By Caroline Ariba
It started like a joke, a lousy joke. Yet here we are days later, eyes peeled, marvelling at who would think to tax individual Social Media use. Who does that? Well, we know who — the very president we have had for the last 32 years. Yes, I know, 32 whole years! Okay, let me start from the beginning, right? My name is Carol Ariba, I am a journalist from an East African country called Uganda. Since this will be my opinion, I would rather we call it a surge, you know, a rant! On that note, come along; let me see if I can get your mind off Buhari for a second.
On July 1, 2018, just a few minutes after midnight, I tried to respond to a Whatsapp chat that arrived just before midnight. Guess what, I couldn’t! Just like that, I could not access my Facebook either, nothing worked — not even Twitter. But see, that entire evening, my Facebook feed was filled with memes about it being the ‘last supper’ and that we were going to be locked out of Facebook. Like I said, a lousy joke! It had lots of mentions in the State of Nation address and the budget reading; it did. It however was hard to believe that parliament had agreed to this joke and that President Yoweri Museveni and his ilk were doing as was promised. I mean, you can’t blame us; a lot has been promised and not delivered. We clearly thought wrong.
Issue at hand
The tax in question, almost $2 a month, might seem like a small fee, one not worth mentioning, but look who we are talking about here. Of the estimated 400,000 youth who graduate every year, a mere 13% get jobs that year. So how are the 87% even surviving? Let us start there.
Note, ours is one of the youngest populations in the world, with the average age being 15 years. But also at 15, and with a 24% teenage pregnancy rate, many Ugandans are parents or about to be. The United Nation’s estimates place the Ugandan population at over 41million, upto 80% of whom are the youth. Between the ages 20 and 24 alone, at least 11.8million Ugandans are thought to be un-employed. In general, though, only 47% of the population is employed; how the rest survive is now the issue.
Two hundred shillings ($0.005) is the daily tax on Social Media, and by midnight, if not paid, you are blocked out of it. For as low as 250 shillings you can get a data bundle, but then you would have to pay almost 100% tax to be able to use that bundle to send Whatsapp messages. The joke! Also, that 250 shillings was still too much for the unemployed Ugandan, to add an extra 200 shillings therefore is to rid folks of the little chance at accessing Social Media. We have barely managed to get to a $30 minimum wage, and many Ugandans are scrapping together a $10-20 dollar a month from hard labour; $2 can be tough. But again, does government even care?
This should bring us to the issue of Social Media as a space of opportunities. For the desperate Ugandan, especially the literate and semi-literate clinging onto dear life, information is everything. Granted, Ugandans might be using Social Media for fun, but Ugandans are also surviving on the very platform.
For example, groups I am on — like Healing Naturally Together, Cake shop, Peaches, Buy and Sell, I could go one — have a combined millions of Ugandans trying to sell or buy something or just look for opportunities. How can someone not see this? Also, I can’t count the number of unemployed youth making a few coins running business pages. Thousands of them at that! How can you convince your client to keep paying when their audience is dwindling, just how?
Government has set a piquant $104million as the targeted revenue from this tax, but at what cost? And don’t get me started on where that money will be going. Just don’t! Do you know that Uganda loses over $300million annually to corruption? Just imagine that! I can bet, with all that I have, that there is a group of people rubbing their bellies right this very moment in anticipation of this next loot! Why should anyone even pay tax if most of it winds up in the same thieving bellies?
In his reason for levying this tax, President Museveni said that Social Media is simply for gossip. Question is; why is he on the very sites? Yes, he is, profile and all, update upon update, picture upon picture, just like us the mere mortals. Why care about it; I mean, why have a team for that? Is he among the gossips?
However, that he introduced this tax shouldn’t surprise us; I mean, he shut down Social Media during the 2016 elections. This tax, which critics have called the ‘angry tax’, has to be his way of smothering freedom of expression. Ugandans on Social Media have been very vocal about their disappointment in him. There has been a rise in ‘Social Media vigilantes’ outing the wrongdoings of his government. For a man that has been able to have things ‘under control’, social media is an adversary.
Caroline Ariba is a Public Affairs Analyst.