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Online transactions levy: Raising new controversy in tax basket

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[File] Mr Babatunde Fowler, FTAX Chairman. PHOTO/TWITTER/FIRS


If next year’s target for the kick-off of the tax or levy on online transactions sails through, there certainly would be interesting figures and government would be smiling to the banks for fat Cheques.
 
On the other hand, there is an expectation of corresponding reactions, coupled with intuitiveness by many Nigerians, who would be plotting its evasion or avoidance. But most possible, there would be continued agitation for alleged “over tax” of the citizenry without corresponding evidence of adequate utilisation.
 
Indeed, beyond the quest for the expanded fiscal regime and business of revenue mobilisation for acclaimed national development, it would be another period of putting to test the country’s level of compliance with the non-negotiable social contract, as inequality takes new height, while poverty level gets global reckoning.
 
Of course, if there is one thing that the current administration under President Muhammadu Buhari had consistently done in the last four years, it is majorly tax project – from reforms, awareness, and enforcement to the creation of new ones. But there is still raging argument over the motives, save for the dwindling fortunes of the crude oil prices and its attendant effects on the country’s fiscal performance.
 
There have been inventions and invocations of laws as a necessity, under which the ongoing hunt for whatever is called revenue in the face of dwindling economic fortunes is unavoidable. The volatility in oil prices — the country’s major revenue and foreign exchange earner, has been used as excuse.
 
To cover the tottering revenue profile, three things have become outstanding and more pronounced, as well as recurring over these years, with similar historic pattern. They are “Diversification”, “Stamp Duties Act” and “Treasury Single Account (TSA)”. Almost, if not all the administrations, have played around them.
 
In the last one year, the Value Added Tax (VAT) has been on the front burner, with a back and forth movement in respect of what should be included in the regime and what the percent should be. The rate consideration is currently rested.
 
The latest in the discourse, is the plan to introduce a five per cent charge on online transactions with effect from 2020, entangled in not only its acceptance by the citizenry, given the biting economic challenges and disputations over government’s accountability, but also the observed misunderstanding of whether the charge is VAT on the transactions itself or levy on the medium of the transactions. Or whether it is the product to be purchased that will deserve the VAT.
 
According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Web transactions in the first quarter of 2019, were estimated at 20.38 million, with a value of N107.64 billion. If the operations of eBillsPay and Remita, both found in the quarterly statistics of the agency, currently with a volume of 316,534 and 1.46 million, valued at N141.65 billion andN19.25 billion respectively, qualifies as online transaction, then there would be more to feast on by government.
 
The Executive Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Babatunde Fowler, had recently said that the agency is currently tinkering on ways to bring the rising digital economy under the tax net, even though it been a difficult task.“We will address the issue of the digitalised economy very soon. Nigeria has not taken a position yet. But, we are meeting to see if we can come up with a global solution that we can all adapt to,” he said.
 
But since the unveiling of the plan to effect the five per cent VAT on all online purchases from next year, it has not only been a mixed feeling, but major reactions from Nigerians are tilting towards outright rejection.

The New Tax
THE Partner/Head of Tax and Corporate Advisory Services at PwC Nigeria, Taiwo Oyedele, said the proposal is part of measures being introduced to address issues bothering on the digital economy, generally believed that huge economic activities are being conducted without the payment of commensurate taxes.In an exclusive chat with The Guardian, the tax expert also said that the overriding objective of the latest move is to shore up government’s revenue.
 
“The proposal is to charge VAT on all online transactions carried out by individuals and companies based in Nigeria regardless of whether the transactions are sourced from Nigeria or outside the country.“The intention is to appoint payment settlement institutions such as banks, credit and debit cards providers as agents of the FIRS for the purpose of charging and accounting for VAT on online transactions. 
 
“The VAT will apply on all online transactions that are liable to VAT, including goods and services. In principle, VAT is already being charged and collected on online purchase of goods. In the case of products supplied within Nigeria, the sellers would already charge VAT on the goods failing which they can be audited by the FIRS. “In the case of goods ordered from foreign online suppliers like Amazon, the applicable VAT should normally be collected by customs upon importation except where the goods are VAT exempt or below the chattel exemption threshold.
 
“There is also no problem with online services provided by suppliers based in Nigeria such as Multichoice since FIRS can enforce VAT on their sales where applicable.“The major challenge is therefore with respect to online services and purchases relating to intellectual property from foreign suppliers such as Netflix and Facebook,” he said.
 
But speaking on the possibility of a double tax in the process and the need for government to play big in the social contract, he admitted that if the proposal is not properly implemented, there is a risk of double charge, while government must close the gap of social distrust.
 
“For instance, if a subscriber is making a payment for Pay TV subscription, which already includes, directing the bank or payment service provider to charge VAT again during payment settlement will amount to double charge. “In a recent national survey conducted by the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, about two in every three adults do not trust government with their taxes and hence about 83 percent of individuals and nearly 70 per cent of businesses do not consider tax evasion as wrong. 
 
“With such a high level of apathy towards tax, it is impossible to move the needle on revenue generation.“Government at all levels must urgently start taking steps to address fiscal transparency issues in order to build the much needed trust in the system,” he added.
Also, Dr. Titilayo Eni-tan Fowokan, said that FIRS is planning to mandate banks to deduct the levy on online transactions for goods and services through use of bank cards so as to increase revenue for government.
 
“This is referred to as levy, but misunderstood as VAT. VAT cannot be applied twice on a single transaction. To the best of our knowledge, the levy is in addition to five percent VAT already included in the price of goods and services purchased online. In essence, it is a levy on online transaction,” Fowokan said.
 
The Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria explained that such charge amounts to double taxation and increases the cost of goods or services purchased online and indirectly discouraging online transactions. “In short, it is not in line with the provisions of the VAT Act. There is need for fiscal transparency. The tax burden on citizens is getting too much, without commensurate benefit.

 
“Infrastructural facilities and basic amenities are not available to all citizens, but enforcement of tax payment in the midst to personal funding of government expenditure is on the increase,” Fowokan added.

The Issues
Besides the initial pains of the possible double taxation from the implementation of the plan, Nigerians are raising issues with the management of the country’s resources, alleging that there is no clear-cut accountability process and transparency,A development consultant and public affairs analyst, Jide Ojo, had told The Guardian at commencement of Stamp Duty policy that the enforcement was a welcome development, but raised concerns about remittances of the deducted values. Today, stamp duty deductions are more of tales and “wait and see.”
 
“Transparent and accountable mechanisms must therefore, be in place so that the public is duly informed about income from this source and what it is being used for,” he said.Once the plan comes on board, every transaction within its threshold will be charged. Adebunmi, a small business owner, said he is worried about how the deductions will start and where it will lead to, adding that it would be another avenue to shortchange people, through over-deductions.
 
“Now that we have started using the electronic channels, they are now coming to scare us away. This will make some to avoid patronizing these online cloth sellers,” he said.A banker, who identified herself as Jumo, said that what Nigeria should be talking about now with respect to tax, is something that is very clear, especially when it concerns digital space and the 2020 target of the financial inclusion.
 
“I am not opposed to tax because I am tax compliant. But difficult areas that can create fears should be planned properly, while the issue getting the political elites and their cronies to pay tax should be enforced.“Every time, helpless Nigerians are boxed to a corner and made to lose their businesses is not the desired policy. I know how some of them lament inside the banking hall,” she said.
An importer, Mr. IK Nwachi, queried why this government is not talking how people are faring, except taking from the people managing to overcome the economic difficulties.
 


“You are charged for the electricity you did not use. You suffer in traffic after paying you tax across all level, yet they bring more. Why can’t they look for those that are not paying at all, than killing those already paying?“Whether online transactions or not, it is people that will bear brunt, you or me. They should show more of what they have done with the ones they have, than always asking,” he said.
 
A phone dealer, Desire, said that Nigeria is only good at reaping when it is not yet ripe, noting that majority of the people in the digital world in the country are by individual effort.“Allow the businesses to stabilise and allow customers to get used to it operations. If you pay VAT for goods and another five per cent levy, people will look for alternative. It is good to pay tax, even holy books said so, but government should take it easy,” he said.
 
The fact is that there is no perfect understanding, at present over what the tax agency is calling the new policy and how it would ensure simplicity, which is related to the canons of taxation.What is obvious is that Nigerians, who will be taxed directly or indirectly under the new directive are anxious. They want to know more. But it would be good to do a good job and avoid the back and forth recently witnessed around VAT policy in this particular round.


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