Onwunali: I Regret Emeke Ihedioha’s Sack

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A former Executive Chairman of Imo Internal Revenue Service (IIRS), Mr. Charles Onwunali, spoke to Amby Uneze about how the Supreme Court judgment had stalled crucial development projects in Imo State under the sacked Governor Emeka Ihedioha’s administration. Excerpts:

INTERVIEW

You were a banker, local government chairman and executive chairman of Imo State Internal Revenue Service, how did you get to those heights?
It’ll be foolhardy for any reasonable person to arrogate any modest achievements or attainments made by him to state of preparedness or his intrinsic qualities to the exclusion of the role of providence.

I went through National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) programme from September 1985 to July 1986 after which I sought and secured employment in the banking industry despite the contractionary effect on employment in the country of the economic stabilization measures in place at the period, occasioned by the General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida foisted Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP).

I survived the high staff turnover rate of the banking industry of that era (1980s to about 2000) that was characterised by poor capitalisation and still held out strongly to 2008, for a cumulative period of over 21 years. That, indeed, was significant. I had the desire to serve my state in whatever capacity possible that could avail me the opportunity to showcase service and character and leave legacy, after I had quit the banking industry.

Resolute to learn the ropes of nuances of politics, I set out to consult with all notable political chieftains in my Local Government Area. Consequently, I aspired and successfully too, to be the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) flag-bearer and eventually contested the general Local Government Council election that held in 2010. I emerged eventually as the Executive Chairman of Aboh Mbaise LGA.

The tenure was short-lived but as daunting as my experiences were then, I wasn’t deterred. I remained tenacious as a faithful party member for the 8 years PDP was in opposition in the state. It is, perhaps, the show of character and consistency coupled with background in finance that might have helped my appointment by His Excellency, Rt. Hon Chukwuemeka Ihedioha as the Executive Chairman of the State Internal Revenue Service.

Your last appointment was brief, but what were the imprints you consider novel at IIRS?
On assumption of office as the Executive chairman on 8th July, 2019, I met a nascent Revenue law No. 23 of the state, which needed to be interpreted to guide studied implementation of processes and procedures that would firmly establish the independence or autonomy of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from the Ministry of Finance, essentially from the civil service structure as was envisioned by the enactors of the law.

The Rebuild Imo administration of HE Chukwuemeka Ihedioha was in a hurry to deliver phenomenal democracy dividends (benefits) to the Imo populace hence there was no time to waste. Having to successfully effect name change from Imo Board of Internal Revenue (IBIR) to Imo Internal Revenue Service IIRS was reflective of the shift in orientation from the Public Sector bureaucracy to private sector best-known practices to boost efficiency.

Second, automating the gamut of revenue generation processes from data collection, processing, assessment, Demand Notice, collection and Compliance through an Integrated Tax Management System (ITMS) with full automation – the Central Billing System – was such a remarkable milestone. The name change was critical to underscore the importance of attitudinal change and orientation in the way business need to be conducted henceforth.

The bottlenecks experienced in revenue generation in the state were largely traceable to structural rigidity or inflexibility, which inevitably compromised efficiency. I had to take the bull by the horns to steadily implement necessary steps towards autonomy of operations of the State Internal Revenue Service away from the hitherto public service structure. The Pay direct platform is not an alternative to integrated revenue management system and cannot possibly vitiate the later in any state that is serious about harnessing her revenue potentials optimally.

From BIR to IIRS, what did the change in name portend?
The name change was inevitable, as I had earlier said to align with the imperatives of the autonomy granted by the nascent revenue administration law No. 23 of 2019, being implemented. The objective of the autonomy is to foster efficiency in the way and manner the business of revenue generation and collection are being handled as opposed to the bureaucratic processes involved in assessment and collection under the civil service structure.

The emphasis now is on service and efficiency. The name Imo Internal Revenue Services (IIRS) underscores the shift in orientation of the State Internal Revenue Office in dealing with revenue assessment and collection in the state. The Imo Board of Internal Revenue (IBIR) was associated with civil service rules and practices, which tended to sacrifice speed of delivery on the altar of conventions – a culture that we set out to correct in the new dispensation and succeeded appreciably, before we were truncated.

It was under your purview that the state introduced the TSA system, how did it impact on the IGR?
Make no mistake, the political will of the governor of any state, or the lack of it, makes the difference in the direction of revenue generation in the state. HE Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha was deliberate, on assumption of office, to do everything necessary to boost generation and accountability of IGR in the state to complement the dwindling monthly FAAC as his REBUID IMO programme must be funded.

Introduction of treasury single account (TSA) regime was one of such measures to ramp up IGR in the state as it surely blocks leakages and curbs existence of idle balances with many different banks in the state. You may recollect that I was a member of the Imo State Government Financial Advisory Committee (FAC) headed by Dr. Abraham Nwankwo and the four months stint I had, prior to being appointed to lead the SIRS afforded me invaluable insight into the IGR of the state.

The state was being denied use of her IGR through proliferation of revenue accounts operated by the various MDAs with the banks in the state capital, Owerri. In August 2019, about N775 million was mopped up from the various revenue accounts of MDAs and transferred to the TSA of Imo State Government (IMSG). IGR grew steadily on monthly basis from July 2019 to December 2019.

IGR grew from N253.604 Million; June threshold to N369.622 million in July, a month after I took over, about 45.75 per cent (N116.018 Million) increase, then to N1.185 Billion as at December 31st, 2019, which is over N815.378 Million (about 220.59 per cent) growth from July 2019 level. The steady monthly growth, no doubt, was partly attributable to the TSA regime that was in place then.

As part of the kitchen cabinet of former governor Ihedioha, how did the Supreme Court judgment scuttle Ihedioha’s Rebuild Imo programme?
It is indeed, a no-brainer that the Supreme Court judgment of 14th January 2020 truncated all Governor Ihedioha’s programmes, incidentally. It was self-evident that HE Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha hit the ground running on being sworn-in as the governor. It was on record that he awarded contracts for rehabilitation of 33 state roads and paid initial mobilisation of 10-15 per cent on each for work to commence simultaneously on all.

The collaboration with Technical Education Verification Committee (TEVC) to reactivate technical institutions/education in Imo state was promoted as rehabilitation works commenced at all the technical schools in Imo State at the same time.
Latching on the availability of International Cargo Airport, Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport (SMICA) Owerri, Afreximbank was successfully approached by Governor Ihedioha’s government to establish presence in Imo to promote industrialisation in Southeast and South-south regions.

Five hectares of land was allocated to Afreximbank along the SMICA road and CofO granted early January 2020 for construction of about N18 billion ($50 million) Africa Quality Assurance Centre (AQAC), for certification services of various locally manufactured products for export. This was to be a huge boost to industrialisation as manufacturing plants. The two geo-political zones would have been encouraged to step up for their products to pass international standard test and earn much needed foreign exchange at the twilight of dwindling foreign reserve.

Did the administration have the inclination that it was to be cut short by the Supreme Court judgment?
There was nothing to suggest that we had the predisposition that we might leave office premature and actually by my own conservative estimation, the most unfavorable ruling to be expected was a re-run against the other candidates of other parties in contention.

We were still engrossed with the challenges of the plethora of reforms on-going at IIRS then, coupled with the implicit confidence of a re-run, worst case scenario. It was such that the arrears of emoluments due to the professional team I assembled at IIRS and I were still not paid even when I could have secured the payment if I had the inclination of any danger lurking. Very unfortunate!

How did you feel leaving office abruptly?
I took it with both philosophical and spiritual equanimity. I always believe that, “if it hits you, it couldn’t have missed you” and vice versa. Then whatever happens to a man is for his good. In the same vein, “God gave me the courage to accept that which I cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference”.

It was the disposition that guided me throughout the trying period of one month of transition. It was about 17.50pm on that fateful day, when I got a call from one of those present at Supreme Court, Abuja, while I was still in the office, that HE Ihedioha had been relieved of his office.

Like a bad dream, I had to wish it away, but the import did not quite permeate until the next day. However, being human, it was difficult not to be exasperated occasionally, when I remember the personal sacrifices of daily toiling into midnights, in course of the culture reforms at IIRS then that suddenly became null and void.

What did you regret not doing for Imo people that you still wish if the opportunity to achieve it comes your way?
The legacy I was determined to leave behind was for the state internal revenue services to be reformed to run efficiently using the best private sector KPI approach under my watch – a clear departure from the bureaucratic structural rigidities that hitherto held down performance. The EXCO of the state graciously approved our request to engage Price Waterhouse & Coopers, PWC to lead our quest to professionalise IIRS.

PWC only completed the current state assessment of BIR while still on People and Process transformation programmes, when the bell for sudden exit tolled. The PWC recommendations on the positions required to be filled through advertisement, list of inherited staff; the trainable and untrainable (that were to be sent back to the civil service commission) were sent to the governor for approval on 11th January 2020. The gamut of reforms, which had been initiated under the guidance of PWC never crystallised before we exited, abruptly.

The benefit of automated Integrated Tax management system, which we were beginning to see in form of increased monthly IGR has been stopped, the IMSSBN [Imo Social Security Benefit Number], which was launched in December 2019 to capture all individuals, businesses, land and buildings, vehicles etc in the state for easy dispensation of social benefits and tracking of fiscal responsibilities which had commenced stopped.

The purpose of all these were to build an increased database to boost revenue and grow the IGR of the state exponentially. I dreamt of being the reform agent under whose watch BIR became IIRS and successfully joined Imo to the league of states, where autonomy of the SIRS like in Kaduna, Edo and Lagos States, etc has exemplified dramatic growth in internally generated revenue.