Bishop Dr. Emmah Isong is the National Publicity Secretary of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, PFN, and the General Overseas of Christian Central Chapel International, CCCI, Ikot Ene Obong 8 Miles, Calabar. Isong also doubles as the Director General Cross River State Anti- Illegal Tax Agency under the Governor Ben Ayade administration. In this interview with NSAN NDOMA-NEJI, Isong explains why he accepted to serve in Ayade’s administration, rather than concentrate on preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Excerpts:
Prominent Nigerians, including the likes of Prof. Wole Soyinka and Tai Solarin have been called upon in the past to serve the nation, but they don’t have good stories to tell. Bishop, what actually informed your accepting to serve in Governor Ben Ayade administration, instead of concentrating on preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ?
I will give you seven answers: one, don’t score the ball outside of the pitch, you score the ball in the pitch. Second, if you want to cook the chicken, enter the kitchen; three, if you have a vice, if you have a platform, you are a noise.
Fourthly, a bishop is one that influences governments, organisations and not only the pulpit; ask Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Jesse Jackson and also, I am a financial expert on taxation, the best graduating student from the University of Calabar and finally 7,000 people have left this church over 20 years ago, because of uncomfortable and inconvenient business environment connected to illegal taxation; and therefore if you have opportunity to kneel down and correct something, and you have been kneeling down and fasting for forty days why not if your intentions are correct
Did you say 7,000 people have left the church?
Yes, 7,000 people have left the church to Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Lagos, London Canada. I should give you names, I have their names, I am not the only person shouting; don’t forget, a pastor shouted in Lagos recently. You are a witness to the mass exodus of people from this state to Akwa Ibom State; and the reasons are connected to illegal taxation and unfriendly business environment, and therefore the onus is on you to stop fasting and praying and take action, if you believe what you have been saying is true, if you want the chicken, enter the kitchen.
Your agency recently made some arrests, but the judiciary in the state is facing some crisis as a result of the absence of a chief judge, to what extent is this affecting the activities of your agency?
You must always take governmental activities holistically and not particularly. Cross River State judiciary as it were, for a few days not meeting is peculiar to a certain moment, its not a forever situation; the government is a going concern and the judiciary will not be out forever.
People were arrested yesterday and the law provides 48 hours in custody, if they are being bailed, they are not being bailed out of their crime, but out of detention and they will still be called back to the special court to face the music.
But what happened yesterday and its going to happen for the next two and a half years is that people had thought the Cross River State Anti-Tax Agency is just a noise maker and have no teeth to bite, we proved to them yesterday that we have more teeth than even the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, to bite and we are going to be very serious in our enforcement activities. Our particular concern is that Cross Riverians, particularly the low income earners should go about doing their businesses without fear or embarrassment in consonance with His Excellency’s fiat that relieves them of all tax responsibilities in line with the 2015 Tax Exemption Law that gives these Cross Riverians a tax exemption. Funny enough, not only Cross Riverians, but resident in Cross River. The governor is particularly very concerned. The way I am seeing this anti tax agency, Ayade’s signature project may not be sea port, superhighway, but may be the love and care of the lowest of the low; it may become his signature project and this is why I personally take it serious.
You can recall how the governor himself wept on the day they inaugurated this agency, I have never seen a public officer shed tears in public, he has the police, army, he is the chief security officer of the state and he has shown and proved that he was serious over this and it was not crocodile tears, he has released vehicles, money and my agency is directly under His Excellecy, it is not under any department and is purely on its own and I communicate with the governor everyday; as at yesterday, we communicated. So how more serious can a public officer show, to me, it’s about the poor people, and you know this has always been my passion. If you have prayed and fasted for 40 days, why not take the platform of government and execute it, if you are really serous about it?
So for me, the judiciary is just on break for a while, very unfortunate, but if people are released after 48 hours, it does not mean they are free from the long arm of the law, but apart from that, arresting them publicly is also a strong deterrent and you know what the Bible said that God is not willing for anybody to perish, but also repent; so if they have fasted and prayed and God allowed the judiciary to go on break and we release all of them, then their pastors’ prayers have been answered, but that does not mean they should continue; Jesus said go and sin no more, so I can release them if they promise that they will not go back and sin again.
You seem to have so much confidence in the governor of the state, Professor Ben Ayade, can you tell us the basis for this?
Any government appointee who does not believe in his principal should be sacked; even God himself said as many that come to me should believe that He is and a rewarder of them that believe in Him. I am collecting government salary, and you should not tell me to doubt my principal or will you pay me every month?Now, back to your question, His Excellency has very many areas he has been criticized and areas which he has been admired ,but I choose those area which he is admired by even you journalists, the areas of his compassion for the poor, even when he was not senator or governor.
You all know me, Bishop Emmah Isong loves the poor, you all know me that I love to help, empower and give to people. In our church, I don’t know if you have heard, recently I share out money, clothes, I give about 5000 people clothes, food and money every year. During COVID-19 serious lockdown, I am the only pastor that cooked rice, went to the streets and distributed the palliatives to all neighbourhoods and in the last convention of the church, I took out tens of thousands of bread and shared to the whole community and I have had 800 Cross Riverians pass through my house, many are on scholarships, and I have chartered accountants and here I am meeting a governor, who may not be very strong in many areas, but has a strong soft spot for the poor, I think we tangle and I better stay in that angle.
And you are aware, Ayade and I have sympathy and empathy for widows, the poor masses and therefore the Cross River State Anti-Tax Agency becomes the melting pot and the pivot upon which all our discussions revolve. For me, all leaders have area to be critized and areas to be admired. My advise, harness the ones you admire and work with it, it could help somebody and this is really helping so many people. Taxi drivers are jubilating, Keke NAPEP riders are jubilating, and when they are embarrassed, they have people to report to, so, psychologically that is a big answer to questions, at least whom to talk to, a line to call, somebody to report to, so for me, Ben Ayade has captured my heart and if you look at his political life recently, where he should have failed woefully and disgraced, he has not been disgraced, because men of God are also praying for him; you are my witness, you know the governor should have been knocked off, disgraced, he has miraculously had some succour; you know that the grace of God is sufficient to leaders, God does not want us to be 100 percent perfect, but just wants us to depend on Him to help us and that is what is helping him.
As the boss of the state’s Anti Tax Agency, what has been your successes and challenges?
We are just four months old as an agency, and don’t forget, starting from ground zero; we did not inherit any file or document to start the agency; so I am the first chairman to start the agency and the agency is the first of its kind in sub-Sharan Africa, if not the whole of Africa, so we can count our achievement that we have successfully sensitized and mobilized the population to their rights and privileges in terms of tax exemption.
Secondly, we have synergized with all MDAs to bring order to the hitherto rough streets of Calabar. Thirdly, we have become catalyst to the business environment, holding seminars and workshps, sensiting the public in using this short period of tax exemption as a post COVID-19 palliative. You know businesses were down during the COVID-19 period, so the Anti-Tax Agency has become the relief agency, palliative agency to give sighs of relief to those poorest of the poor Cross Riverians, so they can run their businesses. We have also been able to lay down infrastructure, we have bought vehicles, acquired our headquarters secretariat, I am sure you are aware of 206A First Avenue, opposite UG Wills Hotel, its being renovated and will be furnished next week. We have also recruited 18 local government representatives with offices across the 18 local government areas and we have given 18 hot lines to the people who we inaugurated, they work together with the executive chairmen of these local governments and they create environment for better businesses, we have also raised up a team of paramilitary, trained them; we call the the Anti-Tax Agency Brigade, and this is employment to a lot of Cross Riverians and this anti tax brigade go about with other law enforcement officers to ensure enforcement of the governors anti tax policies and of course enlightening Cross Riverians. Before I came here, I had a call from one young man who said he runs a barbing salon along Goldie, saying they are threatening him; of course, one phone call and whoever was troubling him had run away, some sort of answers at least not yet perfect, just like saying that because we have police force there is no more armed robbery, so there are still some pockets of embarrassment here and there, but I can tell you that even those that do that, do it with fear, like they say in their camps that the fear of the anti tax is the beginning of wisdom.
Most of the boys who indulge in this act seem to have the backing of top shots in the society, have you been receiving calls from these people and how do you intend to handle it?
In our research, we can now see why the governor appointed only pastors and members of the clergy into the political space, it is becoming clearer and during our inauguration, he said I appoint you guys because of the integrity you possess, it never dawned on us until we hit the ground running. We now noticed that if I put it in Ibibio proverb – it is Mr. Otu’s goat that ate Otu’s yam. So if it is Otu’s goat that ate his yams, who will pay, is it Otu, or his goats, that answers a lot of your questions. The touts you see on the roads and the streets, oppressing Cross Riverians, this thing is very serious, people go to the market and harass your mothers and sisters, those touts are not of themselves, they are being sent to those revenue points by politicians, especially local government chairmen, they are sent there as rewards for electoral victories, when we win, when I am appointed this, when I go to the House of Assembly, become a councillor or chairman, I will give you 8 miles Scanobo, I will give you Marian Market Ika Ika Oqua, so these are election promises in the secret, you and I did not know, that is why activities of illegal taxation and levies surges immediately after local government elections, and therefore the narrative is very true that the people you arrest on the streets are sons and daughters, they are chip off the old block, so what is the anti tax going to do, hold onto the little lion and the mother lion will come out, we are holding onto these little lions and are having calls which I will not tell you who and who, but I can tell you,high profile calls are coming, people are on their knees begging, just let my people go, questions are coming up for IRS and I can tell you in confidence that His Excellency has the opportunity himself to discover that people of timber and calibre are behind this. Yesterday somebody called me and said the governor called him and told him so you are behind the masquerade that has been oppressing Cross River State? So to the glory of God, and to the good of the people of Cross River State, we are unmasking the masquerades, revealing the big guns, we do hope that with these activities, they should repent and I want Cross Riverians, residents and others to cooperate with the Cross River State Anti-Tax because there is no way the government will deal with cultism without dealing with anti tax, because many occultic bosses, many fraternities, have their boys at revenue points settling their masters, those boys are sent, to me they are innocent, they are being sent as a form of compensation, but we are saying no to illegal taxation, because these things increases prices, by the time you impose illegal taxes on petty traders and small businesses, by chain reaction, they are going to put it on our products, transport fare and that chain effect is the resultant high cost of living. So, if you support anti tax as journalists, we are likely going to have a better standard of living in a town where we are farmers, traders. Why should we be paying so much, so we need to unveil them and hope they will repent.
What would you like to be remembered for after your time at the Anti-Tax Agency?
I want to be remembered as a pastor who was on his knee, praying for the land to change and suddenly he grabbed the saddle of a government agency, picked it up himself and with the people and cooperation of others, people are now returning to Calabar. We want to see industries, supermarkets, companies returning, I want to say that after Bishop Emmah Isong finished his tenure, have you heard that this company is back, this person is back the Ibos, Cross Riverians, who left have returned. Cross River has become the melting point for tourism and also a rounding point for trade and industry, I really want to be that pastor who was a catalyst that helped to quicken this kind of economic reactions, I will be so excited. I want my church to be full of people who say,’Papa I am back’ like in Ruth 1, the Bible says when Naomi heard that God has visited Bethlehem and given them bread, she returned and said why am I staying in the land of Moab? I can go back. I want to see a lot of Bekwarra people, Ejagham people, Efik people even including visitors return to Calabar as a place of peace and prosperity, I will really be very happy.
What are your regrets in the course of handling the assignment and how do you see the future?
The only regret I have is that this Anti-Tax did not come in the first tenure of His Excellency, because the Anti Tax Law was passed in 2015, but the anti tax agency was inaugurated in 2020, so that is the only regret. I wish we could set back the hand of the clock to read 2015 and this were my second term as chairman of anti tax, I think a lot would have taken place, because I am very proactive person, I stand for what I believe, I take the bull by the horn. I am educated in the area which I am functioning and also have a spiritual compassion as a man of God, I think we would have been better.
Now the future, I see a state where our normal products like cocoa, cassava, palm oil and pineapple will be exported and used as an economic catalyst, I see a state that will not just be dependent on the civil service, because right now we are purely a civil service state. I see a state that through the anti tax agency, will help revive businesses and create employment. We are having part two of the anti tax agency, let me let the cat out of the bag, the anti tax agency has part two, where we not just arrest these touts but also creating farms, industries where we pick these people from the road, not to prison but to farms, industries, jobs we have created because an idle hand is the devils workshop. Job creation will reduce crime and touting in Cross River State.
Does the anti tax law make provision for a brigade?
In law or administration, you don’t need to wait for a law for everything; for instance, if I say pick me my handbag from my house, you can use taxi, run, jump through the bush, so the means of achieving an end is not of importance to anybody, so far you do it legally. The brigades are part of our means to achieve and has been approved by the relevant authorities.
Do you have a future political ambition?
We should not be planning to go into politics, politics should be planning to go into us, when you become relevant in your area of interest, let me give you wisdom, when you love people, change their lives and affect communities, they will come cap in hand and beg you and plead with you to sere them, and this is how it should be. Nobody should go into politics by literal interpretation, politics should go into us. In Judges 11:1-5, you see a man called Jephthah, he was thrown away by his colleagues, they say you are not from there, your mother was a harlot, they cast aspersions on him, but if you check 4 – 5, the Bible says when he had trained himself, became relevant, went to a village called Toab, they came looking for him, each of us, including all those that are reading this should not go into politics, they should wait for politics to come to us, they should wait for opportunities to knock on our doors and when it does, the Bible says in Ecclesiastes 11, time and chance happeneth to every one, so every time should wait for a chance, we shouldn’t make this thing artificial. What we are suffering today in Nigeria is that many politicians are self-made, opportunists, they just capitalise, grab and eat our money, but if you are serving and helping people, at a point the people will come to you and say we have found you a saviour, help us. Spend your time loving, helping and serving people and one day they will come to you and beg you, so, I think that is how politics should be redefined in Nigeria.