A trader, let’s call her Amaka, grows and sells her products in a local market in Nigeria – an activity for which she pays tax. In the last two years, her tax payments have risen from NGN2,000 to NGN12,200. She now finds it hard to keep her business running and she has not seen any real improvements in the market’s infrastructure and maintenance or in the public services she accesses. What can the concept of ‘tax justice’ and tax justice campaigns offer her?

What does tax justice mean at the local level?

Tax activism has a long history worldwide, including anti-tax, tax pacifism, and tax justice movements. Today, ‘tax justice’ has become influential globally, with large campaigns like the call for a ‘Tobin tax’ and recent explosive investigations like the Panama and Paradise Papers bringing issues of tax havens, excessive tax breaks and harmful financial secrecy to the fore. The most recent win was the UK’s decision to force its overseas territories to abolish corporate secrecy.

Yet, for many citizens living in poverty, the impact of these developments may seem too far removed from their day-to-day struggles. How can the idea of ‘tax justice’ connect for informal market traders like Amaka?

Some international NGOs have aimed to incorporate local concerns in tax justice campaigns by linking the benefits of increased corporate taxation to financing public services. However, the connections between collecting more taxes and the allocation of revenues in a manner that makes public services better are not straightforward, and it remains difficult for traders to see improvements in their lives. What other tax justice pathways exist at the local level?

Local tax justice and market taxation in Nigeria

In Nigeria, market traders have long fought on tax issues, going back to the Aba Women’s Riots in 1929. They have manoeuvred through petty resistance, such as disagreeing with tax collectors over tax receipts and arranging their stock in order to pay less. They have negotiated, through letters and visits to the authorities. They have also undertaken collective action such as closing down their shops and confronting tax collectors on their arrival to markets.

ActionAid’s Tax Justice Campaign

In 2012, the international NGO ActionAid decided to federalise its tax justice campaign, and incorporate demands from the local and national level of several countries, including Nigeria. While up until then the campaign had focused on tax avoidance by multinational companies and harmful tax incentives, ActionAid’s Nigerian partner JDPC-Ondo brought new locally relevant issues to the campaign. For example, many Nigerians face ‘multiple taxation’, or being taxed more than once for the same thing by different levels of government due to deficient harmonisation between administrative tiers. The decentralised and flexible nature of ActionAid’s campaign allowed this issue to be integrated effectively.

However, there were additional issues faced by Nigerian market traders that were not included in the broader international campaign. These included sudden and steep tax increases, and corruption and harassment by tax officials. While ActionAid could perhaps have provided more support to the actions of market traders, such as when they sent letters to the government and went on tax strikes, there is an inherent tension between organic activism at the local level, and the constraints of more formalised campaigns, which need to prioritise themes and ensure cohesion across national and international levels.

What can we learn?

My recent ICTD working paper explores ActionAid’s journey through the process of incorporating the demands and actions of local market traders in Nigeria into its international tax justice campaign. It finds that trader-led claims are the best entry point for mobilising market populations and ensuring ownership of the campaign. Claims with distant targets are likely to work only later once mobilisation is more consolidated. In Nigeria for example, multiple taxation was the issue that galvanised market traders’ interest in tax justice, laying the foundation for activism around higher-level issues such as corporate tax avoidance and harmful tax incentives. Therefore, the order in which campaign claims are introduced is key.

I also found that locally-specific issues can be effectively incorporated into international campaigns. For example, the inclusion of multiple taxation helped bring much greater visibility to the issue, especially for tax authorities in Nigeria. ActionAid’s experience holds valuable lessons for other organisations involved in tax justice activism, particularly in relation to integrating local experiences into larger international campaigns.

Read the full working paper here.

Read the 2-page brief here.

Mª Josep Cascant-Sempere (Kas)

Kas works as a research advisor for Christian Aid in London. She has a background on participatory research and has taught and researched at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain (2009-15) and at IDS during her PhD (2012-16). Her PhD was about tax justice campaigning in Nigeria and the UK. She is currently collaborating in an ICTD study on the gendered dimensions of taxes and other payments in local markets in Nigeria (2018, forthcoming). Broader interests include knowledge inequalities, and the politics of evidence.