Dr. Babatunde Fowler is executive chairman, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). He came to head the federal government’s agency from his previous state assignment as executive chairman, Lagos State Board of Internal Revenue and chief executive officer Lagos State Internal Revenue Service.
Fowler trained in science, economics and a minor in political science. He worked briefly in Johnson and Johnson Nigeria before making a career change into banking. He worked in various departments of his bank and also headed broad and varied areas of banking operations and business development for over 20 years.
He demonstrated his innovative abilities through operational reforms he introduced on the job as a banker and in building business network through rapid retail branch development. He excelled in revenue collections for both state and federal agencies, which he was in charge of in his bank. That placed his bank among the top three banks in all revenue collections.
Having proved himself as a seasoned banker and administrator, Fowler was caught by Tinubu’s fishing boat for experts in 2005 when he was appointed permanent secretary/executive chairman of the Lagos State board of internal revenue. The posting meant upgrading the office of the executive chairman to the highest level in the civil service.
Tinubu’s Lagos development blueprint needed a big funding support and his strategic move to secure that was to grant the board of internal revenue an autonomous and self-accounting status. That was secured in 2006 when the Lagos State Revenue Administration Law came into effect.
It was the first revenue board to become autonomous in Nigeria and Fowler was the man given the mantle as the first chief executive officer of the Lagos State Internal Revenue Service and executive chairman of the Lagos State Board of Internal Revenue. The combination of the two roles made him the czar of revenue collection in the state.
Tinubu’s re-engineering of the state revenue service structure was a huge success and Fowler was the effective driver and writer of the success story. Lagos saw a big leap in internally generated revenue from an average of N3.6 billion monthly at the beginning of 2006 to an average of over N20.5 billion monthly in 2014.
The increase in revenue was structured to rest on improved quality of service delivery to taxpayers, improved efficiency in tax administration through information technology and mobilization of the people towards the development goals of the government.
Fowler’s fame spread far and near as the man, who put his hands on the plough and big harvests followed. Lagos State has since then become the only state in Nigeria that is financially independent of the monthly revenue allocation from the federation account. It is the only state that generates internally more revenue than the monthly allocation figure from the federation account.
Having been faithful in that which is small, Fowler was sent to replicate at the federal level his success story in building tax revenue. He is a typical example of the gene in the character of Tinubu’s men – exceptional performance quality. They go; they see and they conquer. As they conquer at one level, they are sent to a higher level. Fowler was appointed executive chairman of FIRS as soon as Buhari took over government in 2015.
By a wide agreement, Buhari could not have found a better person for the job at FIRS. Buhari needed a man, who could, even by a magic wand, multiply tax revenue at a time that falling crude oil prices sank below budget benchmark. Jerking up internally generated revenue was the only option for heading off the impending fiscal crisis.
It was no time for experimentation; a tested and trusted model that has worked so well for Lagos State along with its driver was critically needed in Abuja. Fowler was equipped and ready for deployment in Abuja from the revenue collection model engine of state in Lagos.
This is typical of how Tinubu’s grooming school works – the availability of ready-made army of the skilled and the talented – winners in their fields of calling ready to be sent to take up higher responsibilities whenever and wherever the duty calls. Bourdillon has in its hatchery and grooming college a pipeline of foot soldiers – professionals and politicians that know their onions.
Fowler is in the good books of those whom knowing their onions has not got into their heads. He balances his foot of five-star performance in Abuja with his second foot of loyalty to Lagos.
Fowler has broken records in building the nation’s internal revenue generating capacity at FIRS. He has applied a number of innovative solutions to finance the operations of the federation, moderating the effect of reduced proportion of oil earnings in aggregate revenue.
Bringing into play the re-engineered Lagos model, the FIRS boss defined his job from the perspective of capacity building rather than meeting temporary gap in oil earnings. His duty, he says, is to build a sustainable system of tax administration that remains intact even in the midst of an upturn in crude oil earnings.