Opinion by Wahab Gbadamosi-- It was a long day in Kano, the commercial heartbeat of Northern Nigeria. The top brass of the Federal Inland Revenue Service, FIRS, was wrapping up the Regional Enlarged Management Meeting, REMM of the North-Western Region and the Town Hall Meeting. Middle management staffs and new entrees into the workforce, holding together bits and pieces of the organisation of the meeting, were happy that the meeting will soon wind down before the ‘woman’ comes.
It was not to be. The woman re-emerged at about 6 pm, after honouring an invitation by the Kano State Government.
Not that staff and members of Management do not like her. But it is incontrovertible that not a few loathe her insistence that you explore all angles to an item, seek all the facts, allow people to have their say, before you close on an issue or cut to the bone.
At the Town Hall Meeting which went for about two hours after she arrived - in fidelity to the listening tradition in the FIRS- Ifueko Omoigui Okauru, the Executive Chairman, two Coordinating Directors: Alhaji Kabir M. Mashi (Support Services Group and Samuel Ogungbesan (Tax Operations Group) and other directors, listened with rapt attention as union officials hauled pointed darts at the Management. with no fear of a query. At FIRS, the Town Hall Meeting FIRS staff say anything under the sun.
When they were done and in her usual way that she democratises proceedings, Omoigui Okauru, asked members of the Management if they had other things to add before her closing remarks.
Mashi asked Omoigui Okauru to talk about her ‘Show Me Philosophy”. Director, Large Tax Office (Oil), A. J. Bamidele, asked that the Chairman should speak to union staff about Leadership. This followed Sunday Babarinde and Kamoru Oseni (Union Leaders) doing the Oliver, asking for more for their troops.
Once you ask Ifueko Omoigui to speak about higher values, you cannot fail to be swayed or moved by her altruism- an altruism that is true and touching, the passion for her job and people and her unrelieved optimism that humanity could get a better deal from our existence on this plane.
Newt Gingritch, the former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and Professor of History—according to Dapo Olorunyomi-another scholar of multifaceted competencies flying under the radar- recalled that Gingritch, once carped about Bill Clinton as follows: once you allow Bill Clinton to speak for five minutes on an issue, he takes apart all you cast as an issue, a problem a challenge or your plans. Olorunyomi once described Bill Clinton as probably “The most talented politician of the 21st Century.
And though Omoigui Okauru is no Bill Clinton, there is a sense, in which you cannot but be ensnared after listening to her for five minutes, once you stoke her underbelly on higher values. She waxes eloquent, almost like one inebriated by higher values and common good.
This evening in Kano, Omoigui Okauru summoned Steve Jobs- the late apple driver, who re-wrote the mobile phone’s place in how we live, work, communicate and do business. I have not listened to a more compact summation of Steve Jobs’ Commencement Lecture since then.
Two items: bears recount: Every man and woman should be hungry and be uncomfortable some of time. When you’re comfortable, filled and happy, you don’t think. Think about your work, your future, your skills and what you can bring to the table if not all, but at least some of the time.
It was Omoigui Okauru’s higher purpose response to the union’s carping about conditions of work and more goodies in a year when the Service had exceeded its target and the Federal Government to earn almost N3.97 trillion in 10 months.
Said Omoigui Okauru: “Recently, Steve Job died. I am not very good at reading books. But I read autobiographies or summaries of same. I also listen to Commencement Speeches and read articles.
“You all know Steve Jobs? Please go and watch that Commencement speech. It’s less than an hour. He said he couldn’t attend the university. Why? Because he couldn’t pay school fees. He said what they were asking him to pay was much more than what his father and mother put aside for their pension. He didn’t understand why they should spend so much to send him to school.
“Even when he left Stanford, he spent 18 months on campus... People will call this man a drop out. But what did he do? He spent 18 months on campus. He probably learnt more than those that were in school. He was sleeping on the floor, sleeping in dorms (dormitories), going to classes that he just was interested. He went to study calligraphy because the school he was in had the best calligraphy (that is the way they write) that he had ever seen.
“He never knew how that will become useful. When he was now designing apple, in the software (that is the operating system) he adapted all these fonts comics, sans, Times Roman, sans sarif. All these fonts typefaces you now see, came from his calligraphy school. If he had not attended that training, that course, we will not be discussing that calligraphy today. So expand your knowledge. You never know what knowledge will add to what you have.
“I am saying this because you also get some texts somebody will say somebody in my office read botany, another has biology. What is that person going to contribute to tax. I ‘ve seen extremely good partners of accounting firms that read veterinary medicine, civil engineering. Botany, Agric. It has nothing to do with your first degree. Nothing. So please don’t start discriminating against people because they read botany . You read something. And who knows in that degree there is some knowledge you can tap into. So let’s broaden our knowledge base.
“Let also recognise that we are actually a lot better when we deprive ourselves. I don’t know about you. But If I am too comfortable, I don’t think anymore. I don’t think .
“ There is something Steve Jobs said in his Commencement speech: Stay hungry. Stay Foolish. You know what that means: If you are hungry what happens. You are always looking for food. You are always thinking. If you are full.... Can you imagine the feeling when you are very full. Sleep. You want to sleep.
“So you have to stay hungry even if you want to make yourself artificially hungry. Don’t be full. And stay foolish. What does foolish mean: ‘I don’t know. Teach me. Let me learn. Let me know more. You are a better person for it.
“In life you are going to be distracted. There are going to be a lot of distractions along the way. But if you are going to be distracted by distractions, you will not get there. .
She will recall, how again and again, her bosses at Omolayole and Co, mutilated her draft reports and documents with all shades of red biro. Over time, the red biros diminished, she once said at a meeting:“What happened was that I set for myself, the target of improving myself on areas of weaknesses identified by my bosses. Those who listened to those corrections and decided to improve, we know where they are today. Those who didn’t, we know where they are.
“The result is that as I speak to you, I could be working on my laptop and could accomplish in one hour, what it might take you five days to accomplish. So thank anybody who has the time and the interest to correct your work or drafts. Because it could be frustrating having to correct somebody’s draft, over and over again.
Again and again, such admonitions rang through her meetings, particularly, when summing up. And she is a delight when a discourse is woven around altruistic ends. Touching words and anectdotes- some locked in the brain forever- rang out of such encounters.
At a two-day meeting at the Labour House in 2009, Omoigui Okauru had challenged the Union, NWCSN on what they are bringing to the table to help FIRS and by extension Nigeria’s financial health. Her position to workers was that “you are the institution”. When you write that CV, and or application for a job somewhere, you are not writing about FIRS you are writing about yourself and the quality of the institution that you have helped to build.
Only God knows from whence she draws her strength. One day, in 2008—and this is routine—she ran three disparate meetings for eight straight hours, without standing up to exercise her legs. Once in a while, you could catch her peck at a cup of honey laced tea, one small carrot or orange. A few days before Nigeria’s independence anniversary last year, she worked till about 11 pm, only to surrender to the October 1, 2010 recording for a TV commercial that ran for another one hour.
And do not be surprised to leave her at the office 11pm on a Friday, only to be told she made a Sunday Babarinde (Union Chairman) wedding in Jos the next day, a Saturday or catch her wriggling to the rhythms-even if its only for three minutes-- at the wedding of one of her personal staff: Ikechukwu Ashioba. She is a bundle of energy laced with human feeling.
To many, there is something inscrutable about most scholars’ disposition to simply doing their jobs, pushing their books/papers and journals and a little bothered about their students’ life skills.
Not for Omoigui Okauru.
She is forever bothered about what the next person and her 6000 staff know or should know, their skills, their experience and what they could take away from seminars, conferences and such re-tooling opportunities.
Stay focused on your goal....“If you go to work everyday and you don’t learn anything new about your work, or you don’t add new knowledge, then watch out and ask yourself: is it worth it. Learn new skill everyday. Because at the end of the day, it is not about your unit, your boss, your department, your group, the FIRS or even Nigeria. It is about you.
“At times I listen to people saying that madam’s standards/values are too high. But Madam’s standards can never be higher than your own. Set standards that are higher.. higher than madam’s. Because at the end of the day, you are your own man. You take responsibility for yourself. So push yourself.
Throughout a 35/40 minutes flight on a trip to Ilorin to make a presentation on the reformation of the civil service-she was glued to a copy of The Economist. The only time, she cared to look up or notice her surroundings when a storm ruptured the rhythm of the small plane. Even, she was an oasis of stability and calm.
Once in 2007, she summoned a consultant to review a Project budget on the Documentation Project. For the first two months when the consultant resumed work, old staff warned that he exercise care about financial matters. “Don’t ask for money from her. Or if you do, don’t ask for big money”, Just be careful with money matters. Once you do your work and you don’t ask for any big money there will be no problem, they will admonish. Only that her issues with finances was that her standards for financial approvals and processes could be exacting.
From his file, she yanked off almost N1 million from an expensive hotel to a small but equally descent hotel. She pulled out her phone and asked: What’s the name of that hotel near the lake. It was almost 10 pm as she treated the file. But even in the midst of this, she was overheard telling somebody: “Ok. 10 pm. Done deal. Yes 10 pm. She continued treating the file.
The journalist in the consultant sprang up: Who could she be calling. The only suspicion was her hubby: the fat-book carrying A. B. Okauru.
A year before, her marriage, and shortly before the 2007 election, AB, as the Chairman, addresses her hubby, had found his way unannounced to Omoigui Okauru’s Confidential Secretary’s Office. Quietly, he sat reading a fat book as Omoigui Okauru sat for an interview with Thisday newspaper. Both disappeared when the interview was over.
It emerged that that man was the former Director of the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit. NFIU two years earlier, one described in the Chairman’s words as: “my husband.. one of the best things that ever happened to me. I married a friend. He is my worst critic and my best admirer. AB, my husband, in more ways than one is very much like my Dad.
And Chairman office grapevines indicate its not uncommon to spot the visage of AB, after, 11 pm, in what ranked like a “what are you still doing here” protest march to Revenue House- the Headquarters of the FIRS. After 11 pm the day could end if the Chairman is unable to negotiate another one hour to close clear her desk.
Some of her gestures are so touching you will wonder whether this is the same woman with a First Class degree in Accounting from the University of Lagos in 1983, the valedictorian in her graduating class -with the highest number of awards, a Masters degree holder from the Imperial College, London, a Chevron scholar, an ex-KPMG and one so passionate about her country that she ran a public issues programme on the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA.
One’s admiration for her humility soared five weeks away. It was at a meeting with some consultants –‘tots’ really—from a consultancy firm with some claim to integrity in the country. Two of these consultants radiated a hubris so thick that you could slice through. You smiled wondering whether these budding consultants passed through an institution and grounding similar to Omoigui Okauru’s.
A day after the summit closed, a call came at about 9 am. Anytime a call came in at 8/9am, one’s heart spikes: Do we have a terrible press today or is the Chairman trying alert us or share ideas on how to handle it? We had no bad press. It was a happy birthday wish. Excited, you feel like a millionaire and added an age to your real age!
For the Chairman of a busy federal agency, who re-writes 5/10/15 page speech, presentation, chipping in data, realigning structures and flow; who dissects 48-page of the FIRS magazine: Gauge in less than two hours- isolating spelling and factual errors, The writer once interrogated himself whether he is not a lazy man. And a few friends and aquitances claim he could lay some feeble claim to hard work.
It is to her credit that she has led institutional changes in the FIRS and the Joint Tax Board leading to the gradual emergence--- in perception and reality—of the FIRS as a modern institution.
Today, a corporate taxpayer can no longer open a file in say Apapa or Ikeja Integrated Tax Office, abandon it after failing to file his returns and pay his tax and lie to the Tax Controller at the Wuse Integrated Tax Office and lie that the company has not done business with the company since it was registered. Just a click, on the mouse, or a tap on your ipad and seconds search of the FIRS portal will reveal such a corporate tax taxpayer’s status and records. This is courtesy of Project FACT and one of its product: the Taxpayer Identification Number, TIN.
Though automation of processes in FIRS is multilayered and is ongoing, but FIRS under Omoigui Okauru has reached a point that even in London or any part of the world, she or any authorised member of top Management could ascertain FIRS’s daily collection from all taxes and each categories of taxes, know what bank brought in what, ascertain a pattern and advise the minister, the President or whoever needs such information
A replication of TIN through the Unique-Taxpayer Identification Number, (U-TIN) is afoot in the states. This will give federal and state authorities real time, to the minute and near accurate information about taxpayers, slicing openings for tax-shopping and outright tax evasion.
And once FIRS’ Integrated Tax Administration System (ITAS), and the democratic Self-Assessment regime comes on stream, along with TIN and U-TIN, national and state tax-based revenue will soar.
Without crowing too much about her attainments, Ifueko led the push for the financial and administrative autonomy of the FIRS eventuating in financial and administrative autonomy of the Service with the implementation of the Federal Inland Revenue Service Establishment Act, FIRS Act 2007.
She also drove the development and driving of institutional changes in the tax system at Federal and State levels leading to growth in annual tax revenues, amounting to over 15 billion US dollars
($15,000,000,000.00)—(by 2009) to reduce dependence on mono product (oil) revenues; development and implementation of a Tax Reform agenda to improve the funding quality and effectiveness of tax administration in Nigeria. She facilitated the drafting of a comprehensive legal framework and the passage of four Acts namely: FIRS (Establishment) Act 2007, Value Added Tax (Amendment) Act 2007, Companies Income Tax (Amendment) Act 2007, National Automotive Council (Amendment) Act 2007. She is coordinating the implementation of a national tax database, including the Tax Identification Number, TIN. Four other bills-including the Petroleum Profits Tax Act-now being considered as part of the Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB are before National Assembly.
With better funding, improved remuneration, the FIRS was able to attract new staff and other professionals from other elite government agencies, the private sector and multinational companies. There is probably no federal agency in Nigeria that has pulled in multifaceted professional numbering about 2000 at a go like in the FIRS in its history.
FIRS is collaborating with several federal agencies to share data, just as it has signed and is negotiating several Double Taxation Agreements, DTAs with other countries.
Under her watch, FIRS collaborated with Uganda, South African and other African countries to establish the first, continental Tax body: African Tax Administration Forum, ATAF and her regional leg: the West African Tax Administration Forum, WATAF. This came on the heels of successful hosting of the Commonwealth Association of Tax Administrations, CATA.
These are outside a renewed Enforcement drive that in a year yielded as much as close to N37 billion, the passage of the National Tax Policy, foundation work for a new and befitting headquarters, FIRS owned offices across the country, a new Tax Academy, housing and car loan for staff, engagement with taxpayers and potential taxpayers through the Student Tax Advocacy Initiative, STAI, a robust tax education programme, encouraging taxpayers to hold FIRS for its operations and the government on how it spends collected monies, accountable fora, new self-assessment regime, training that has seen 6000 FIRS staff enjoy over 15,000 training slots/openings—with over about 1500 offshore in six years, a robust Performance Management System, about, 17 ongoing Modernisation Projects and trial of tax offenders.
Along with her some of her ‘generals’: Coordinating Directors: Osy Chuke Corporate Development Group, CDG, Alhaji Kabir Mashi: Support Services Group, SSG; Tax Operations Group: Samuel Ogungbesan and his predecessors: Dr. G. Opara, Alhaji E. S. Sulu Compliance and Enforcement Group, CEG Onyekachi Ihedioha and his predecessor: Teju Somorin, several committed directors and foot soldiers, Omoigui Okauru has repositioned the FIRS.
And with continuous support from the highest quarters in the land, the FIRS—like we often say in-house may soon become one of the, if not one of the most pivotal institution(s) for sustainable funding in the land. And like Samuel Ogungbesan said at a retreat last year: “We (FIRS) have left Egypt.
The truth is, you might like Omoigui Okauru. You might even loathe her testy impatience for result and excellence, her rigour and insistence on Due Process, her altruism, her insistence on relentless pursuits of skills, training and her ruthless decisiveness, once she spots mercantilist opportunism. But you cannot fault her motives, her altruism for her work, her hunger for institutional building and the abiding love for mother country.
For exemplary service to her country Nigeria, she has been conferred, national awards by the Nigerian President twice in seven years. First as Member of the Order of the Niger, MON, in 2000 for amongst others, leading the technical team for the Vision 2010 effort for Nigeria -Nigeria’s effort at developing a long-term strategic plan, the first of its kind in the country. The second national award was that of Member of the Federal Republic, MFR in December 2006, for her achievements in championing tax reforms in Nigeria. In February 2007, she was named the Government Personality of the Year, by the Thisday newspapers. Governor of the Central Bank, Professor Charles Soludo shared the award with her.
In November 2007, Omoigui, along with other women who blazed the trail in their fields, was admitted into the Women Hall of Fame by the National Women Centre, Abuja. The FIRS Chairman is the first woman to be Chairman, Federal Inland Revenue Service. In December 2007, she was named as one of the 50 outstanding graduates of the University of Lagos, UNILAG. The following month, the Benin National Congress, honoured her, along with few prominent Edo state indigenes, with an award for Excellence. Early in 2008, students of Kuti Hall-the oldest hall in University of Ibadan- named Omoigui Okauru as the Government Personality of the Year.
In January 2009, the FIRS, under her leadership was named as the Government Agency of The Year, by Thisday newspapers at an award ceremony attended by former American President, Bill Clinton. In December 2009, she was awarded a Doctorate degree (Honoris Causa) by the Benson Idahosa University, BIU Benin, the sole recipient of such honour for the year, for her exemplary contribution to tax reform and administration in Nigeria and on the global level. Shortly before this, the Secretary General of the United Nations, named her as one of the global tax experts that would advise him on taxation and shape its global practice.
As one watched her navigate the slippery slopes of the Nigerian bureaucratic-political landscape during the Senate confirmation days (2007-2008), one wonders how she was able to identify and walk through these landmines and still remain herself. Years from now, Nigeria’s political, Public service and Management literature will be richer, if she could pull apart and document the foxy bureaucratic and high-wired political intrigues of those testy days.
Born on December 10, 1962, Omoigui Okauru attended Queen’s College, Yaba and Federal Government College, Warri for her secondary school education and obtained a First Class degree in Accounting from the University of Lagos and a Masters of Science Degree in Management Science from the Imperial College, University of London. She was valedictorian of her graduating class in the University of Lagos, with the highest number of prizes ever won by any individual in the Faculty of Business Administration and was recognized as a Global Leader of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Accountants of Nigeria, ICAN, and a Chartered Tax Practitioner.
The only female in a family of five, Okauru is a Made in Nigeria success story. She scoffs at the option of living outside Nigeria. Her four brothers are all based in the United States. One owns a cardiovascular clinic in South Carolina, another plies his trade as a doctor in Los Angeles. The fourth child is a lawyer who works with Intel Corporation in California. The last left Microsoft as a Computer software specialist to establish his own private practice.
To Omoigui, staying abroad is not an alternative. From her birth, she never loved staying outside Nigeria. “ I believe home is here in Nigeria. Anytime I am outside the country, I feel a strong pull to be here. There is a lot to do to make the country better. When individuals travel out of their country to stay elsewhere, they are implementing what someone or some people had stayed behind in their country to create, I want to be a contributor for what others would benefit from. I have never felt better anywhere else. I am here because this is where I should be.
As Omoigui Okauru clocks 49 today (Saturday 10th December 2010)—one year away from the golden age of 50, one cannot but pray for long life, health, prosperity, a mind forever alert and more years of service to Nigeria and humanity.
* Gbadamosi (firstname.lastname@example.org), is Assistant Director, Corporate Communications Department, Federal Inland Revenue Service