Joels: Nigeria Requires Comprehensive Tax Reform

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Eben Joels

Lead Partner, Stransact Partners and Stransact LLP, Eben Joels has been a constant feature in Nigeria’s professional financial services space since 2009. In this interview, he speaks about his career trajectory and how the coronavirus has affected Nigeria’s economy. Adedayo Adejobi brings the excerpts:

With the crash in the price of crude oil, Nigeria’s growing population and the current pandemic, what do you think should be the focus of the federal government?

There is a common adage that the wise will never let a crisis go to waste. We already have many crises. Before coronavirus, the unprecedented level of uncontrolled violence in Nigeria – armed herders, armed robbers, kidnappers, politicians, police, and area boys, etc. Everyone unleashes violence on the harmless, and we all go about our lives as if this is normal. There is no country in the world that has the level of violence that we have in Nigeria unless those ravaged by ongoing wars. The coronavirus is just another crisis among several crises that the average Nigerian lives with. And if you are asking me for solutions, what use will anything I say be? There is a common truth that there can be no active learning where either the teacher or the student is not willing. If we believe Fela Anikulapo that government is the teacher, it is clear that they are not ready to play their part. Sometimes, it looks as if there is no government. There can be no development where those at the helm of affairs see their role as a lucrative job- that requires spoiling their offices. We can only develop if those going into government have a mindset of service and value they will add to the office. This is the time for those who mean well for Nigeria (not those who seek to enjoy the spoils and prestige of office), to come together and agree on a comprehensive vision for the country we all want to see in a few years. Humans have proved that prosperity is not contingent on natural resources. The greatest resource required to create wealth is right-thinking people. Luxemburg, Switzerland, Norway, these countries were not always wealthy. At a time, they were very poor too. But it took some good governance and the right strategy and not even the latter discovery of natural resources to turn them around. Japan and South Korea are some of the richest in the world today. These nations got rich by developing their people to provide services and manufacture for the rest of the world. Nigeria should have a proper service economy. That is the future. But the bedrock of a proper service economy is wage and hour reforms. We need to respect and install a proper national minimum wage that includes the housemaid.

Do you think Nigeria’s emphasis on increasing taxes, as we have seen in the last few years, is a viable strategy?

I always try to avoid discussing tax administration and strategy in Nigeria. No matter what you say, there are small minds that will think you are posturing for a job. When we stuck our neck out to say that Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) consultants have no right to look into the books of taxpayers, everyone treated us like a pariah. Today, the new FIRS chair is singing the same song. We have always believed that the better strategy is to expand the tax net to bring in more taxpayers. You will be shocked to find out that apart from civil servants and members of the organised private sector, the word “tax” is alien to many Nigerians, especially many politicians. I believe very strongly that we should have a more comprehensive tax reform that allows every individual to render some accounting to the federal government every year. The current model where individuals pay all their taxes to states and only incorporated business pay to the federal government is part of the reason why we do not hold the government at the center accountable the way we should. Yes, increasing taxes is not the ideal. We can bring in more people to pay taxes. We can restructure taxes. We can have a proper inheritance tax to stop those who stole money from passing all of the stolen money to the next generation. There are many things we can do.

Can you share the experience of how you are settling into the life of entrepreneurship in America and giving leadership to Nigeria operations?

First, I do not think I have left Nigeria. I grew up here and have lived all my life in Nigeria until I left for law school four years ago. I had no exit plan because I was not planning an exit. However, I knew from talking to certain elders that it was in my interest to keep a low profile, and that was why I left for law school- to avoid screaming at the deaf. I will only get more frustrated and put me in more danger. In the last two years, we have incorporated Stransact LLP as a Certified Public Accounting firm in New Hampshire. The firm focuses on helping African companies set up and succeed in the United States, which is still the world’s largest economy. We also now have Joels Law Office as a secondary practice, and we provide comprehensive one-stop tax, legal, accounting, and business solutions. Yomi Salawu leads our practice in Nigeria. I continue to assist our clients as best as I can. Technology has made the world a small place.

Before you left Nigeria, your company was known specifically for training tax managers and training on financial reporting. You also organise conferences and seminars in Ghana, UK and across the world. Do you still do that?

Those who knew me from my university days know that I particularly enjoy organising seminars, conferences, and professional events. I still do this. We are currently working on our vehicle, Knowledge Company LLC, to provide knowledge brokerage services for emerging companies. We are conveniently located in the greater Boston area to channel evolving thoughts on business problems from Harvard and MIT- two of America’s premium learning institutions. We think, as Africans, we are better able to tailor foreign ideas and solutions for the continent. We are planning on a Nigerian subsidiary for this business, and our focus will be on sourcing and polishing talents for businesses.

Lastly, let us talk about Stransact, Nigeria. How do you plan to remain competitive in the near future considering the number of big four firm alumni that have similar practices?

We are actively working on becoming a member firm of an international network that is devoted to the middle market. We believe that this gives our clients access to superior resources that can create a business advantage. We are currently part of the TIAG/TAG alliance of global firms, but full membership of a network, especially one that is a market leader in technology, is the right tonic that we can use to spur the middle market in Nigeria at this time.