be held responsible for some mistakes. That is why the state government, when they buy the gunboat, they buy it for the federal government to help them monitor their waterfronts. State government don’t employ the people that would drive the boat to monitor the seashores, they will only buy and donate it to the federal government. Hence, the issue of pirates disturbing our women and men who go into the seashores to fish has become a very serious threat to the state because Akwa Ibom is surrounded by water. Now, what do we do to help those women there? Part of what we are going to do is the introduction of this Maritime Registration Bill which has been passed into law by the House.

Even if it is for us to check the vessels that are coming in, it will also help us to check the activities of people in the water areas. So it is the right step in the right direction. It will also help to check your parents and brothers who are right inside the sea trying to bring fish for us to eat. Once that waterfront is busy, just like the roads, there is the tendency that armed robbery or any other crime will be reduced. But when you don’t have activities there, the criminals can take over the whole waterfront, and there’s nothing you will do.

 

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The maritime sector bill has been passed into law, the allegation of inducement and the hullabaloo generated by the Property Tax Bill are still hovering the political space, while the body language of lawmakers show definitely that the bill will be passed. What should the Akwa Ibom people expect concerning these actions of the legislature?    
   
What we have been doing is that every bill of the house of assembly is thrown into the public. Property Tax bill was thrown into the public and unfortunately the people that used their facebook account to report us negatively, none of them came out to drop their memo, some said the time frame was too short. I went and copied one of the comments of those opposing the Property Tax Bill and I showed him the date he commented on that advert for public hearing. And I said, ‘between the date you made this comment and the date we held the public hearing was four days, was that not enough time for you to have made a small memo and forward to us?’ The Property Charge Bill is not bad as some of its opposers are saying. We can still sit down and add more inputs so that we can all agree.

When the public hearing was conducted, a lot of people failed to attend. Some said we didn’t give them enough notice. Let me use this opportunity to say that it is not late to send inputs. Those who might not have brought inputs on that same day we held the public hearing can still do so. We are still taking inputs as the bill is undergoing legislative processes. I am aware that some people even sponsored critics to make that noise and attack the bill because they have big houses and big companies and they don’t want to pay property tax. This is unfortunate and, by God’s grace, His will shall prevail for the good of the masses who will benefit from the many great prospects of this bill.

As for the expectations of Akwa Ibom people, they should expect good governance through legislative engagements. The Speaker, Rt. Hon Barrister Onofiok Luke is strong, very articulate, very vibrant. He is a man of the people. That was why he christened the assembly ‘The People’s Assembly’. Under his leadership at the House of Assembly and under the leadership of His Excellency, Deacon Udom Emmanuel, the people should expect nothing short of good governance. I advise members of the public to criticize government constructively. I appreciate all the comments made. These comments also help to build the society. They help government to build their own relationship with the masses. Also note that most comments people make on facebook, television and radio are what government use to also build their positions and take consensus that help them give out dividends of democracy. For us in the house of assembly, we will continue to do what is right.

END

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