• As allegations of fraud mount

By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU

In ‘Les Miserables’, Victor Hugo’s timeless classic of power in the Napoleonic era, the astute writer pens, “If you come to power through political compromise, you will leave power when the need for that compromise no longer exists.”

The above maxim captures the Fowler controversy, at least in the popular imagination, and in the learned salons across the country, where intelligentsia relax to indulge themselves in issues pertaining to the country’s power calculus and its complex ,even if abstruse arithmetic where 2+2 may not amount to 4.

It is in this world of abracadabra arithmetic that Tunde Fowler, 63, the former Federal Inland Revenue Service’s chairman found himself for four years, first as beneficiary and later as victim and loser.

Reasons why Buhari fired Fowler, as FIRS boss

Fowler had been ‘living on borrowed time’ for a while. Informed sources say that when Buhari initially refused to extend his tenure as the nation’s chief tax administrator two weeks ago, he was merely acting a well choreographed script meant to create suspense, anxiety and fear in the constituency of his backer and godfather.

While the dilemma lasted, it was evident that Tunde Fowler had feverishly desired a second term in office, but Buhari would have none of it.

On Monday, December 9, 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari made it clear he wouldn’t be handing Fowler a fresh term in office as Executive Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS).

Fowler, had been appointed to oversee affairs at the tax office by Buhari on December 9, 2015, after confirmation by the senate.

A seasoned tax administrator who rose through the ranks at the Lagos State Internal Revenue Service (LIRS) from 2005 to 2013, Fowler is credited with boosting the tax office revenue of Lagos, from one that generated N3.6 billion a month in 2006 to one that would average over N20.5 billion per month in 2014.

The tenure of the executive chairman of the FIRS can be renewed by the presidency, but President Buhari has since named Muhammad Nami as Fowler’s replacement, even after Fowler begged for a second stint on the saddle.

“President Muhammadu Buhari has approved the composition of a new board for the Federal Inland Revenue Service, FIRS, subject to senate confirmation.

“The president nominated a renowned tax consultant, Muhammad M. Nami as the new chairman.

“The board is composed of a member representing each of the six geographical zones and statutory representatives from a select number of ministries and government agencies.

“Chairman of FIRS, Babatunde Fowler, whose term of office expired on Monday, 9th December, 2019 is expected to hand over to the most senior director on the board, who will take charge, pending the senate confirmation of the new board,” the presidency announced in a statement signed by Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu.

 

The Tinubu connection

Fowler arrived the nation’s tax office with plenty of goodwill and a track record of taking tax revenues in Lagos to a record high.

Sources say Fowler was a childhood friend and a former classmate of Nigeria’s Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo.

Fowler was also said to have been handpicked by APC godfather, Bola Ahmed Tinubu to head the FIRS and was seen by the inner circles around Buhari   as ‘Tinubu’s boy’, who should not be given a second term the way Godwin Emefiele, Central Bank governor was favoured by the cabal around the president.

By firing him–in a manner of speaking — President Buhari is making a statement of some sort to the Southwest base of his party which Tinubu controls. “What that means may have some ramifications for political realignments come 2023″, says Professor David Anjorin, a political scientist , who spoke with this newspaper on the matter.

Shortfall in revenues

However, Fowler’s sack had been imminent for a while. On August 8, 2019, President Buhari queried Fowler for worsening tax revenues since 2015.

In the query signed by Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari, Buhari told Fowler: “Accordingly, you are kindly invited to submit a comprehensive variance analysis explaining the reasons for the variances between the budgeted collections and actual collections for each main tax item for each of the years 2015 to 2018.”

According to a report, “In 2015, FIRS set N4.7 trillion target but was only able to make N3.7 trillion in the actual collection. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the target collections were N4.2 trillion, N4.8 trillion and N6.7 trillion but the actual collections were N3.3 trillion, N4.0 trillion and N5.3 trillion, respectively.”

In his October 1, 2019 Independence Day address, and without mentioning him by name, Buhari warned Fowler that he’s got to sit up.

President Muhammadu Buhari didn’t really fancy Fowler, hard as he tried, and this as much could be gleaned from the following:

“Our revenue-generating and reporting agencies will come under much greater scrutiny, going forward, as the new performance management framework will reward exceptional revenue performance, while severe consequences will attend failures to achieve agreed revenue targets,” Buhari said.

Many commentators spoken to by this newspaper say it was a paragraph that should have signaled to Fowler that his tenure was never going to be renewed on Buhari’s watch, hard as he tried.

Corruption allegations

Knowledgeable sources who spoke to Business Hallmark on condition of anonymity accuse Fowler of a lavish lifestyle, bankrolling extravagant parties and concerts in Lagos, poor corporate governance structures at the FIRS, poor audits at the FIRS, high handedness in office, diversion of funds, brazen corruption and awarding contracts to stooges and cronies.

This newspaper has been unable to reach Fowler for a response to some of these allegations, with calls placed to his smartphone returning unanswered, before this story was published.

While handing over to the Coordinating Director, Domestic Taxes Group, Abiodun Aina, Fowler did admit that he was a difficult, if unpleasant boss to work with.

“For people who have known me for a while, some of them refer to me as a shark. I like to keep people on their toes. Some of you might have thought that I don’t appreciate your contribution. But some of you… might have been able to do things better. And part of my role is to bring out that potential in you. And I hope I have been able to do that. I am content.

“Some of you might have thought that I don’t like you. But I assure you it was work. But I believe in this room, we have got a lot of talent regardless of what happens, keep the flag flying,” Fowler said during his valedictory address.

 

Fraud touching friends

In April, there were reports that nine FIRS officials were in the custody of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for “alleged multi-billion naira fraud.”

The report had read in parts: “It is still unclear to EFCC officials, whether or not Mr. Fowler is involved in the scandal. The report actually said there was no evidence of the involvement of the FIRS chief.

Fowler begged for another term

Fowler did make a last ditch case for a second term in office in a letter addressed to Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha.

The letter reads in part: “I wish to present myself for reappointment for a second term. This is consistent with the provisions of the FIRS Establishment Act 2007 and would grant me the opportunity to consolidate and build on the achievements we have recorded in the past four years.

“Please find attached the highlights of my achievements during my first tenure in office.

“I would like to put on record my gratitude to Mr. President for the opportunity to serve the nation. I am also thankful for your support in the course of the discharge of my duties. Please accept as always, the assurance of my highest regards.”

The letter was dated December 9, 2019–the same day President Buhari pulled the rug from under Fowler’s feet by announcing Nami as his replacement

Fowler Might Be Heading To Jail For Misappropriating N40 Billion

According to reports, the former FIRS boss in spite of his removal may go to jail, especially if political differences over the 2023 succession to Buhari widen between the presidency and Fowler’s godfather in Lagos. Fowler is in trouble over alleged misappropriation of 40 billion naira released to his bosom friend and the Vice President Pastor Yemi Osibanjo which was used as political campaign fund during the 2019 election and the money allegedly came from FIRS’s account.

While Mr. Fowler is said to be caught in the web of the said fund, top officials in the Presidency are said to be angry and unsatisfied with the explanations on how the fund was ‘shared,’ vowing to punish other collaborators, including a powerful figure within the same presidency who is Osibanjo. .

Also connected to the N40 billion sharing bazaar was an influential and powerful political gladiator in the Southwest, Bola Ahmed Tinubu who was said to have received a ‘paltry’ sum of N3 billion, which is less than 10 percent of the ‘campaign fund.’

Recall that some top management staff of FIRS were earlier arrested and interrogated on corruption allegations by EFCC.

arlier, at the expiration of his tenure and shortly before his sack, a lawyer, Barrister Okwara had taken Fowler to court as per the illegality of his continued stay as FIRS boss. Justice Lewis Allagoa of the Federal High Court Kano, late October struck out a plea that the Chairman, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Tunde Fowler, be asked to vacate his office on account of claims that his tenure has expired.

Mr. Allagoa made the order in Kano following a request by Johnmarry Jideobi, counsel to the plaintiff, Stanley Okwara. Mr. Fowler’s lawyer, Paul Erokoro (SAN), who was supported by FIRS Director of Legal Services, Ike Odume; and counsel to the Attorney General of the Federation (the second defendant in the suit), T. A. Ghazalli, in a preliminary objection, asked the court judge to strike out Okwara’s suit

Citing copious legal authorities, Messrs Erokoro and Ghazalli told the court that Mr. Okwara has no locus standi to file the suit and that it should be struck out as the court has no jurisdiction to entertain it.

The appropriate court to entertain the suit, argued the defendants’ lawyers, is the National Industrial Court. They submitted that Mr. Okwara is wasting the time of the Federal High Court by filing the suit before it.

But Mr. Okwara maintained that as a legal practitioner, he has the right to file the suit and he has a duty under the Legal Privileges Act to uphold the rule of law.

Mr. Okwara, an Abuja-based lawyer, in the suit (No FHC/KN/CS/141/2019), had asked a Federal High Court sitting in Kano to order Mr. Fowler to vacate his office, which he claimed expired on August 18, 2019.

The plaintiff had claimed that Mr. Fowler was appointed on August 20, 2015, arguing that his tenure as FIRS Chairman lapsed after the 20th August, 2019.

He cited Sections 3(2) (a), Section 4(a) and Section 11

(a)” of the FIRS Establishment Act 2007 and the decision of the Supreme Court in Ogbuinyinya & Ors. vs. Obi Okudo & Ors. (1979) All N.L.R. 105, Okwara, which he said made Fowler’s continued stay in office illegal unless he is reappointed by President Muhammadu Buhari. He also asked the court to order Fowler to return to the Treasury Single Account (TSA) all salaries. Emoluments and other monetary benefits he has enjoyed since the perceived cessation of his tenure.