When it comes to tax matters, William Babatunde Fowler ranks high as a tiger that has earned his stripes. And when it has to do with questions about knowledge of tax administration, crafting strategies, and implementing same to get the results and boost the revenue profile? Just give that to him. He consistently has his eyes on the ball. He is a go-getter. The global tax Tzar is adept in non-oil sector revenue growth. Yes, that is his forte.
His career trajectory and accomplishments vividly attest to this. But these are neither stray nor incidental. As if he had an early signal that he would later become a consummate tax administrator and a global citizen in the process, Tunde Fowler, as he is usually addressed, studied in the United States of America at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, where he obtained his first Degree with a Bachelor of Science in Economics and a minor in Political Science. That was in 1978 after early education at Igbobi College in Lagos. He added a second Bachelors’ Degree in Business Administration at California State University, Los Angeles and a Master of Business Administration degree program at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Both were completed in 1981.
With this, Fowler commenced his working career in the United States when he was employed by Avon Products Inc in New York. He moved on thereafter to Johnson and Johnson in New Jersey and later transferred to Johnson and Johnson Nigeria.
The zeal to take on greater challenges further laid him under necessity to make a career change from International Finance and Marketing to Banking. He expectedly had a distinguished banking career that spanned more than 20 years, first with Commercial Bank (Credit Lyonnais Nigeria Limited) and next with Chartered Bank, where he rose to the position of General Manager before resigning in 2004 for another career switch, this time, to the public sector. This followed his appointment as the pioneer Permanent Secretary/Executive Chairman of the Lagos State Internal Revenue Service (LIRS).
Following the bouquet of reforms and other strategic initiatives at the LIRS Fowler led the agency to achieve an increase in internally generated revenue from a monthly average of N3.6 Billion as at January 2006 to an average of N23 Billion as at June 2015. This feat was reckoned as the highest achieved by any State in the country.
He said: “I was the previous Executive Chairman of the LIRS between the years 2005 and 2015. Within that period, we were able to make Lagos State financially independent of the federal allocation. We were able to generate from an average of N3.6 billion per month to an average of about N23 billion per month.”
Were there challenges along the line? Yes. Fowler said: “Certainly, there are always challenges when you come in with a new vision or a new agenda. First, everyone knows that nobody wants to pay tax. So, at the state level, for us to fulfil the potential of the tax revenue, we had to make certain changes. We had to get everybody on board, and I did receive a lot of support from His Excellency, Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Governor Babatunde Fashola. I also had the support of the Royal Fathers and different interest groups, including the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN).
“Basically, we had to educate the tax paying public on why they should pay tax, how they should go about paying taxes. We did use a lot of technology to make it more convenient, more transparent. Based on that, we were able to grow tax revenue. We also had to train our staff to know and appreciate that tax administration is a service. You may have the law behind you, but you got to treat the taxpayers with respect. You got to be patient with taxpayers.”
He added: “I think during that period, the organised private sector made up of companies with formal operations-multinationals and others-we were able to achieve a tax compliance rate of about 99 per cent with that sector.
We did introduce initially, awards for 100 per cent compliance, meaning that the companies that won such awards paid their taxes 100 per cent as at when due. Initially, we thought we should have the number under 5 but we had to limit the number of companies that were to receive the awards to 10 because we saw increasingly year by year that taxpayers at the corporate and individual levels were being more compliant. They also showed appreciation to the government for what the tax revenues were being used for.
I think during that period we had over 75 per cent of all expenditure by Lagos state government from tax revenue, while the balance came from federal allocation. So, what we were generating at the state level were sometimes two and a half times or three times what we got from the federal allocation.”
His glittering performances over the years, especially as Executive Chairman of LIRS did not go unnoticed. In recognition of this, he was moved to the next level on august 18, 2015, with his appointment as Executive Chairman, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and Chairman, Joint Tax Board, by His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR, to drive the change agenda of the administration in the tax sector.
Through his leadership and insight as the Executive Chairman, it was not long before the FIRS saw encouraging results with an increase of more than 800,000 new registered (corporate) taxpayers. That is not all. As Chairman of the Joint Tax Board, the seasoned tax administrator also evolved templates that widened the tax net and ballooned the figure of taxpayers in the States of the federation by 10,000,000 from 10,000,000 to 20,000,000 in 24 months.
Fowler told Pleasures Magazine: “After that service at the LIRS, I was appointed by the President to become the Executive Chairman of the Federal Inland revenue Service (FIRS) from 2015 to 2019. Within that period, although the country was in a recession, we had for two years the record of the highest revenue generated by a federal agency of about N5.32 trillion in 2018 and N5.269trillion in 2019. During that time, I was also the chairman of the Joint Tax Board and I was able to change the tax base from over 10 million to over 20 million within the four-year period. We did have a number of initiatives.”
Mr. Fowler is ICT savvy. In addition to many other fresh initiatives, therefore, he is known to have introduced and deployed several ICT-driven wits to revolutionize tax administration in Nigeria and serving to ease taxpayers’ compliance. The Integrated Tax Administration System (enables on-line filing of tax returns), VAT-Collect system which enables automation of collection and remittance to government coffers of VAT due from Airlines, e-Stamp Duty (on-line stamping of documents and stamp duty payments), e-Tax receipt (enables instantaneous issuance of receipts for taxes paid), e-Tax Clearance Certificate system (on-line issuance and verification of TCC), among others, are striking examples. These initiatives assisted in moving Nigeria’s position up by the World Bank in the ease of doing business, especially in tax administration, by 24 placements.
Said he: “At the federal level, we were also able to deploy a lot of technology. We had what we called the easy steps to paying taxes, and we were able to have anybody or any corporation pay their taxes online anywhere in the world 24/7, and download their receipts. The moment tax is paid you download your receipt. You do not have to wait for the tax office or officials. In short, they could perform all their tax responsibilities from the comfort of their homes or offices. I think that has improved the level of transparency. And to ensure that we were able to monitor further the tax data base of both individuals and corporate organisations, we also launched what we called the consolidated data base, which was launched by the Vice President. With that tax administration even at the state level, data base could be accessed to know if an individual was tax compliant, and if need be, for the corporate organisations, you could also find information on them.”
Although Nigeria experienced dire economic situation in 2016, Mr. Fowler’s dexterous touches proved the soothing balm when he succeeded in mobilizing the FIRS work force to achieve a collection of taxes to the tune of N3.3 trillion in that year. This was followed by N4.03 trillion in 2017 and the highest collection in FIRS history – N5.32 trillion in 2018 (taxes collectible at the Federal level only) and N5.26 trillion in 2019 making both year collections the highest 2 revenue collections in Nigeria. And the distinctiveness of this feat? The non-oil tax revenue contributed about 60 per cent of total revenue collected.
Ordinarily, productivity attracts reward. It is, therefore, not surprising that, Mr. Fowler’s colleagues (Heads of Revenue Authorities) from across Africa, voted overwhelmingly at the 4th ATAF General Assembly in Durban, South Africa in October 2016, to elect him as the Chairman of the African Tax Administration Forum in recognition of his exemplary performance as a Tax Administrator. He is the first Nigerian to lead this Africa’s foremost Tax body comprising Revenue Authorities from 38 African countries. In 2018, he was further rewarded when he was re-elected unopposed as Chairman ATAF for another two-year tenure.
“During that period, I was also the Chairman of ATAF, which is the African Tax Administration Forum that basically comprises 38 revenue agencies across Africa. I was also elected unopposed for the second time. So, I was a two-term chairman of ATAF,” he said.
Spurred by his commitment and performance in tax administration, the Secretary-General of the United Nations appointed him as one of the 25 members of the International Experts Committee on Tax Matters on August 10, 2017. His illustrious performance and qualities endeared him again to his colleagues in the global body to elect him as the 1st Vice Chairman of the International Tax Experts Committee on the October 17, 2017 by his colleagues in the committee.
The tax expert further stated: “During the period at FIRS, the Secretary General of UN appointed me as one of the 25 tax experts in the world in the tax committee of the UN where I presently serve as the vice chairman of the tax committee.
There are 25 of us in the UN Committee of tax experts across the world from different countries. Our mandate is to improve taxation worldwide. We are not expected just to speak on behalf of our individual countries. We do not represent our countries. We represent the UN as tax experts. That is what they call us. We try and come up with global solutions to tax administration both in developing and developed countries.
“We do have sub-Committees within the Committee. So, I am also the coordinator on taxing the digital economy. We hope to be able to come up with global solution approved by April 2021. Once that is approved, it will be the first of its kind, which will ensure that activities in the digital economy will be taxed, and we believe that a lot of developed and developing economies will benefit from that revenue.”
Nigerians in Diaspora willing to move back home have nothing to worry about double taxation. Mr Fowler says there are laws and treaties that govern tax payments, especially among countries with tax treaties. “We don’t expect individuals and corporates to pay tax in two places. I will give you a typical example. In the UK, if you reside there and pay your tax there, and you come to Nigeria for some business, or you want to build a property, and you are able to provide evidence that you have paid your tax there, you do not have to pay taxes in Lagos. There are laws that ensure that individuals like corporate organisations are not taxed in two places at the same time.”
On the FIRS and how the new tax focus on the digital economy would work he said: “The main focus of FIRS is corporate taxation. But as the chairman of the Joint Tax Board, which includes state internal revenue services, we try to educate all individuals on how to pay tax. Basically, if you have a smart phone, you can easily access the tax internet and through that be able to pay your taxes. But when we refer to taxing the digital economy, we are talking about people who have transactions online, in buying things from Amazon and the like, and people who are also selling things online.
You find out that because its is online purchase or sale there is no provision for taxes. I will give you atypical example. If you ordered an air conditioner online, it could be delivered to your house without you paying taxes. But if you go to a shop to pay for the same item, you are charged 7.5 % tax (VAT) in Nigeria. So, you see that the country is losing tax revenue. What this solution would do is that all transactions that are digital would be taxed accordingly.”
And the younger generation? He said: “For the younger generation that expects the government to provide security, infrastructure, jobs, Nigeria would be a place where people will stay and have their holiday instead of going to Dubai, New York, Cape Town, if the government has all the resources. People go to those places because they have reformed their taxes and the government has adequate resources to provide what you and I want, and I think the younger people should not feel that sometimes because the have to sink boreholes to provide water, generators to have adequate power, they do not have to pay taxes. They have to support the government by paying taxes so that the government will have the ability to those infrastructure and services that they desire. So, young people should get into the tax net.”
Mr. Fowler is a recipient of several awards and recognitions, including Honorary Senior Member of the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (CIBN) and a Fellowship ‘Honoris Causa’ by the Certified Board of Administrators of Nigeria. He is a Fellow of both the Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria (CITN) and the Chartered Institute of Taxation of Ghana. He also holds a Fellowship of the Business Management Association of the United Kingdom.
Dr Babatunde Fowler was born to the family of Professor (Dr) and Chief (Mrs) W.V. Fowler of Lagos State. He attended Igbobi College in Lagos before proceeding to the United States of America for further studies.