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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 January 2008, 09:38 GMT
Sharia wealth tax in Nigerian state
By Andrew Walker
BBC News, Bauchi

Salisu, the blind man, and his grandson
The new tax is supposed to help poor people such as Salisu

Salisu, a blind man, is led around the central market in the city of Bauchi, northern Nigeria, by his eight-year-old grandson.

They beg for money from traders and shoppers who give them a few crumpled naira notes.

"We survive living from the people. I move from one place to another - some people will give and some will not," he says.

Many Bauchi residents give money to beggars such as Salisu, as Muslims are supposed to give some of their wealth to charity in order to purify it, according to Islamic custom.

But now the Bauchi State government has passed a law that forces the rich to give this tax, called Zakat, to the government.

Anyone who refuses to do so faces being sent to jail or flogged under Sharia, or Islamic law.

Forced giving

Usually the rich make donations to their neighbours or families in need - it is considered to be a private thing, between them and God.

ZAKAT IN BAUCHI
map
Can be paid in cash, grain or livestock
The tax is only payable on savings held over a lunar year
Anyone with $1,700 (856) in cash must pay 2.5% to charity
Farmers can pay 10% of their grain harvests
If they own 30 cows, they should give one
Intended for poor and indebted
Travellers and new converts to Islam can also receive it
Zakat collectors are also allowed to take their expenses from it

Last year only eight people gave their donations to the government department responsible for dispersing the money.

The Sharia Commission says it received just over $23,000 (12,000) from top civil servants and traditional leaders.

Now the commission has started drawing up a list of individuals they believe should be paying Zakat.

They have sent out letters to more than 3,000 people warning if they don't pay the tax to the government this year they could be arrested and jailed for three months, fined, or given 20 lashes.

"We have a good number of rich people in the state but right now we can say they are not responding," says Bala Ahmed, spokesman for the state Sharia Commission.

"Now we have the law we can ask them to give it by force."

Counter-productive?

But some in the state say the government's actions may actually prevent needy people from receiving money.

The rich can give Zakat either in cash or farm produce from their harvests.

Mohammed Ahmed
Farmers like Mohammed Ahmed can pay in grain

Mohammed Ahmed, a top civil servant in the Bauchi State Education Commission, also runs a large farm and regularly gives sacks of grain to his neighbours.

But last year he agreed to give it to the Sharia Commission.

"I'm not against the rule doing it by force, but I think it's too soon," he said.

"People need to be enlightened by the commission about what they do. For over a decade people have been used to giving as they believe is right.

"Maybe my close neighbours require the Zakat, I am used to giving them, and when I give it to the commission, I cannot give it to my neighbours."

He also thinks that corrupt civil servants may dodge giving to the government to keep their finances private.

"With the current trends, people may avoid exposure. The danger may come from the civil servants, you may calculate his salary and say: how did you acquire this wealth?" Mr Ahmed said.

Bank account

There are also questions about how the "rich list" was compiled.

Zubairu Yakubu and daughter Hauwwa
It may be that they are trying to scare people into their responsibilities
Zubairu Yakubu

The government went to traditional leaders and regional heads and asked them who they thought should have to pay.

"How do you prove that one is eligible for paying Zakat?" asks Bauchi resident Zubairu Yakubu, the managing director of the National Inland Waterways Authority.

The Bauchi Sharia Commission says a donor must have savings of $1,700 (856) before being asked to pay.

"I cannot save that amount. The money comes in from my salary and it goes out again," he says.

"Many people don't even have a bank account, they keep their money in the ceiling. It may be that they are trying to scare people into their responsibilities."

He regularly gives family members sacks of grain from his farm. "They rely on these donations," he says.

Both men said they would comply with the order of the commission, as they believe Sharia is the right thing for northern Nigeria.

But they say the government must find a better solution in the long run.

What is clear is that only a tiny minority of poor people in Bauchi are receiving any financial help at all from Sharia law.

Habiba, Razia and Halima
Few poor people see any help from the government in Nigeria

Last year 116 people received a handout of $84 (42). A handful of institutions like orphanages and mosques received $840 (420).

Habiba, Razia and Halima are three women who beg on a street corner a stone's throw from the seat of government.

They looked puzzled when asked if they'd ever received any money from the Sharia Commission.

"If we are lucky we get some money from people who pass by, but only God gives us that," said Habiba.

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