Though not for the first time, the issue of whether religious organisations should pay tax to the government or not came up again on Tuesday when delegates to the ongoing National Conference overwhelmingly voted that religious bodies in the country should pay taxes. The decision followed the argument of a delegate representing civil society organisations, Mallam Naseer Kura, that the religious organisations were making a lot money and should be taxed. He made this submission during the discussion of the report of the Committee on Religion.
Probably because of the seeming ostentatious lifestyles of some religious leaders, the Confab members did not consider the problems and possible complications of this sensitive matter, as they accepted the proposal. If this proposal becomes the law of the land, it means that churches and mosques in the country will begin to pay tax to the coffers of the government. To this proposal and the thoughts that propelled it, we say an emphatic ‘No’.
To begin with, churches and mosques are non-profit-making institutions, and so, cannot and should not be taxed. The tithes and offerings of worshippers that the proponents of this new tax are targetting are, in actual fact, not on the list of taxable income as espoused by Nigerian Tax Law. The line of thought that gave birth to this proposal is totally emotive. It is a shaky foundation on which to build anything, how much less an issue that has a religious undertone in Nigeria. Nigerians are a deeply religious people who are quite sensitive to things that could infringe on the practice of their religion. Moreover, Section 38 (1) of the Nigerian Constitution guarantees and protects Nigerians’ right to freedom to worship. Most churches and mosques run charitable support programmes for orphans, the destitute and widows. Some even have rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for drug addicts and ex-convicts. All of these are funded by members of the congregation, who pay personal income tax. It will, therefore, amount to double taxation to subject their worship centres to taxation of any kind.
Based on the foregoing, tinkering with religion or the freedom to worship by insisting on taxing church contributions, when those who made them have already paid their taxes, can only lead the nation to a path strewn with landmines. As things stand, Nigeria is already in a delicate situation with regard to religion. We certainly do not need further complications. We suggest that the government at all levels concentrate on what will profit us as a nation and as a people and steer clear of issues that are likely to deepen the divides that already exist in the polity.
Religion has created a lot of problems for Nigeria and it is, indeed, at the root of a lot of the problems that we are currently grappling with. It is absolutely important that government must and should distance itself from religion in Nigeria. However, profit-making businesses like hospitals and schools run by churches should pay tax.
Delegates to the National Conference should focus on the things that will heal existing wounds instead of proposing schemes that will create new ones. They must not lose sight of the real reasons why we are having this conference in the first place. Our worship places are rallying points of unity, our refuge and there is nothing wrong in urging the churches and mosques to do more in empowering their members, and doing charity works. If we bring politics into religion, it is only logical that religion will lose the independence that it is supposed to thrive on, while our polity also gets soiled. We advise that this proposal should never make it into our law books because it will do the nation more harm than the taxes collected can fix. Attempting to close down churches or mosques for non-payment of taxes will be a recipe for crisis. Whatever energy that we want to deploy to make churches and mosques pay taxes should be channeled into going after corporate tax evaders.
On the other hand, we applaud the decision by the delegates to recommend a stop to sponsorship of pilgrimages by the government. This is a step that we ought to have taken long before now. Sponsorship of pilgrimages has no place in national development. It is a waste of national resources that should be used for developmental projects.
As in the taxation issue, government’s involvement in sponsoring of religious pilgrimages is totally unnecessary. What a man does with his maker and how he chooses to worship him is a private affair. Yet, for years, both the federal and state governments have spent millions of naira on sending Nigerians on pilgrimages. This waste of public funds does not portray us as a serious people. It is another channel by which funds that are meant for all Nigerians are used to enrich a few people. Holy pilgrimages should be undertaken by individuals who are interested in them, and can afford the exercise.