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African governments use taxes to live better at the expense of taxpayers

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Dear editor,

Growing up in The Gambia, I had a friend who emigrated from Guinea and owned a shop in our neighborhood. He was around my age and with time, we would become very good friends. I remember times when government agents on motorbikes would come to his shop and make him pay taxes. Now that I think about it, I wonder if what they collected from him was what they submitted to the government coffers. Because he was a so-called immigrant from Guinea, he did all he could to cooperate with their coercive tactics. Some of those tax collectors were ruthless in the way and manner they went about collecting taxes from small business owners. I have been told that a few of these tax collectors became relatively wealthy.

If you have been paying any attention to the Local Government Commission sittings, you’d have noticed that many of the tax collectors that appear before the commissioners are found wanting because they cannot reconcile what they collected in taxes with what they submitted to the government. I don’t know this for a fact but I have been told that some of these collectors amassed a lot of money for themselves. Like the tax collectors that used to go around collecting taxes, corruption was so normal and acceptable to them that it became part of their standard practice.

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Taxes have been around since humans began organising themselves in large communities. Whether through jizya, zakat, corvees (labor provided to the authorities in lieu of paying money), or tithes, membership in any community required some form of taxation payable to authorities. And these taxes are supposed to be what the authorities use to cater to the welfare of the people. But ask the average Gambian what government services they truly benefit from and hear what they tell you! Unfortunately, African governments use these taxes to live a better life at the expense of their taxpayers! The welfare of the people is secondary to the welfare of those in government. African public and civil servants see no problem with using taxpayer money to provide benefits and services for themselves when the majority of the taxpayers can never enjoy those same benefits and services. Just take a look at what our judiciary, parliament and executives are doing to Gambians!

The willingness of the people to pay taxes is closely interwoven with their desire for improved welfare. When the people struggle to meet their basic human needs and yet they are required to pay taxes that make their lives even more difficult, at some point, they will resist paying taxes! Their resistance will be stronger if there is a perception that those in charge of their tax monies are corrupt. Cue the resistance in Kenya and the trader’s protests in Tanzania.

History would have been so rich if it had many students! History should have taught African leaders about the Mau Mau revolution; history should have taught African leaders about the Bambatha revolution; about the Aba Women’s Riots of 1929, history should have taught African leaders about the Hut Tax War in Sierra Leone which was led by the great statesman and military strategist Bai Bureh. But alas, too many African leaders suffer from the optimism bias or what some call the “it won’t happen to me” bias! Because these African leaders abuse their monopoly on violence to control the people, they grow so delusional that they begin to think they can engage in abusive tax schemes, misuse the people’s tax monies to benefit themselves and their friends and when the people complain, unleash their violence on them to maintain power and control! Ask the average Gambian taxpayer what government services they benefit from and hear what they say. Ask the public or civil servant what government services they benefit from and you will see how they give themselves sweet deals that they deny the taxpayers on whose taxes they live. As a Gambian taxpayer, ask yourself what government services you benefit from and compare those benefits to the benefits of public or civil servants.

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Alagie Saidy Barrow

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