Why Nigeria Cannot Enforce Tax Against Facebook, Google, Others—Expert

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Nigeria will find it impossible to place taxes on the transactions of foreign tech companies like Netflix, Facebook, Google, Youtube and other virtual firms without foreign help, Head of Research at SBM Intelligence, Ikemesit Effiong, has said.

It will be recalled that the federal government announced its intent to tax OTT’s in the Finance act the president signed earlier in the year.

The legal document, which reviewed the countries tax policies, included any business that “transmits, emits, or receives signals, sounds messages, images or data of any kind by cable, radio, electromagnetic systems or any other electronic or wireless apparatus to Nigeria in respect of any activity including electronic commerce, application store, high-frequency trading, electronic storage, online adverts, participative network platform, online payments and so on, to the extent that the company has a significant economic presence in Nigeria and profit can be attributable to such activity.”

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Effiong told reporters that it would be difficult for the federal government to calculate the Nigerian derived earnings of these companies’ activities.

He is sceptical about how the government will, for example, find out the volume of activities engaged in by Nigeria’s estimated 20m Facebook users and how much each transaction yielded in revenue.

He said countries across the world were discussing how to tax over the top technologies (OTT’s) and virtual firms that do not have end-user telecommunication infrastructure and share the profit.

“The only way I see Nigeria being able to negotiate a tax regime (OTT) will be for them to collaborate with our European and American partners,” he said.

“I can’t think of any African economy – South Africa included– that can do this on their own. Even global powers like the US and the EU are struggling with this.”

The minister for finance, Zainab Ahmed, gave clarity on how the government plans to implement the new tax regime by issuing the Companies Income Tax (Significant Economic Presence) Order. The finance minister is also empowered by the law to determine who a SEP is.

In the letter of the order, the first guiding principle in identifying who a SEP is will be to check if the company has sustained interaction with customers in Nigeria or agents of foreign entities based in Nigeria and have an annual earning in any currency whose value comes up to N25m or more. 

Firms that fall into this category have been asked by the order to customize their platforms to enable them to receive payment in naira for taxable reasons.

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“A foreign entity providing technical services such as training, advertising, supply of personnel, professional, management or consultancy services shall have a SEP in Nigeria in any accounting year if it earns any income or receives any payment from a person resident in Nigeria or a fixed base or agent of a foreign entity in Nigeria,” the act reads. 

Education service providers are exempted though. Companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google, that make as much money off traffic as they do from promoted posts, would be difficult to tax, experts believe.

Most of these OTT firms do not have offices in Nigeria. Those who do only maintain a representational presence and Effiong thinks this is the flaw in the plan.

“If Facebook says we had 17m unique visits, how are you as a country going to quantify and verify it?” he wondered. 

Explaining that every taxpaying entity in the country has to open their books to the federal or state revenue boards, Effiong said OTTs have to largely comply, they have to be transparent about the number of Nigerian users they have, the ads those users clicked on, what the monetary cost of those ads was… for tax authorities to be able to assess them.” 

Save for a Chinese/Iranian/Russian mode of internet monitoring, the lawyer said it would be impossible for the government to validate the genuineness of the data it is given.

Kenya is another African country that has attempted to levy an OTT. Its revenue authority said in a recent draft regulation that foreign companies offering digital services should register in the country to pay value-added tax or get a tax representative.

Outside Africa, France has been the most desperate to begin charging virtual firms for the number of undeclared profits they earn across the world. 

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In January, Macron’s government said it was going to go ahead of the EU conversation on the matter to collect three per cent of the global annual earnings of these firms. 

That move was swiftly countered by the Trump administration, who threatened to massively heighten excise duties on goods coming out of France. Since then, Coronavirus has stalled the possibility of a joint tax regime for over-the-top technologies in the European Union.

Nigeria and Kenya are chasing the monies that could come from this new pull of cash though. It could be vital funding that would ease the recession fears in Africa’s largest economy.

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