Social Media Taxes Vs. Corruption – Ugandans Choose VPNs

Social Media Taxes Vs. Corruption – Ugandans Choose VPNs

When the president mentioned that he and his government were planning to tax social media for too much gossip, we laughed, funny memes made rounds on social media because we thought that this move was simply ridiculous. Who taxes end users of social media in 2018? The Civil society met the finance committee of parliament to convince them to drop this unreasonable tax, the committee after listening to the submissions mentioned in their report that the tax was unfair to Ugandan taxpayers. But somehow, out of the 400 members of parliament, only 3 objected to the tax proposal. The tax proposal was passed.

Why? In my opinion, the Members of parliament are self-seeking leeches that suck the blood of Ugandan taxpayers. Members of parliament are most vibrant when fighting to remove taxes from their allowances, and tampering with the constitution. Lately, the MPs are asking for army bodyguards following the assassination of Hon: Abiriga a member of parliament a few weeks ago. The social media tax is here, there is a social media blackout, the only way in is if you pay a tax. This stuff hurts. Do these MPs know that the internet should be open, safe, accessible and affordable and that the internet is no longer a luxury but rather a basic human need?

The president of Uganda is desperate, the song that has been on his lips since being elected for his fifth or is it sixth term- I have lost count, is to usher Uganda into a middle-income status by 2020. Tick-tock the clock is ticking but there no signs of a middle-income status. But I sort of understand where the president is coming from especially that as human beings, we inherently desire to leave a lasting legacy. For 32 years, this damn middle-income status has been elusive, in fact, the economy gets worse every single day; the shilling is struggling, the unemployment rates have skyrocketed, fuel prices have gone gaga, crime rates have risen, poor housing, government schools and health facilities are dilapidated.

When the president and his men took over power in 1986, they found the country in shambles; total breakdown in the rule of law, poverty, disease, bloodstained streets – a reign of terror. They were the much-needed liberators – the country rejoiced, behold a new era of peace and tranquillity. Our dear president I think sometimes feels like a musician who takes centre stage, sings a song, the crowd goes wild chanting “encore encore”, later, the song becomes tasteless and a loud silence follows. The musician tries to make a comeback but no one is chanting for an encore. Some musicians take to drugs; presidents get high on power. And take Nicolo Machiavelli’s advice seriously; “it is better to be feared than to be loved.”

It is seven days now since social media was blacked out. Many Ugandans have refused to pay the tax; they have resolved to use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Can you blame them? Experience proves that the taxes will end up in the pockets of a few government officials. These leeches will build large houses with high walls and big cars to push all of us out of traffic during rush hour. Since the year 2000, Uganda has lost over twenty-four trillion shillings to corruption scandals involving high profile Ugandans. Scandal after scandal; In 2007, 247 billion shillings meant for the Common Wealth Heads of States Government meeting disappeared into thin air. In 2008, 25 billion shillings went missing – the money was intended for malaria and tuberculosis drugs programmes. In 2010, the Ugandan government entered a deal illegally with Muhlbauer, a German firm to supply national IDs without the required open bidding – 25 billion shillings was lost in the process. In 2011, Amman industrial Tool and Equipment Ltd was contracted to supply bicycles, not even half a bicycle was delivered, 4 billion shilling was lost as a result. Still, in 2011, 60 billion shillings vanished from the Microfinance Support Centre in a period of three months. In 2012, Shilling 169 billion meant that outstanding claims of East African community workers disappeared. 2015, 18 billion Uganda shillings meant for the construction of the Kanoni-Sembabule road vanished, every year, the Auditor Generals report is full of squander and more squander.

Some sardines have been arrested whereas the whales are roaming free enjoying the proceeds of their corruption while Ugandans continue to wallow in poverty.

The Social Media Tax in Uganda will Widen the Gender Digital Divide    

The Social Media Tax in Uganda will Widen the Gender Digital Divide    

Undeniably, the newly introduced social media tax in Uganda will widen the digital gap.  But let me focus on women  because the barriers Ugandan women face in accessing and using the internet are still massive. 1 in 9 women in Africa have access to the internet. Only about 37 percent of women surveyed in ten selected cities in the world, Kampala inclusive were found to be using the internet compared to 59 percent males.

The sustainable Development goals demand  governments to achieve universal, affordable internet by 2020 but high costs are keeping majority women offline.

According to a score card by the Web Foundation, in Uganda, 1GB data priced at 22% of average monthly income. Countries that have expensive internet such as Uganda and Mozambique have the lowest numbers of women on the internet.

A research conducted by the Women of Uganda Network and the Web Foundation indicates that as a result of feminised poverty, many women who are dependent on subsistence Agriculture cannot afford to buy a smart phone and data bundles and those who can afford have problems of language barrier since most of them are illiterate and thus lack of knowledge and limited skills for expressing themselves using ICTs.

Considering that women’s general income status in Uganda is low, internet is expensive to purchase and maintain  The traditional setting of the Ugandan society  creates the negative thinking towards women’s participation and engagement in accessing public spaces like cafes and telecentres also affects women’s access and use of internet.Patterns of gender inequality, as reflected in political participation and representation in decision- making structures; differences in economic opportunities, access to resources, and division of labour within the economy; women’s over-representation among the poor; women’s higher levels of illiteracy. The persistence of stereotypical attitudes about women’s roles and of discriminatory laws and practices, are among the factors that also shape women’s capacity of access to and use of ICT.

The study further reveals that teacher educators hardly apply technology in their classroom practices; scanty institutional practices that facilitate or impede the use of digital resources as pedagogical tools. The greatest challenge reported by all the teacher educators was the problem of having limited access to ICT facilities, especially the Internet. The only Internet access point at the college that was readily available to both students and staff was the one at the computer lab. The Internet connection at the college had been cut off due to non-payment of the connection fee, which the college was expecting to receive from the Ministry of Education, but to no avail; and lack of Internet connection is very frustrating.

I am convinced that the newly introduced social media tax is frustrating all the efforts that have been put in place to bridge the digital divide but instead, the gap will grow wider and wider. Listening to President Museveni saying that social media is a luxury good, and that people have a choice  to use it or leave it if they don’t want to pay the tax, really hurts. This is 2018, the rest of the world has moved towards artificial intelligence, innovation around internet of things and free internet access in public places. Uganda has made a terrible mistake of switching off over-the-top services that can only accessed after paying a repetitive daily direct tax of 200 shillings and large number of women who live on less than a dollar per day will not afford this tax.

By the way, when talking to the women in Bwaise a slum in Kampala before the tax was passed, to them, the internet is WhatsApp, Facebook and for a few google. That means that they have been cut off.

The digital revolution gave Ugandan women a voice online to politically engage, to speak truth to power, to dismantle the patriarchy, to seek counsel from their friends, to access information, to connect with clients, to market their products,  to start charities, psychosocial support groups, coordinating savings groups, neighborhood watches for kids when they are away. It is clear that President Museveni is missing a point when he says that social media is for gossip. But even if it was, communication is a basic human need.

If only the Members of parliament, the president’s many advisers, the ministry of ICT stopped for just a second to listen to the outcry of the Ugandan people that we have seen on social media since 1st July when the tax came into effect then they would repeal the tax. If only the government of Uganda adhered to Article 19 of the UN Human Rights council on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, they would know that the internet should be open. Article 19  seeks to “bridge the gender digital divide and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of all women and girls and to reaffirm the human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

By switching off the internet which is a public good the state disregards Article19 that is “deeply concerned by measures that intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online and for the Internet to be open, affordable and accessible.”