In the June 7 edition of this paper, the Daily Observer, we read with total dismay a story from our Nimba County Correspondent, Ishmael Menkor, narrating how 15 chiefs representing the Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia have agreed to the reintroduction of HUT TAX to support the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) led Government’s “Pro-poor Agenda.”
According to Menkor, the elders maintained that the hut tax will enhance their participation in the promotion of government’s agenda and development initiatives. They accordingly argued that government cannot be dependent forever, “relying on donor support or begging all around the world for help, so in their view, it is good to bring back the collection of hut tax to back up the economy.”
The chiefs call for the reinstitution of the Hut tax may sound pleasing to the ears of government but it bodes ill for our impoverished rural population eking out an existence at the subsistence level. During the century old regime of the True Whig Party, the ordinary people in the interior, most of who earned virtually no income, were compelled to pay hut tax under oppressive and inhumane conditions.
In those days, soldiers accompanying the tax collector will firstly intimidate the town chief and collect chickens and goats before beginning to collect the hut tax. Anyone who did not have the money to comply with their tax obligation were either tortured or subjected to degrading treatment until either someone paid for him, or credited money to pay. In some cases family members were taken in servitude(pawned) until the money had been paid.
This repressive and humiliating treatment was abolished after the coup of 1980 when the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) repealed the Hut Tax Law. This was one benefit of the PRC that the poor indigenous people considered an achievement at the time. But the consensus reached by the chiefs to reintroduce the Hut Tax raises more questions than answers.
Why? Because to introduce such a tax that will affect the greater proportion of the population, requires deeper thought and more importantly popular participation and consultation to help enable policy makers determine whether it is indeed the right thing to do. Many are of the opinion that the chiefs and elders in attendance at the Ganta meeting would have held the widest possible consultations before announcing such a decision committing poor rural people to making such tax payments to government.
According to the World Food Program’s(WFP) report of 2013-2017, Liberia ranks 182 among 187 countries of the world, with 1.3 million of its citizens living below the poverty line. WFP statistics show that 64% of Liberians live in extreme poverty. So, what yard stick did the elders use to arrive the conclusion that the reinstitution of the Hut tax was in the best interests of their people?
A point the chiefs and elders stressed in support of their call for the reintroduction of the hut tax is that “It will help to achieve the goals of government’s pro-poor agenda. What then will this “Pro-poor” mean to the Liberian people when the very poor are about to be slapped with financial obligations which they can very well ill afford. Strikingly, their call for some of that tax money to remain in their respective counties for development purposes went virtually ignored by the conveners of the meeting.
We know from various audit reports, that government revenue including taxes generated from other resource streams have ended in the pockets of individuals rather than in development projects. Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said a few months ago that Liberia does generate revenue, but much of the money generated goes to salaries, benefits and other inducements of government officials.
In this current government, the President has openly stated that they have more room to absorb people in government. This means that government’s payroll will be stacked with names that will be entitled to salaries and benefits perhaps even more than what it was in the past. In fact, what readily comes to mind is that the chiefs are on Government payroll and given the long history of state coercion and manipulation of chiefs, it is very well possible that the chiefs may have been manipulated in coming up with this recommendation to reintroduce the Hut tax.
We do not believe that impoverished Liberians facing crises with bad roads, a dysfunctional health system and sub-standard education have to pay hut tax before they stand to be counted as participants in the national economy. Moreover, with corruption eating away the fabric of the nation, it is doubtful whether money raised from the reintroduction of the Hut tax would be applied to the purposes intended.
We remain strongly convinced that a curb on corruption to which the country loses millions of dollars every year would yield tangible financial rewards that could far outweigh what the reintroduction of the Hut tax could ever yield.
We hope the Elders Council will carefully examine their statement well, considering the immense but unnecessary burden such would impose on the very poor people whose interests, this government has pledged to pursue and protect under its Pro Poor agenda.