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Tax in Africa: High on the agenda in Burundi

Tax issues are high on the agenda of African governments. At an international level, Prime Minister David Cameron has used the UK’s presidency of the G8 to call for greater efforts to promote trade, tax compliance and transparency. Clause 4 of the Lough Erne Declaration released at the G8 summit in June 2013 stated that “developing countries should have the information and capacity to collect the taxes owed them – and other countries have a duty to help them”.

While the commitment to counter deleterious international tax scheming is laudable, in many of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa a similar – and arguably even more imperative – campaign is being waged to achieve efficient collection and administration of domestic tax revenues. That is the focus of this Policy Voice authored by the senior management of the Office Burundais des Recettes (OBR).

In 2010, the Transparency International (TI) East African Bribery Index listed Burundi as the most corrupt country in the region. Burundi’s tax department was named as the most corrupt institution, dislodging the Kenya Police from the top spot. Even allowing for the limitations of such indices, the backdrop for the creation of the OBR – a new, semi-autonomous revenue authority – was inauspicious.

A mountain to climb…

The scale of corruption in Burundi noted by TI in 2010 was crippling, though not surprising. The Arusha peace agreement signed a decade earlier had been a major step towards ending a civil war that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Burundians since 1993. However, that peace was still fragile and the economy prostrate. Burundi’s GDP per capita was the lowest in the world at US$150. Four-fifths of the population subsisted below the US$1 income per day poverty line. It was estimated that annual GDP growth of 8% would be required until 2015 for Burundi even to regain its limited pre-war level of national income per capita. Yet average GDP growth during the 2000s had been a mere 3%, barely outstripping the rate of population growth. Foreign direct investment in Burundi for the period 2000-08 amounted to less than 0.2% of GDP.

Given the economic and political backdrop, the assertion in the 2010 African Economic Outlook that “vast financial resources will have to be raised via sufficient direct or indirect taxation [in Burundi]” seemed to articulate an utterly implausible ambition. An almost simultaneous report from the African Development Bank observed that the structure of – and outlook for – the Burundian economy were “severe binding constraints to domestic resource mobilisation” Most important of all, in a society riven with distrust after years of conflict the state was arguably the most distrusted entity of all. While revenue collection had not collapsed during the war – it was in the interests of the political elite to retain access to this important source of rent and the tax base was very narrow – public tax “morale”, or the willingness to comply, was non-existent.

A route to reform

In 2009, despite the signally inhibitive outlook, the Burundian government began implementing a number of measures to improve public financial management. One of these was a tax revenue modernisation programme which included the creation of the OBR and the introduction of value added tax (VAT). Having joined the East African Customs Union in 2009, regional integration was a stated priority of the government following the 2010 elections. The potential of a market of 120m people was self-evident Burundi is a small, landlocked country of nine million inhabitants, with an undiversified economy vulnerable to external shocks and lacking basic infrastructure.

In 2011, Burundi held the presidency of the East African Community. That year, tax revenue collected by the OBR was nearly 60% higher than in 2009 – one-third higher in real terms. An initial target of improving the contribution of tax revenues to GDP by 1% before 2016 had already been achieved. In 2012, taxes collected by the OBR rose to BIF527 billion US$350m), 75% more than in 2009, and the contribution of tax revenues to GDP was 16.7% against 13.8% in 2009.

The actions taken by the OBR to achieve this substantial improvement are described in this Policy Voice. They included a recruitment drive of unprecedented proportions for Burundi and the strict enforcement of a rigorous Code of Conduct for employees. An anti-corruption drive was supported by President Nkurunziza’s own commitment to zero tolerance of corruption. Legislative reforms, more efficient procedures, co-operation with other government agencies and ministries where possible, investment in IT systems, an on-going effort to widen the tax base and a drive to professionalise customs operations at the borders have been equally important. Rather unusually, many modern practices and “good governance” initiatives applied by tax administrations in developed economies have proved equally appropriate and effective in Africa.

The OBR is targeting the collection of BIF1.2 trillion (US$800m) in tax revenue by 2017. If this were achieved, a much higher proportion of the government’s budget would be funded by taxes than the current 50%. A series of business reforms, included those in which the OBR has been instrumental, have seen Burundi’s position in the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings rise from 181 out of 183 countries in 2011 to 159 in 2013.

Consolidation is key

Despite its achievements to date, the OBR sees no room for complacency. As the authors point out, it takes between six and eight years to establish a fully functioning revenue authority. Many similar institutions in Africa have found the initial rate of improvement in tax collection impossible to sustain. Retention of the best staff is particularly difficult as they are keenly sought by private sector employers. Autonomy – or semi-autonomy – is often compromised by repeated political intervention. Revenue authorities are typically designed to deal with formal entities, whereas the livelihoods of the vast majority of the population are informal and, in most cases, rural.

For the OBR, continued progress is dependent on a favourable political, economic and legislative environment. President Nkurunziza has declared that Burundi “is now out of the post-conflict period and is truly committed to the path of development”, but a complex and multipolar political landscape remains tense, GDP growth at 4% is inadequate and the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees creates considerable social and economic strain.

In September 2013, the IMF stated that “a recommitment to revenue mobilisation by further strengthening tax administration and containing exemptions is critical”  in Burundi. As the authors of this Policy Voice point out, “taxation is never popular, but it is a necessity for national development and functioning democracy”. Taxation can play a part in fostering a sense of citizenship and a compact between government and the voters – but only if a reciprocal obligation is respected by both parties. Taxpayers have a right to see their taxes spent wisely and in a transparent manner. Government has a right to tax only if it is committed to deliver essential services in exchange for compliance from the taxpayer.

The raising of much higher tax revenues is a tall order for the OBR, as – for the government – are promises to improve substantially the welfare of Burundians. While higher revenue will indeed be critical for the health of the public purse in Burundi, the well-judged deployment of public funds will be essential for social cohesion and stability.

Edward Paice is Director at Africa Research Institute

October 2013