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How to get Ghanaians to pay their taxes

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In our series of letters from African writers, Ghanaian journalist Elizabeth Ohene says the government should ban funerals for people who fail to pay taxes.

There is a saying, attributed to American founding father Benjamin Franklin, that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes.

Over here in Ghana, we accept the death bit and make a big deal of it, but we are not too certain about the taxes.

We don’t like paying taxes and the tax people themselves have not been particularly keen on collecting taxes from us. So we all amble on and pretend to be running and living in a modern state.

I know I have said it often but it is worth repeating that it is quite possible for a person to be born, lead a full life, die and be buried in this country, and there will be no record anywhere to show that such a person ever existed.

This aversion to record-keeping makes it easy to avoid the taxman, if you were so minded.

Elizabeth Ohene quote box: "This is the land of elaborate funerals and nothing stands in their way"

Our Vice-President Muhamadu Bawumia has taken it upon himself to change us into a nation that respects record-keeping and we are having a hard time keeping up with all the changes he is pushing: digital addresses for our homes, National Identification Cards, paperless port operations, biometric this and biometric that and, of course, a determination to turn us into taxpayers.

The figures, for what they are worth, make alarming reading. There are almost 30 million Ghanaians, but only 1.5 million are registered to pay taxes and, apparently, just 1.3 million of them actually pay income tax.

But we all demand services from the government, and we are very loud in referring to ourselves as taxpayers.

Doctors threatened

For a very long time, attempts have been made to expand the tax base and get more people to pay taxes but somehow it has never worked. Appeals, public education messages and threats all seem to fall on deaf ears.

Then the concept of the Tax Identification Number (TIN) hit Ghana.

As the saying goes, desperate situations require desperate remedies and the authorities decided to introduce some measures to make us, reluctant Ghanaian taxpayers, change our ways.

Informal worker Victoria Oaorkorat her vegetable stand at Circle market August 13, 2015 in Accra, Ghana

Get a TIN number or you will get into some dreadful trouble with the authorities, we were told.

Two years ago, in November 2016, it was announced that from January 2017, professionals such as doctors, lawyers and surveyors would not be able to renew their licences without a TIN.

Demanding bribes

And no-one would be given a tax clearance certificate to process land title deeds, or do business with any government institution, without a TIN.

Needless to say, January 2017 came and nothing changed very much. So, even more drastic measures were introduced.

You won’t be able to clear goods from the port, open a bank account, file a case at the courts, conduct any business with any government agency, obtain a passport or a drivers’ licence or register a vehicle unless you have a TIN.

I thought that would really do the trick, but the take-up rate remains very low, according to the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA).

Those who are minded to pay their taxes complain that the process of getting a TIN, which is supposed to be painless and cost-free, has been fraught with needless bureaucracy and corruption, a point often made on social media.

When the Minister of Finance, Ken Ofori-Atta, read his recent budget statement, it dawned on us all that even more drastic and innovative ways were being found to make us all sign up for a TIN and to draw more people into the tax bracket.

The most contentious was the suggestion that social interventions by the government would be linked to the possession of a TIN.

In other words, you might not be able to access free health care or enrol your children for free secondary school unless you have a TIN.

‘Beautifully blending death and taxes’

But since the presentation of the budget, government officials appear to be backing down from the suggestion that the popular Free Senior High School programme might be linked to having a TIN.

Social media, of course, is having a field day, dreaming up the most outrageous things you cannot do in Ghana without a TIN.

Mr Ofori-Atta is apparently advising Ghanaian women not to accept proposals from men without a TIN. They are also linking the breathing of air in Ghana to the possession of a TIN.

But I do believe I have got the solution to the non-tax paying problem in Ghana and it lies in the Benjamin Franklin saying about death and taxes being the only certainties in life.
This is the land of elaborate funerals and nothing stands in their way.
So, instead of saying you can’t have a drivers’ licence, passport, free secondary school education for your children, or even go on dates unless you have a TIN number, the new rule should be, you can’t get an undertaker, buy a coffin, dig a grave, keep a body in the morgue, have chief mourners and hold a funeral of any kind unless and until you can produce a TIN.

Make that the law and just wait and see the take-up rate for those signing up for a TIN.

Death and taxes would become beautifully blended certainties and we shall all become taxpayers in Ghana.

BBC

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