Fowler's Fouls: What Tunde Fowler Did Wrong at FIRS


Friday, December 20, 2019  / 06:47PM /  By Faye & Fraser Briefing Note   /   Header Image Credit: PM News     


Kicking a man when he is down is poor form. Despite his desperate best efforts, Tunde Fowler did not get a second term as Executive Chairman of Nigeria's Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), with President Buhari naming one Mohammed Nami as his replacement on December 9th. So what was it like inside FIRS when Fowler held sway? In many ways it is a cautionary tale for his replacement.


When Fowler was appointed in 2015 there was some relief, even rejoicing, at his taking over the reins from the then Acting Chairman, Samuel Ogungbesan. This was because Ogungbesan, who had taken over from Kabir Mashi, was perceived as high handed and rash.


As soon as he was named Acting Chairman, he quickly set about throwing his weight around and letting everyone know he was in charge. However, anyone who thought his excesses were the worst they had seen was in for a rude shock. (Iron law of Nigeria: No matter how bad things are, they can always be worse). The joy and celebration at his exit quickly proved to be premature once Fowler was in position.


In the euphoria of Fowler's arrival, many missed the early signs of trouble. On the first day he set foot inside the FIRS offices, he turned up with a full posse of armed policemen and plainclothes bodyguards in dark goggles, with loud sirens for added emphasis. He quickly rejected the official Toyota Camry assigned to him, opting for a more befitting Lexus Jeep.


Things only got worse from there. It became increasingly clear that whatever Fowler's strengths were, tax administration was not one of them.


One key failure of the Fowler administration was the absence of a full governing Board to check some of his excesses. Then again, he was an expert at ignoring and circumventing due process so the presence of a Board may have been much of a muchness. If the lack of a Board was the federal government's fault, the total jettisoning of the regular management meetings was all his work. The management meetings used to hold twice a quarter with other emergency management meetings called when needed.


Fowler simply never held such meetings - at most he would randomly assemble the attendees and inform them of a decision he had made. Directors and other senior staff were kept in line under pain of being sent to different locations of the dreaded Training School - a posting to irrelevance and redundancy which often spelt the end of your career. This generated an incredible amount of bad blood when it became obvious that such postings were often done to make room for a Fowler appointee to take over a unit or department.


Alternatively, Fowler routinely created Units and Directorates to accommodate specific individuals he wanted to bring into the FIRS. In this manner, the 'Research and Development' unit was created to be headed by one Dr. Akinfala, a clear duplication of the already existing Planning, Research and Statistics Department. All that Dr. Akinfala ended up doing was something called a 'Business Environment Scan' report which in reality was just a collation of business news stories from newspapers. The Relationship Management Unit was also created and headed by a certain Mr. Eniola.


Their remit was apparently to provide quick response and special services for specific taxpayers in designated sectors of the economy. Yet this is precisely what local tax offices - where taxpayers accounts are actually domiciled - are set up to do. Then there was the Office of the Special Assistant to the Chairman on ICT. There was already an ICT Department headed by a Director before Fowler's creation of this new office. This Director also wore the hat of acting coordinating director of the FIRS IT modernisation support project. Fowler stripped him of this role and handed practically all his tasks to the new Special Assistant (who had no management experience before being parachuted into FIRS).


Where some useful and needed units were created, the way he staffed them meant they never had the effect they could have had. An Efficiency Unit was created and headed by a Director, Faramade Ogunsanya, who had worked with Fowler during his stint at Lagos Internal Revenue Service (LIRS). This turned out to be an overkill as the Unit did not need to be a full directorate. In the end, Mr. Ogunsanya ended up with a big title and barely any work to do. A Value Added Tax (VAT) Department was created and headed by one Arnold Staff who was quickly replaced by a Fowler acolyte, Mr. Adefeegbe. A lady, Lovette Ononuga, was made Deputy Director of the of the department in charge of Northern Nigeria. She had previously been an analyst at a Mercedes Benz dealership in Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom.


The FIRS under Fowler went on a two-year recruitment spree to the delight of no one but the recruits themselves. Employment was for the most part arbitrary (subject to the mood, whims and good graces of Fowler himself) with hardly any due process followed other than obtaining the endorsement of the Federal Character Commission, who needed little motivation to approve.


Fowler didn't stop employing both Staff and Youth Corp members even when it became clear that the financial and logistic cost to the FIRS was unbearable. The result today is that there are FIRS offices around the country where the staff have no seats, to say nothing of laptops or even work schedules. When Fowler took over the FIRS, the organisation had a staff strength of 7,500.


By the end of his tenure the number was around the 10,000 mark. The FIRS had before Fowler stopped taking on Youth Corpers but he resumed this and today there are around 2,000 of them on the books of the FIRS. While the hiring of Youth Corpers is in itself not a bad thing, Fowler effectively turned them into staff members, and paid them as such, even though he called them 'Tax Volunteers'.


Today the FIRS not only have more staff than it needs, and worse, many of the corpers are being owed their pay. As a result, promotions became scarce with the consequent frustration of staff members. Yet Fowler kept recruiting even up to his penultimate week in office.


Unprofessionalism got so out of hand that Fowler's friends (who were not FIRS staff) had the power to present Memos to him for favour's for their own friends in the FIRS, influence postings, sit in on his official meetings, and summon Directors to instruct them on sundry issues.


Still, not everything about Fowler's tenure was bad. Without a doubt, many staff will miss the endless opportunities for partying. The FIRS have over the past three years become one of the biggest sponsors of comedy shows and concerts in Abuja, the nation's capital. Artistes and comedians from Davido to Chuks the General, all benefitted from the FIRS largesse. The jury remains out on what effect this kind of sponsorship had on tax collection.


As things are, Mohammed Nami - himself a thoroughly unremarkable fellow - will be faced with a mountain to climb in dismantling the administrative mess built by his predecessor. There were wild celebrations in FIRS offices and Whatsapp chat groups when it was confirmed that Fowler would not be returning.


But that Iron Law of Nigeria must never be forgotten...



This post, Fowler's Fouls first appeared in Faye & Fraser Briefing Note on Fri, Dec 20, 2019. To subscribe and follow click here


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