Challenge Namra on substance not salaries

The key outtake from the Namibia Public Workers Union’s (Napwu) temporary clash with the Namibia Revenue Agency (Namra) is the continuous and unrealistic expectation that skilled, experienced staff needed to do technical work can be recruited on the cheap. Jobs that demand hard-to-find, specific skills, and über integrity, pay a salary commensurate with the market; there are no shortcuts.

To make matters worse, the usual jealous drumbeaters in the public and media are complaining about Namra’s salaries. As usual, their basis for such negative queries is aligned with their self-interest and paycheques. Namibia may be at the dawn of the #newnormal, but there are disturbing echoes of past whingeing over money in this Namra/Napwu scuffle.

There is no doubt that Namra must always be under public scrutiny for their effectiveness and equal pursuit of tax dodgers regardless of political or financial standing. But the relentless drone of remuneration complaints is a waste of energy. Napwu’s initial attacks on the nascent revenue agency made no sense. Their subsequent 180-degree turnaround could be interpreted to indicate that someone in authority correctly told the union to stand down.

A more relevant concern for the country is why this agency is taking so long to begin implementing tax collection regulations and advocating for updates and improvements in the existing law. Improper tax collection has been a drain on the country even before independence. Namra with teeth that bite equally could be a tiny step towards correcting the long history of ineffective revenue collection and tax recordkeeping.

No one wants the taxman to knock on their door; Namra has a thankless, politically volatile task. Aside from the ability to withstand political pressure, they need superb financial research and accounting skills. Those working at Namra must know Namibia’s tax laws and regulations inside out and be willing and able to apply them in all cases.

They will have access to highly confidential tax information and must keep their mouths shut regarding what they see and hear at work. They must never make quiet comments to their spouses or families. They can never make off-hand quips at social events. There can be no leaks and no rumormongering about what they have read in any document related to their jobs. To do this is not as easy as it may sound.

The issue at hand is not what someone’s salary level is. The point is job performance – what is required for earning that salary. Suppose a Namra executive is part of the team that generates increased revenues at a particular level. In that case, salaries reflective of that income can be justified. The opposite of that is also true and punitive actions should be taken. For now, it is too soon for the jealousy crew to begin carping. The performance clock should start ticking when the agency is up and running, fully staffed, with all regulations in effect.

Namra should spend its energy figuring out a way to go to the regions and find income that has never been taxed. In many areas of the country, Namibians have no tradition of filing or paying income taxes or recording their income.

The informal economy could be nearly as large as the formal economy, and it is untaxed and likely, untaxable. The revenue agency must focus on this puzzle and come up with solutions.

With modern ways of earning income and tax laws that are out of step, Namra must advise the government using research and best practices worldwide to address the situation.

While chasing every dollar that should rightfully end up in the treasury, Namra cannot become stormtroopers, violating privacy rights, intimidating citizens, or scaring off investors.

Screaming about salary levels and union involvement in any way is premature with the real start-up challenges Namra faces. Those watching the agency should wait until the rich, powerful, and famous get caught owing taxes and see what happens to them. Will ordinary Namibians be whipped with tax laws while the big fish doing the same thing slide by silently?

These are the issues where public attention on Namra must fixate, not on salary levels.

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