To rogue taxpayers, James Githii Mburu is an enemy whose laughter or grin in any money conversation causes jitters.
The avid golfer, whose gentle putt is as calculated as his moves to increase tax collections by nabbing cheats, is described as a no-nonsense executive with a guarded personality.
To most people outside his small circle, he comes out as neither warm nor welcoming. He is a straight shooter; you evade tax he calls you a thief.
However, his demeanour, slightly different from that of his predecessors, has worked in his favour and that of the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA).
When the 50-year-old occupied the Commissioner-General’s seat on the 30th floor of Nairobi's Times Tower in July 2019, one of his first tasks was to announce a Sh240 billion shortfall in revenue collection.
It was nothing out of the ordinary because that was the 11th straight year that the taxman had fallen short of the revenue target set by the Treasury.
Mr Mburu’s tenure was therefore expected to follow the trajectory of his predecessors John Njiraini and Michael Waweru when the agency was consistently growing its revenue collection without quite meeting the Treasury’s expectations.
Three years later, the KRA announced that it had exceeded the collection target for the 2021/2022 fiscal year by Sh149 billion, having raised Sh2.03 trillion.
For any keen watcher, the big turnaround in fortunes for the authority has not come as a surprise, given the aggression with which it has gone after taxes and even more so tax cheats.
A long-time insider at the agency’s audit and intelligence units, Mr Mburu was well placed to know where revenue leakages were occurring, which taxpayers were culpable and the people inside the KRA abetting the evasion.
Two years prior — in April 2017 — he had been appointed as KRA Commissioner of Intelligence and Strategic operations, a post that did not exist previously.
Here, he was charged with the twin tasks of enforcing ethical conduct at the agency and taming the rampant tax evasion that was denying the exchequer billions of shillings. His appointment though was not without controversy.
Former Auditor-General Edward Ouko argued that an intelligence department was not part of the agency’s organisational structure. He further faulted Mr Mburu's hiring, saying it had not been done competitively.
The holder of a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Kenyatta University and a Master of Science in Public Policy and Analysis from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology joined the KRA in 2007, starting as head of audit policy and later oversaw audit at the large taxpayer department for five years.
A stint as head of tax investigation followed before his appointment as the intelligence commissioner.
By the time Mr Mburu was taking over the corner office two years later, the intelligence department had identified Sh250 billion unpaid tax, which coincidentally would have been just enough to fill the revenue shortfall inherited on his first day in office.
He then sounded a warning to the public on tax evasion, saying in one of his first media interviews that his goal was to “make paying taxes enjoyable for Kenyans.”
With 14 years knowledge of the KRA structures, and the anatomy of the Kenyan taxpayer, Mr Mburu unleashed what he calls a covert and overt army of intelligence officers, tasked with profiling every sort of taxpayer to identify cheats—from large corporations to errant landlords to socialites flaunting riches on social media.
In an interview with the Business Daily last month, the KRA chief disclosed that since he took over in 2019, his “army”, numbering over 500, had identified 4,028 cases or intelligence profiles with a revenue potential of Sh540 billion, which is double the amount he had pinpointed as the intelligence commissioner.
Out of this amount, he added, the taxman has issued assessment notices worth Sh351 billion—meaning that the agency has notified the concerned taxpayers that it has audited or investigated them and established that these taxes have not been paid.
Before going after those owing taxes, however, the KRA chief first directed his gaze inward, turning the heat on his own staff who had for years looked the other way as companies and individuals neglecting their obligations to the public.
He unleashed his intelligence team on staff suspected of abetting tax evasion.
In 2019, scores of them were interdicted after four months of a covert operation involving trailing their money and communication, commonly referred to as wiretapping.
Revenue collection targets were also cascaded down to the individual level, piling pressure on collection and enforcement officers to pursue revenue leaks with more aggression.
Enforcement staff may in future be equipped with body-worn cameras, commonly known as bodycams, to record their interactions with the public. The idea is to reduce incidents of bribery or abetting evasion of duty.
Mr Mburu told the Business Daily that the key to raising the collection performance for these officers lay in showing them where the money was, and then empowering them to go and collect it.
This, he said, has been done through collection of prodigious amounts of data on taxpayers, which is then analysed to flag inconsistencies between expenditure and taxes paid.
For companies, the KRA has kept it ear to the ground to collect intelligence on failure to remit withholding taxes and other forms of evasion. The strong-arm tactics have not been without critics though, especially when the agency has gone after large businesses that wield political and financial clout.
The agency has faced accusations of being politically motivated in the pursuit of some tax cases as well as using the criminal process to pursue tax cheats instead of first going for civil or alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.
Mr Mburu denies these claims.
Most pronounced has been his battle with the Naivasha-based Keroche Breweries, which the agency has shut down thrice over tax claims totalling up to Sh22.79 billion.
Another high-octane case involves a Sh41 billion tax claim on tycoon Humphrey Kariuki of Africa Spirits Limited and others, which is under appeal after the High Court put a stop to the KRA’s prosecution efforts on grounds that this is the preserve of the Director of Public Prosecutions.