An online report released the other week by the government telecom regulator, Uganda Communication Commission (UCC), indicated that people who paid over the top tax commonly known by its acronym, OTT reduced from 8.04 million in July 2018 to 6.84 million at the end of September 2018, revenue from OTT reduced from UGX 5.6 billion in July to UGX 3.9 billion and internet subscribers reduced from 16 million to 13.5 million.
The analysis which has dealt a devastating blow to the government’s logic on the essence of the tax – revenue enhancement only reinforced the already existing evidence that the tax was bad for business, both on the government and citizens’ side.
It’s with no doubt that the tax should be repealed because no good has come from it so far according to the report. Previously, the government seemed certain of its revenue, State Minister of Finance, Planning, Hon. Bahati at a press conference revealed that the government had gained UGX 7 billion, (UGX 2 billion from OTT) and the “idea of removing it would not be entertained.
However, in just one quarter (July to September 2018) after the Act commenced, a 29% decline in OTT revenue was declared, in addition to reduced internet usage and increased VPN users. The tax simply does not meet the basic conditions of a good tax in regard to fairness, adequacy, simplicity, transparency, and administrative ease and thus needs to be done away with. Now given the damning evidence against the OTT, which may worsen as small victories tend to embolden the victors, in our case the users who evade the tax using VPN, will government backtrack its previous stance?
Do we sometimes wonder why the tax on mobile money was hastily reversed and not the OTT? One explanation from a political economy perspective is the government which doubles as the NRM ruling party had a lot to lose by disgruntling a sizable chunk of its voter capital with the mobile money tax. Arguments against the tax were levelled mainly for the muntu wa wansi with little or no regard for any other demographic. The OTT, on the other hand, was a win for the government in a way that it would curtail a rising pseudo-intellectual class while reaping from it, UGX 200 at a time.
Furthermore, reduced internet usage has far-reaching political ramifications, especially given the government’s sentiments on the “misuse of social media.”
The ability to transmit information in real time, mobilize populations and encourage uncensored speech has created fear among governments and the powerful so much so that there is a general increase in restrictions on the use of the internet. Governments have adopted sophisticated technologies to block content, monitor and identify activists or critics, as well as criminalize legitimate forms of expression. In Uganda legislations like in the Excise Duty Act, 2018 under which OTT was legitimized is a true representation of the extent government will go to censor the internet. Other instances include the shutdown of social media during the 2016 general election, the selective use of the Computer Misuse Act etc.
The internet has become a crucial instrument to facilitate human rights and citizen participation and is therefore fundamental for building and strengthening democracies. Despite the onslaught from the government like with the OTT Ugandans continue to find means to maneuver but at an even greater cost. The question to ask now that the existing OTT measure has not gained as much success as anticipated, especially in the tax arena, will economics or politics take the day?
The recent spate of killings in Uganda has caused an uproar in the public arena and thrown the government in sitting into panic over what to do or say. It is particularly an indictment on President Yoweri Museveni who is revered as the epitome of security in the country and the Greatlakes region at large, by both regional and international actors. The woes of the regime begun particularly with the brutal murder of the high-ranking AIGP Andrew Felix Kaweesi. This claim, is not oblivious of the insecurity that continues to bedevile the country, but draws attention to the incident that ignited the wrath of the President and led to some of the current security policies in place – the reemergence of the SIM-card registration policy directive in 2017, the banning of hoodies and airtime scratch cards, the installation of cameras and the police registration of sports bikes to mention a few. Other prominent cases include the gruesome murder of State Atmtorney, Joan Kagezi, murder of several sheikhs, Honorable Abiriga, former Buyende District Police Commander Muhamed Kirumira and the 47 (and still counting) women.
The President’s speech on 9th September 2018, most of it reminiscing the good old days (in comparison to other regimes) with little or no regard to the contemporary problems young people are facing has been overly criticized. To the dismay of many Ugandans, the past was overtly regurgitated. The scapegoating of the media, the opposition and the international community as fans in the insecurity flame fronted in the speech bore the characteristics of a tired tactic in the governance book
The lack of empathy to the plight of many Ugandans who are faced with daily unemployment and uncertainty of the future riddled the televised debacle. President Museveni said everything and yet there is nothing to write home about the current situation in Uganda, security or otherwise. Given the polarized situation following the assassination of the outspoken police critic, ASP Kirumira, it was only appropriate for President Museveni to reassure Ugandans of his government’s commitment to peace and security.
The President ought to have commiserated with the general public, spoken on the measures being deployed to avert such security threats now and, in the future, and less on economic trajectory the country has been on since he ascended to power in 1986. Not only would this have calmed an irate populace but also demonstrated initiative by the head of state. To summarize the speech in a few words, the ghost of 1986 reared its ugly head at every opportune moment.
Unfortunately, no concrete security policy measure was communicated in the speech of September 9th, instead the role of the country’s security was transferred to civilians under the methods of “shattering terrorist concealment” of intelligence gathering, detecting crime (drones and cameras) and the role of eye witnesses. No doubt every citizen must play a role in their own security and that of their neighbors, however, the government cannot rely on inexperienced civilians. First because civilians cannot discern a threat from what is not until the danger has passed and second, a civilian’s first instinct is flight (not fight) under threatening circumstances. Incidentally all these options make sense when apprehending suspected criminals in the aftermath of a crime.
The plan to recruit 24,000 Local Defense Unit personnel to beef up security in the greater Kampala area is a stop-gap measure with sustainability implications. The need to strengthen the security apparatus as the key player in ensuring inland peace and security cannot be overstated in these Presidential speeches. Areas for security improvement must include; improved transparency, enhanced capacity, improved welfare, and modern equipment beyond crowd control equipment to create an efficient police force. The relationship and roles between different security groups like the Special Forces Command, Internal Security Organisation, External Security Organisation, flying squad etc. and other para-military groups and how they fit into the overall security agenda should also be interrogated. Given the increase in gun related crime throughout the country, it is important, for accountability purposes to conduct a census of guns in the country and note in whose jurisdiction each type of ammunition falls so that the onus, in case of is crime is on the responsible party to account. More importantly, a deep reflection on what kind of force Uganda needs – one that transcends a sitting government’s agenda or one that acts in the interests of a small ruling class.
Crime of all nature has increased at an alarming rate, yet responsible parties, including President Museveni are leaving citizens to speculate on the matter. No concrete evidence of practical solutions is being communicated to stakeholders which is riling more fear. A speech filled with grand plans of infrastructure and energy development is appreciated, but of what importance are paved roads and efficient energy sources if a population does not feel safe? In his own words, President Museveni once said that, to know the importance of security in a country, try starting a coffee farm in Somalia – I fathom that we will one day stop wondering and experience firsthand the full wrath of this pervasive insecurity if nothing is done.
A hilarious video made rounds on social media mocking the recent policy decisions of the government. A man clearly elated by something the interviewer asks, bursts into fits of laughter and can barely speak throughout the interview forcing the interviewer to join in. An ingenious Ugandan loosely translates the conversation to fit the current debacle in Uganda. The government made the ill-informed decision to tax mobile money, which has serious implications on financial inclusion, the growth if the sector and on overall government revenues. Bank of Uganda reported a Ugx 672 billion decrease in mobile money transactions in the first two weeks of July 2018 when the mobile money tax came into force.
The banning of airtime scratch cards with the supposed intention of protecting the environment and improving of the security situation in the country is also laughable. Firstly, because airtime scratch cards are the least of Uganda’s environment problems. We have the kaveera, a non-biodegradable bag littering the streets in the entire country and posing a health hazard to many and yet airtime scratch cards, not so much. Kaveera has been banned in Uganda, twice, but enforcement hasn’t been successful to date. The issue of occupation of gazetted wetlands and forest reserves also top the list of environmental issues in this country yet we do not see similar efforts to curb the vice. So if the government is looking for effective ways to save the environment, that is the place to start.
That notwithstanding, there is no correlation between SIM card registration and the banning of scratch cards and low crime. A quick scholarly search on the viability of SIM-card registration to curb crime and terrorism world over registers a negative correlation, incidents in Madrid, Pakistan, London Kenya which have mandatory SIM card registration are a true testament to that fact. Fluidity of crime poses a big challenge to the move and cannot be restrained under a one size fits all policy like the SIM-card registration or banning of airtime scratch cards – rather the situation can be improved by strengthening the security apparatus of the country.
It is important that a government charged with making policy on behalf of the people is cognizant of the intricate details of the demographics. Uganda is a largely rural based economy, over 80 percent of the 40 million population live in rural areas, where telecom services are still scarce. Telecoms still have reservations about setting up shop in rural areas because the costs of serving low income customers outweigh the very limited income streams that could be generated. So, expecting them to move distances to purchase these services and bear the additional costs that come with it, will deter them from using the services.
These developments are undoubtedly progressive and may be useful in the future, for other purposes, however, embarking on these sophisticated measures without putting in place the requisite infrastructure putting the cart before the horse. Ugandan have rebelled, and they will continue to, first because they are not convinced about the importance of these policy measures and secondly because it disrupts their way of life. Mobile money is such a vital service, but it has not yet reached its full potential, taxing it is affecting the growth of the service. SIM cards will not save the environment, humans deliberate action will, start with the kaveera. And no, crime will not reduce because of SIM registration or banning of airtime scratch cards.
 Jentzsch N. (2012). Implications of mandatory registration of mobile phone users in Africa. Telecommunications Policy, 36 (8), 608-620. doi: 10.1016/j.telpol.2012.04.002