According to Tolby, R.A., The Theory and Practice of Income Tax, (Sweet & Maxwell: London, 1978) p. xix., ‘the tax system of can be described as a universal contrivance whereby the State imposes upon its citizens a compulsory financial levy or contribution for the benefit of society as a whole’. According to the Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th Edition, page 1498, Tax is defined as ‘a mandatory charge imposed by the government on persons, entities, transactions, or property to yield public revenue. (It) embraces all governmental impositions on the person, property, privileges, occupations, and enjoyment of the people, and includes duties, imposts and excises’. Realizing the facts that the issue of taxes being oppressive on the citizens from the government’s imposition of same has been sorts of arguments from the members of the public, this paper aims at considering the powers of the legislators to make laws imposing tax (es) on citizens of Nigeria and the socioeconomic rights of Nigerian citizens by dissecting through the Constitutional framework.
First and foremost, prompt payment of taxes is a constitutional duty of every Nigerian as mandated by section 24 (f) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended)- herein after referred to as the Constitution which provides thus ‘ It shall be the duty of every citizen to declare his income honestly to appropriate and lawful agencies and pay his tax promptly’. Though, it is important to also state that tax is just one of the means through which a government generates revenues, such imposition is expected to bring comfort and not discomfort to its citizens. Furthermore, the word ‘low’ has been used in relation to the characteristics of a tax. Meaning that a tax should be low in form of compliance by those to pay it and this is the concentration and concern of this paper.
Constitutional Powers of the National Assembly to impose tax
By virtue of section 4 of the Constitution, the legislative powers of the National Assembly to make laws in respect of tax is provided for thus 4.—(1) The legislative powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be vested in a National Assembly for the Federation which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives. (2) The National Assembly shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation or any part thereof with respect to any matter included in the Exclusive Legislative List set out in Part I of the Second Schedule to this Constitution. (3) The power of the National Assembly to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation with respect to any matter included in the Exclusive Legislative List shall, save as otherwise provided in this Constitution, be to the exclusion of the Houses of Assembly of States. (4) In addition and without prejudice to the powers conferred by subsection (2) of this Section, the National Assembly shall have power to make laws with respect to the following matters, that is to say— (a) any matter in the Concurrent Legislative List set out in the first Column of Part II of the Second Schedule to this Constitution to the extent prescribed in the Second Column opposite thereto ; and (b) any other matter with respect to which it is empowered to make laws in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution. (5) If any law enacted by the House of Assembly of a State is inconsistent with any law validly made by the National Assembly, the law made by the National Assembly shall prevail, and that other law shall to the extent of the inconsistency be void.’. Furthermore, under this Exclusive Legislative List, item 59 is of interest to this paper, which provides thus ‘Taxation of incomes, profits and capital gains, except as otherwise prescribed by this Constitution’. Also, the Concurrent Legislative List comprising of legislative powers shared by both the Federal Government and the State Governments provides thus ‘7. In the exercise of its powers to impose any tax or duty on— (a) capital gains, incomes or profits of persons other than companies; and (b) documents or transactions by way of stamp duties, the National Assembly may, subject to such conditions as it may prescribe, provide that the collection of any such tax or duty or the administration of the law imposing it shall be carried out by the Government of a State or other authority of a State.’. Also, by item 8 of the Concurrent Legislative List, it is provided that 8. Where an Act of the National Assembly provides for the collection of tax or duty on capital gains, incomes or profit or the administration of any law by an authority of a State in accordance with paragraph 7 hereof, it shall regulate the liability of persons to such tax or duty in such manner as to ensure that such tax or duty is not levied on the same person by more than one State.’.
Nevertheless, it is worthy of note that the legislative arm of each: Federal; State; and Local/Area Council (government) legislates respectively for taxation but my concern here is using the Federal Government’s taxation as a case study or yardstick.
Constitutional Socioeconomic Rights of Nigerian citizens
Socioeconomic rights are those rights that give people access to certain basic needs (resources, opportunities and services) necessary for human beings to lead a dignified life’. See: Socio-Economic Rights in South Africa, Second Edition, Edited by Sibonile Khoza. Under this heading, the following forms part of socioeconomic rights of Nigerian citizens under the Constitution and some international laws ratified by Nigeria, which binds Nigeria: i. right to health; ii. The right to education; iii. The right to work; iv. The right to a safe environment; v. rights of residency and movement of persons and goods; vi. The right to control natural resources; vii. The right to an accountable government; viii. Right to political participation; ix. The right to cultural life; x. the right to security and welfare; among other rights. See: Nigerian Law on Socioeconomic Rights by Femi Falana (Senior Advocate of Nigeria), Legal Text Publishing Company, Lagos, 2017. These socioeconomic rights have been guaranteed by laws of Nigeria and other international laws. Among these international laws are: the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights; the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of People’s Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ; among others.
The purport of the above listed socioeconomic rights are to the effect that in as much as a government charges its citizens taxes to pay, the government also owes its citizens the duty to fulfill their socioeconomic rights.
Therefore, in my humble view, where the government fails in its socioeconomic responsibilities to its citizens, the same government has no justification to oppress its citizens by imposing tax that is very oppressive or in a way, being very difficult for its citizens to pay or taxes that do not put the socioeconomic situation of the citizens into consideration. Oppressive taxation is burdensome, difficult or hard for the citizens to bear. For instance, security and welfare have been some of those twin or identical challenges that Nigeria and her citizens have always been facing. Government has not been able to combat these two challenges; same goes with education; safe environment; etc. Therefore, citizens now have to provide security for themselves as well as provide welfare for themselves. So, the situation in relation to government in my humble view is that of ‘to whom much is given, much is expected’. And at best, for me, with due respect, government has not done enough in relation to what it uses the public’s funds for. Corruption is another set-back in administering the taxes of the citizens. Some of the government’s officiating officials have been accused of corruption of public funds (taxes).
Therefore, and for the purpose of emphasis, Nigerian government as of the moment is not justified to impose taxes that would make life unbearable or difficult to its people.
Furthermore, in my humble view, citizens have to utilize their socioeconomic right of holding government accountable for its duties. Government must be held to account for even one Naira (N1) generated from the citizens’ taxes.
Finally, it is my humble view that in as much as the government through its legislative arm has the discretion to impose taxes on its citizens, such government is expected to also consider the socioeconomic circumstances and or situation of its citizens by not being oppressive against its citizens in the imposition of taxes. Also, the citizens have the legal right to hold government accountable for its duties in safeguarding the socioeconomic rights of its citizens in the public’s interest. It is in this way that I believe that both the government and the citizens can strike a balanced deal.