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Tax Authorities and the power to destroy: The new Zambian case

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ZRABy Dr. Munyonzwe Hamalengwa

There has never been a newspaper in the history of the world that has been closed down by the Tax Authorities for tax arrears when that newspaper continues to pay its monthly due and has tried to make arrangements to pay off the debt in reasonable installments.

ZRA closed The Post Newspaper

ZRA closed The Post Newspaper on Tuesday for allegedly failure to remit tax

Tax authorities are a government agency and is one of the most politicized and secretive government institution anywhere, along with intelligent agencies, the police, the army and the judiciary. Sometimes there is direct command from central headquarters, meaning the Presidency, sometimes it is by osmosis. The institution, i.e the tax or revenue department will always claim institutional independence. They will show the evidence that the target owes money, so the harassment or closure is due to the tax debt and not political interference. Only the naive will buy this charade.

Revenue or Tax Authorities always mean to destroy the enemies or perceived enemies or the opposition of the current government. The closure of a newspaper in a democracy uses the same method as in a dictatorship with some variations of course. The usual method is simply for the authorities to go and shut down the paper and seize its assets. Additional methods are used in authoritarian  states, the targeted killing of newspaper proprietors and journalists.

In mature democracies, tax authorities don’t close businesses if the tax payer enters into a reasonable agreement with them. They would rather receive a little than nothing. They would rather have the employees working to feed their families than for the employees to lose their jobs and be hauled into the ranks of the poverty- stricken and destitute. People who can’t any tax at all.

The government uses the tax authorities to destroy its enemies or perceived enemies or the opposition when direct destruction would not be politically correct. The government has to camouflage its operations, hence the use of revenue or tax authorities to destroy the categorized enemies.

John Andrews has written a book which is self explanatory and is instructive about how the government uses the tax or revenue authorities to destroy the targeted enemies. It is on all fours with what is happening in many countries including Zambia. The book is entitled, Power to Destroy: The Political Uses of the IRS (Internal Revenue Service- equivalent to Zambia Revenue Authority) from Kennedy to Nixon. Civil rights leaders, students, political enemies, black groups etc were targeted. The government pretended to be out of the picture but this book exposed the charade. Many individuals, including innocent ones have been destroyed by the government using the draconian tax or revenue authorities.

While democracy is regarded as the worst form of government except for all the others, its main attraction is that occasionally it exerts accountability on the powers-that-be. In the US democracy, a Senator decided to hold the tax or revenue authorities to account for their abuse of power in the 1990s. He conducted hearings which resulted in the book authored by the Senator himself and another person. The self-explanatory book  is authored by William Roth and William Nixon and entitled, The Power to Destroy: How the IRS Became America’s Most Powerful Agency and How Congress is Taking Control and What You Can Do to Protect Yourself Under the New Law.

This question is yet to be asked in Zambia. But as long as you have democracy of sorts, accountability will always happen down the road. This rarely fails. This is the law of history.
The Jews under Adolf Hitler came up with an immortal statement: when they came after the gypsies, I didn’t speak up because I am not a gypsy; when they came after the trade unionists,  I didn’t speak up because I was not a trade unionist; when they came after the communists, I didn’t speak because I was not a communist and then they came after me, and there was no one left to speak for me. Will this apply in Zambia?

Dr. Munyonzwe Hamalengwa is Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at Zambian Open University.

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