By AYOOLA OLAOLUWA
Nigerians have regained their voices and these days they want to be heard. The hitherto timid agitators, comprising the common masses, politicians, rights activists, ethnic leaders, secessionists as well as restructuring advocates, have taken to public squares, courts of law and houses of assembly in their respective states to hear their grievances and demand for their rights.
All thanks to a new political hero, the fiery and indomitable governor of Rivers State and the true lion of Niger Delta, Nyesom Wike, who has unwittingly sparked a revolution for true federalism in Nigeria with his recent legal victories against the Federal Government of Nigeria.
Not one to run away from battles, Governor Wike had dragged the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) before a Federal High Court in Port Harcourt demanding that the power to collect VAT should be conferred on the state and not FIRS.
In his ruling, the presiding judge, Justice Stephen Pam, held that the Rivers State government and the other 35 states had the powers to collect VAT within their territories.
While the VAT controversy rages, the 36 states of the federation, apparently buoyed by Wike’s victorious, have also sued the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, AbubakarMalami (SAN), over alleged failure by the federal government to remit funds generated from stamp duties into the accounts of states.
A realist, Wike knew quite well that the battle is far from over and that the wounded Federal Government and its agents would soon regroup and launch a counter attack. He quickly sponsored an executive bill on VAT collection in the Rivers State House of Assembly to cement his victory.
Barely an hour after the Rivers assembly passed and transmitted the bill to him, Wike signed it into law. Speaking at the ceremony, the governor said that the judgment had addressed the illegality perpetrated by the Federal Government in the collection of VAT in states.
According to the governor, states are deliberately strangulated and turned to beggars with the take over and collection of taxes meant for them by federal agencies.
But we are standing on the part of history as representatives of the state to have taken the bull by the horns to challenge the illegality of the Federal Government through the Federal Inland Revenue Services.
We are all aware that states have already been strangulated. Most states depend on allocation from federation account. States have been turned to beggars.
Hardly will any day pass that you wont see one state or the other going to Abuja to beg for one fund or the other”, Wike had lamented.
As expected, the onslaught from the federal government soon began. FIRS first warned all individuals and companies paying consumption taxes in Rivers to continue to pay their taxes to the agency while explaining that it had appealed and also applied for a stay of execution of the judgment that ceded the power to collect VAT to states.
Yet again, Wike floored the Federal Government in the court as Justice Pam rejected FIRS motion for a stay of execution, arguing that granting the order would negate the principle of equity.
The governor, while speaking at a stakeholders meeting, ordered companies based in the state to start paying their VAT to the state government beginning this September.
Lamenting the injustice in the country, Wike disclosed that Lagos generated N46.4billion VAT revenue in June 2021 but received only N9.3billion from government, Rivers N15billion, but got N4.7billion in return, while Kano generated N2.8billion in the same month and got the same N2.8billion back.
“Sometimes, you dont want to believe these things exist. I am not challenging the FIRS from collecting VAT in Abuja. Let it be understood. The law says Rivers must collect VAT in the state.
“The Federal Government surreptitiously lobbied to amend the constitution to place VAT collection in the exclusive legislative list.We have challenged it and we have no apologies to anybody. I dont want to be in the good books of anybody, but in the good books of God.
“You don’t bully a state like us. The FIRS should be very careful. I have the political will to do a lot of things. If they continue to bully us, I will take over all their offices in the state.
“From this September, we must collect all our VAT. All the banks playing pranks by saying they have not heard from their head offices, I will seal off your branches. If I say I will, know that I will”, the governor warned.
Wike”s crusades have heightened awareness among many. It has also spurred calls and actions for change. Many Nigerians, particularly those from the Southern part of the country who desire a change have raised questions on how the nations wealth and offices are currently being shared and whether the South should continue to subsidise the North.
Emboldened by Wike’s successes in courts, many of his docile colleague-governors have suddenly woken from their slumber and are poised for war in an attempt to be free from the stifling control of the Federal Government.
Some states like Lagos, Akwa Ibom and Delta have since followed the footsteps of Rivers. For instance, Lagos State Governor, BabajideSanwo-Olu, at the weekend signed into law the Value Added Tax Bill that confers the power to collect VAT in Lagos on the state government.
The Speaker of the Lagos State House of Assembly, Mudashiru Obasa, had last Thursday directed the acting Clerk of the House, OlalekanOnafeko, to transmit a clean copy of the bill to Governor Sanwo-Olu for assent.
Not yet done, the Lagos State Government on Friday applied to the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division, to be joined as a co-respondent in the appeal filed by FIRS challenging the judgment of the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt ceding the power to collect VAT to states.
The appeal court had slated the application filed by FIRS seeking for stay of execution of the trial courts judgment for Friday, but the Attorney General of Lagos State, Moyosore Onigbanjo (SAN), informed the court of their application for the Lagos Government to be joined as a party in the appeal.
Onigbanjo argued that the application for joinder should be taken first before FIRS’ application for stay of execution.
However, the application was opposed by the counsel for FIRS, Mahmoud Magaji (SAN), who argued that their application for stay of execution should take precedence over the application for joinder. He prayed the court to restrict itself to the business of the day.
Regardless, after listening to submissions from all the parties, including that of Rivers led by the state’s Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Zacchaeus Adangor and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), E. C. Nkala (SAN) and the counsel to the Attorney General of the Federation, Tijjani Gazali (SAN), the court ordered all parties to refrain from taking any step regarding the FHC judgment pending the determination of the application on stay of execution filed by FIRS.
Meanwhile, the states, represented by their attorneys-general, said in the suit that they are the sole authorities to collect stamp duties and not the Federal Government.
In the suit marked SC/CV/690/2021 filed before the Supreme Court, the attorneys-general asked the court to determine whether or not the states are not the sole authorities to administer and collect stamp duties on all transactions involving individuals/persons within their respective states and whether the defendant (Malami) could claim, retain, distribute or in any other manner deal with the monies or sums collected as stamp duties on individual persons transactions within the respective states of the plaintiffs without reference to the concurrence, input or agreement of the plaintiffs.
The states also want the court to issue an order directing Malami to account for and pay back all money collected by way of stamp duties on individual persons transactions within the respective states of the plaintiffs, from the period 2015-2020 and thereafter till the time of the judgment.
Wikes’ sucesses and rise to national prominence has left his admirers and most ardent critics grudgingly envious.
“It is restructuring and I support it 100%. We’ve been shouting and crying for this lopsided federalism to be made equitable. Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable,” said human rights lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN).
“Its a good beginning. Enough of feeding-bottle federalism and Abuja financial pilgrimage!
“I commend Governor Wike who started this revolution. I also commend Governor Sanwoolu, my LBS and Hon. AG Onigbanjo and the Lagos House of Assembly. Other laws should follow.”
Also, the leader of pan Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, commended the Rivers State governor for initiating the legal process and called on other states to step up actions that will liberate them from the stronghold of the federal government that has turned Nigeria into a unitary state.
“They should be assured of Afenifere’s support as they give vent to power devolution and entrenchment of true federalism in Nigeria.
“Areas in which the states need to assert themselves include agriculture, health, education, electricity, physical planning, title registration, registration and production of vehicle number plates and casino licensing etc. as Lagos State Government did in the past”, the Afenifere chieftain advised.
The President, Rivers Entrepreneurs and Investors Forum, Ibifuro Bob-Manuel and Chairman, Rivers State Civil Society Organisation, Enefa George will, also commended the governor, while promising him their full support.
Bob-Manuel argued that states would begin to treat businesses with a lot of respect when the governors realise that VAT would be paid directly to them
George will on his part lauded Wike for the courage to fight a cause, which he said was in order, adding that the present situation meant more revenue for the state.
Wike’s courage and audacity is what the Niger Delta, nay, Nigeria needs to move to the next level, says former member, House of Representatives, Hon. TundeLakoju. He motivates the youth and shows the older generation why they must wake up from their sleep, Lakoju noted.
Of course, this would not be the first time Wike would be playing such central roles in the polity. Indeed he has become an avatar, a powerful catalyst whose views, alliances and interests largely determine the flow of events both within the PDP and nationally.
He has stood up to the President Muhammadu Buhari-led APC administration on several occasions, criticising when necessary and commending when appropriate. In the process, he has emerged almost effortlessly, as one of the most powerful Nigerians.
Despite the array of strong contenders like Chief Bode George; Prof.TundeAdeniran; former governors, Gbenga Daniel and Rasheed Ladoja, as well as media mogul, Chief Dokpesi, among others angling for the chairmanship position of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Wike had in December 2017, almost single-handedly installed the embattled Uche Secondus chairman of the party.
It was the first major sign that a new power broker had been born.Four years after he served as installer, Wike turned to Secondus most ardent critic and nemesis. Courtesy of the Rivers governor, the tenure of Secondus as the national chairman of the PDP is as good as over.
Also, it is largely courtesy of him that the opposition party is witnessing a rebirth and is poised to challenge the APC headlong in the 2023 general elections.
But the question which many people are pondering is, how did this man who was a just local government chairman not too long ago become so powerful and influential? How did he become, in the words of one commentator, the governor other governors are talking about?
For Chief Rufus Jolaosho, a PDP chieftain, Wike’s emergence as a major player in the nations political landscape should not be a surprise to anybody given that he emerged from a political clan soaked in political intrigue, combat and ambition.
The conventional wisdom among the crowd in the various centres of power in the country today is that Wike holds the key to a possible PDP victory in the 2023 presidential elections.
Kolade Ajao, a political commentator captures it rather vividly, “its obvious that he is central to the future of the PDP. What he does, how he does it, who he supports and who he does not support… will all go a long way to determining the future of the party and outcome of the elections!”
The Rivers governor has faced many battles. But in those, he has fought like a true lion. He battled to win the Rivers State governorship election in 2015, ahead of his APC challenger, Dakuku Peterside, then backed by his predecessor, now Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi, and has since continued to grow from strength to strength. It bears repeating that he is arguably the strongest political force within the ranks of the countrys main political party.
The Wike mystique is as complex as the explanation of how water slides into the husky tomb of a coconut shell. It embodies brilliance, guile, shrewdness and, as some have claimed, ruthlessness.
“Wike is a principled and courageous man with a load of dexterity,” noted former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Austin Opara. A reliable ally and that is Nyesom Wike.
The sixth civilian governor of Rivers has all these attributes and more. He has achieved so much, so fast that his peers look like Lilliputians described in Daniel Defoes famous allegorical fantasy, Gullivers Travels. But what else would one expect from an ardent student of the famous Peter Odili clan?
His ebullient demeanour gives an insight into the enormous political strength he carries and reflects his true capacity to move issues along lines that suit his interest. It is an effective tool he has repeatedly used to the eternal regret of his political rivals.
“Gov Wike is a courageous man with a very large heart. He has added immense value to Rivers State, the PDP and Nigeria,” noted former governor of Imo State, Hon. Emeka Ihedioha.
Wike is in fact an astute political strategist. As a result of his ever bellicose reputation, many unsuspecting political adversaries had, to their own peril, seen him as unstable and one to be ignored. However, many who have ignored him have done so at huge political costs.
An adept and ruthless student of politics, his emergence on the national platform was not without its challenges. It took a lot of patience and skill for the former Obio Akpor local government chairman to survive intrigues weaved against him by forces in both his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the ruling APC.
A student of power, he learnt the ropes well from Odilli and Amaechi who dominated Rivers politics for more than 16 years and rose through the ranks from the grassroots, becoming Chairman of his Obio/Akpor LGA in 1999, deputy president and later president of Association of Local Governments of Nigeria, whose link to the Commonwealth Local Government Forum allowed him to gain exposure beyond Rivers State.
From that moment on, it was clear that he would aim for more. It came as no surprise when Amaechi as governor in 2007, appointed him his chief of staff for four years. He went on to become the director-general of Amaechis campaign for the second term.
From there, he became a minister in 2013 and used the position to cement a good relationship with the then President Goodluck Jonathan, as well as building a formidable grassroots support for his governorship ambition.
In 2015, he achieved his ambition of becoming Rivers governor despite stiff opposition from his former principal, Amaechi. Since then, he has never looked back.