Burundi – give Caesar what belongs to him
I will start on the good side of the coin. Burundi’s popularity, especially for those who have not been there, hinges largely on its beautiful natural beaches stretching along Lake Tanganyika.
One of the spectacular scenes at these beaches comes in the evenings when the sun hovers over the horizon of Lake Tanganyika, leaving fading rays that light the skyline.
Because of this scenery, quite relaxing, a good number of youthful Rwandans escape the rather docile night life of Kigali to enjoy a fun packed weekend in Bujumbura.
This is good. However, the bad side of the coin that we need to know and do something, especially as members of the East African Community, is the unfair tax regime.
Burundi’s elite politicians and Senior Public Servants do not pay taxes.
According to a Reuters news report, President Pierre Nkurunziza is trying to rectify this by recommending a law that will compel hundreds of public office-holders to pay tax on their salaries and allowance. Once passed, this law would require the President, members of cabinet, Lawmakers, and anyone appointed by Presidential decree to pay taxes.
Unfortunately, the draft proposal for this bill was recently kicked out of Parliament, for what the Honourable Lawmakers described as a poorly done draft. And still, the other unfortunate part of this saga is that this tax exemption for the officials is enshrined in the constitution and, therefore, requires a constitutional amendment.
If this is not shocking then it is absurd.
First of all, what was the intention of whoever coined such a principle in the supreme law of the country? How insensitive, selfish and unpatriotic to hide behind a constitutional provision to escape taxes.
Yes, Burundi has had its troubles. And true, Burundi’s politicians might be paid peanuts and possibly carry no other auxiliary benefits. My point of departure is on a moral ground. That politicians or senior public servants can be so insensitive to impose taxes on the common man and excuse themselves from this responsibility.
We all know that Burundi is not a rich country. Though the country has made some significant strides in putting things in order, like setting up a Revenue collection body and implementing several financial management reforms, the country still survives largely on external donations.
More than 50 per cent of Burundi’s budget is externally financed. Its infrastructure is dilapidated, its export base is weak and more than half of the population falls within the extreme poverty bracket.
With all this, the burden of footing the bill to keep government running lies squarely on the shoulders of those within the lower income bracket. The tax regime is regressive in such a manner that an individual with a monthly salary of $50 is the one to pay taxes while the one earning $200-$4000 is exonerated, according to the Reuters report.
Yet according the corruption index released recently, Burundi ranks the most corrupt in the region. This means that the very person who evades taxes is the same person stealing what has been collected from the common man. Meaning that the elite class is benefitting twice – through tax exonerations and also pocketing the little from whoever pays their dues.
Much as the President should be given credit for trying to change the situation, albeit with resistance from lawmakers, the draft proposal is itself not sufficient and reads quite unfair. It suggests that the President and other officials would pay 10 per cent tax on their salary to maximise the country's tax base. Yet, ordinary Burundians pay between 27 to 35 per cent tax on their incomes.
Why would you subject those in the lower income bracket to pay higher percentages while the rich pay less?
This is why I think the EAC should have a voice on this matter. Issues of taxation are issues that cut across our borders. If the bloc is determined to fully integrate, then we cannot only stop at harmonising policies but also pinpoint out what tastes bad. A developing Kenya and a stagnant Burundi is not good for the bloc. A successful healthy policy in Rwanda should provide a platform for a similar one in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi.
Even more important, is the dignity that we have been crying out loud, especially here in Rwanda. The ability to end decades of dependency – decades of surviving at the mercy or hands-outs from others.
As a region, this should be a collective vision. But it can only succeed if the political elite class takes the lead. Burundi’s politicians need to wake up to this reality. They must give Caesar what belongs to Caesar.
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