Feature Article of Monday, 25 February 2013
Columnist: Mienza, Ebenezer
A February 23, 2013 Ghanaweb news article, titled “Gov’t to widen tax net”, indicated that our new finance minister, Mr. Seth Terkper, wants to broaden the tax base to collect more revenue. The article did not state how he was going to accomplish that, but I would like to remind our Honorable Mr. Terkper that many countries, in both the developing and developed world, collect revenue through effective use of personal identification number and address systems. Honestly, I’m perturbed by the lack of attention to this vital issue by our past and present government officials (including Mr. Terkper) who have spent considerable amount of time outside Ghana - in countries where IDs and addresses go hand in hand with tax collection. For instance, each legal resident in the U.S. (children, men, women, employed, unemployed, and private businesses) is provided a tax ID number. This number literally follows you wherever you go within the country. Uncle Sam (U.S. government) even tag babies with Tax ID numbers (social numbers) as soon as they are born – with the hope that they would grow up and soon become happy taxpayers.
Notwithstanding the minster’s good intention to broaden the tax base, if this issue of ID numbers, house numbering, and street naming is not tackled, we might as well kiss our targeted middle income status goodbye. If we fail to prepare this necessary groundwork prior to any implementation of additional tax collection mechanisms it would be difficult to broaden the tax net to bring in more revenue. This would be analogous to the farmer who hastily plants his seeds without proper soil preparation. Many of our past and current leaders, including Dr. Duffour and Mr. Terkper, received higher-level education in the U.S. and should therefore know better. Identification systems such as, addresses, street names, social security numbers, etc. when incorporated into a national data based computer system would not only be an effective tax collection tool, but also could be utilized by government agencies to solve many social problems. Hospitals, fire services, ambulances, the internal revenue service, district assemblies, police and law enforcement agencies, banks, and other private companies would benefit from such a database to track and resolve problems within our communities. Of course, it may be politically expedient to ignore this issue and purposefully place it on the back burner because the Ghanaian electorate won’t immediately see its benefit. Nevertheless, if we don’t immediately tackle our tax collection systems at the grass root level, through the creation of addresses and ID systems, our government won’t be able to increase its tax revenue sources to finance all the projects promised during the election campaigns. Hopefully, President Mahama would finally complete this long overdue house and street address project, which he promised when he was Vice-President.
We can quickly accomplish the street names and addresses project by consulting with the Google Company. I’m sure Google would be happy to assist the Ghana government map out (via Google maps) our highways, streets, plots of land, and even individual homes. With this information from Google company, individual homes and lands, for example, could be assigned ID numbers to aid the AMA and other district assemblies identify (via online and from any computer) any house, old or new within each community, and collect property taxes for local development. I can bet that there are many rich homeowners in the plush neighbourhoods of Trassaco Valley and East Legon who are not paying property taxes on their homes.
The personal identification number project could be promptly achieved if we involve the massive unemployed youth. God has blessed Ghana with lots of smart university and SSS graduates who are unfortunately unemployed. We can reduce this high unemployment rate by outsourcing this project to a private company and mandating it to hire these unemployed graduates to carry this task throughout the country. NDC and NPP youth foot soldiers would be employed and happy- leaving our dear politicians to have their piece of mind to do what they do best, i.e., being politicians. Furthermore, beginning from our hospitals and elementary schools, we could make sure that every new born baby and a school beginner is given a life time identification number which would form part of a national birth and death data base (computer) system.
A couple of years ago, on a trip to Ghana, a flight attendant of an international airline who handed me an immigration form to complete prior to our landing at Kotoka airport was stunned when I told her that I don’t know my Ghanaian house address and street name. She told me to do my best and put something down because it is required by Ghana Immigration. I laughed at her comment because our immigration officials were fully aware that apart from post office box numbers we don’t have house and street addresses in Ghana. I made up an address, but I almost wrote: “Beige House near Tall Mango Tree on Spintex Road”. I don’t mean to be funny here, but the lack of house numbers, street names and numbers, and personal identification numbers is a national shame.
We should urgently solve this problem in order to augment our internal revenue base because the current global financial crises may, very soon, force donor nations to withdraw aid to Ghana. I believe that with good planning (using efficient address and personal identification systems) we can quickly increase revenue and wean ourselves from our addiction to foreign loans and aid.