The attention of the Daily Observer is drawn to a front page story in its April 15, 2019 edition under the headline, “LRA Wants Public Officials Pay Their Real Property Taxes by May 31.”
According to the story, the Commissioner-General of the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA), Thomas Doe Nah, has called on all public officials “including Justices and Judges, Legislators, Heads and Deputies at Ministries, Agencies, Commissions and Public Corporations who are owners of real properties, to visit the LRA to make payment of all real property and related taxes owed the Government of Liberia.”
Further, according to the LRA, real property (otherwise referred to as real estate ) “refers to land, structures, or a combination of land and structure that are used either for residential or commercial purposes”.
According to the Commissioner General, all appointed and public officials are expected to comply by settling their real estate tax obligations by or before May 31, 2019, noting that President Weah had, on December 6, 2018 mandated all public officials to become tax compliant.
Commissioner Nah threatened to bring all legal options to bear against non-compliant officials. Such options, according to Commissioner Nah, “include closure of premises, taking lien on properties and other legal action in line with the Liberia Revenue Code”.
The Daily Observer, while welcoming the announcement by the head of the LRA, is constrained to warn the Commissioner-General against the use of threats which it cannot enforce simply because to do so could serve to undermine his authority and effectiveness.
Now it is clear to all and sundry that most government officials have not, for example, complied with the Asset Declaration law which requires the compulsory compliance of public officials. This includes President Weah himself who has, in effect, publicly stated that concerns for the safety of his family far outweigh any Asset Declaration law on the books.
To date, most of his officials, many of who cannot boast of having previously been owners of real estate are today sporting flashy brand new SUVs, flashing loads of cash and have become owners of mansions.
Sustained reports indicating that a girlfriend of one such official, who works with an international NGO, leaves her car (SUV) engine running with air conditioners on all through the day, until she quits work at 5pm, speaks volumes of the profligacy of most officials of this government.
The issue here is, if public officials who have failed to declare their assets have gotten away with their actions, what would convince anyone, for that matter, to believe that punitive sanctions await those non-compliant public officials who fail to pay their real estate taxes?
What the LRA chief apparently does not realize that is real estate tax compliance by public officials’ would mean that the public would acquire knowledge of the vast and expensive real estate which many of such officials have acquired through dishonest means, mainly through outright theft of state owned resources.
As it appears, government officials harbor deeply ingrained fears of public excoriation should such information ever come into the public domain. And it is because of this and other reasons that public officials have failed, without fear of the implications or consequences, to publicly declare their assets.
In view of the fact that public officials who have so far failed to declare their assets have gone scot free without rebuke by or from the President, strongly suggests LRA Commissioner Thomas Doe Nah’s lofty pronouncements promising stringent actions to deal with non-compliant officials could be mere posturing, a play of some sorts to the galley.
Needless to say, such posturing offers little and provides virtually nothing of interest to a population choked by poverty and overburdened daily by strains induced by rapidly declining economic growth, the rising cost of living and the continuous fall in value of the Liberian dollar against the US dollar.
Truth be told, adherence by public officials to the Asset Declaration law matters more to the public interest than the real estate tax status of government officials. First of all, the public needs to know just how much each official is worth as a prerequisite to knowing how much each public official’s tax obligation is worth.
In the eyes of the public threats of closure of premises for non-tax compliance simply means that the well-off will enjoy tax holidays while the rest of suffering humanity will have to reel under the boot-heel of thuggish and thievish officials who care only about lining their pockets.
In the opinion of this newspaper, the LRA would do well to include as prerequisite to real estate tax compliance, adherence to the Asset Declaration law, meaning full public disclosure of assets owned by public officials. And President Weah has to take the lead in this regard.
President Charles D.B. King once noted, “the fish begins to rot from the head”, suggesting in effect that national behavioral patterns or tendencies are strongly influenced by what the leader of a nation does.
For example when President Tolbert assumed office in 1971 following the death of President Tubman, he started off by reporting to work before 8:00am. Many a public official was caught coming to work late and, of course, the official had to face the music. Before long, all public officials began reporting to work before 8:00am.
The Daily Observer can strongly declare, without fear of contradiction that, should President Weah publicly declare his assets, all his officials will immediately follow suit. After all said and done, the culture of an Imperial Presidency is alive and well in Liberia.
Deconstructing and reversing what appears to be a national malaise and setting better and finer examples of good governance for others to emulate can also be accomplished under an Imperial presidency, but only by leader who is fully conscious of the implications of undoing a kleptocratic network that includes state functionaries and their foreign patrons.