Cameroon’s Civil Society Wins Phone Tax Battle Yet War Rages On

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In what is clearly  unprecedented in the recent history of Cameroon, government has bowed to civil rights pressure by rescinding on the phone tax that authorities forcefully insisted must go operational last October 15,2020, and throughout the country. A statement from Cameroon’s Presidency, signed by the Secretary General and on behalf of  President Paul Biya, last October 19, ordered that the introduction of the new tax and customs duties on mobile phones and tablets as well as social media apps, be halted, and new mechanism for collection of such be submitted to the President for consideration.

The move came after Cameroonians championed by civil rights movements especially digital and consumer rights outfits, have taken to the social and traditional media mobilizing to boycott such customs duties and taxes even as government officials insisted these were not new taxes but rather a displacement of payment from the physical to the digital frontier. Fearing the move could trigger a further disruption of social cohesion and eventually lead to mass protests as never witnessed in Cameroon, the Presidency thought it wise to quickly withdraw the less than 48 hours old tax.

Without adequately consulting stakeholders, the cash-trapped government of President Paul Biya, that has been fighting an all consuming four-year minority Anglophone separatist war, thought it had fallen on a window of opportunity by by-passing its corrupt customs officers to raise the much-needed revenue to sustain its already ailing economy further fragilized by the coronavirus pandemic.

The suspension of the taxes by Cameroon’s President is a welcome relief to Cameroon’s civil rights movements who had seen in the imposition of taxes on digital technology end-users a clear attempt to stifle the vibrant online Civil Society. However, the Cameroon Civil Society might have won the battle, yet the war rages on as the government statement did not annul the tax completely but rather just suspended it pending better mechanisms to implement it since it was crafted into the 2019 Finance bill. More stakeholders’ platforms and coalitions across sectors need to be built and immediate negotiations engaged with government agencies and the mobile technology companies operating in Cameroon.

This is important given that the move to impose app and mobile phone taxes was not an event in isolation in the systematic efforts at shrinking civic space in Cameroon in recent months. Apart from the shrinking of civic space, government had given to understanding attempts at protests by political parties were attempts at undermining national security and public order and, that civil societies and  human rights NGOs were basically working to receive funding from abroad to provide information on the human rights situation of Cameroon to foreign and international organizations wanting to distabilize the country. That is probably the best reason why it has not been possible since last May 2020, for any association to be registered in Cameroon, with over 500 files lying in offices of Administrative Authorities across the country.

The mobile phone Tax project in Cameroon was not only poorly conceived, but badly designed and wrongly rolled out. It might have been a good cause but aimed at the wrong target. Even Law Makers who supposedly voted the 2019 Finance Bill were taken aback with the extent of the implementation of the bill requiring that end-users pay custom duties and taxes on imported telephones and tablets. Beginning this October 15,2020, the burden of paying custom duties and taxes on imported digital technology products like phones and tablets shall lie with the consumer.  The new phone tax entails that each time an end user introduces his/her Sim card into a new phone, the International Mobile Equipment Identity, IMEI, is recorded at Arintech, a new platform fronted by government, and a message is immediately sent to the user requesting he/she chooses one of the two options of either paying the custom duty or tax in lumpsum or paying in installments each time he/she buys airtime from any of the mobile phone operators. In addition to that, and also beginning October 15,2020, each time users of digital tools download an application, they are expected to pay another Fcfa 200 tax.

Lingering Concerns

Questions as concerns phones with multiple or dual Sim cards that connect simultaneously has not been answered either by Arintech or the government. Wil users with such categories of phones and tablets not be taxed doubly? What would be a country’s rationale to tax end users at industry price rather than the market price? And when available information from the Cameroon Customs Department already indicate that the phone and tablet taxes range from Fcfa 3000 to 300000, is it not clear that if a person purchased a phone or tablet for Fcfa 250000, he/she would end up paying a tax of Fcfa75000? If government claims this is not a new tax but that payment has just been transferred from the physical frontier to the digital frontier, why transfer it then, and why only for phones and tablets?  Given that if the new system goes operational successfully, all personal data of end-users in mobile telephone operators’ banks would be transferred to Arintech, what guarantees are there that Arintech would not misuse citizens personal data, especially in a country where no privacy and personal data protection laws exist? How did government arrive at selecting Arintech to host the new platform? Is it not ridiculous for government to claim that by shifting the payment of custom duties and phone taxes from the importers to the customer, phones would rather be cheaper for Cameroonians? Can a government that has for years been taxing people out of business suddenly become a Father Christmas? And what would become of people who because of their vulnerable economic situations default in payments?

Short-term and Long-term Consequences of the Phone Tax

With the advent of new digital technologies and, of recent, the coronavirus pandemic, many services have gone online including digital financial services, e-commerce and e-learning. The new tax and new obligations for mobile phones operators to oblige users to pay or be denied their services would only go a long way to not only increase the digital divide but also, to push more people offline since owning a good smartphone is condition sine qua non to fully enjoy online services. Poor and vulnerable citizens’ inability to pay such exorbitant taxes and custom duties would only increase the already existing barriers to getting online, thereby limiting citizens access to freedom of expression and access to information as well as access to goods and services that are now online. It is for this reason that the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association online has stated that: ‘taxes like this propagate the misconception that internet access and social media use are luxuries’. The short and long term consequences of the introduced phone and eventual social media tax pose a huge threat on internet access and affordability, and financial inclusion for low income and marginalized groups such as women, youths and rural communities, as clearly stated by Clement Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association online. While there may be an economic rationale for the tax, it disproportionately impedes the ability of individuals to have access to new digital technology. The tax in its current state raises concerns of necessity and proportionality, particularly for low income citizens for whom purchasing 1GB of data per month will cost nearly 40% of their average monthly income.

New tax targets freedom of association and peaceful assembly online

For those not versed with the manner in which authoritarian regimes veil their intentions, they may hail the claims advanced by government for introducing the phone and apps tax as coming to instead reduce costs of phones and bringing in much-needed revenue for the state. Fat chance. Realizing that even though it has successfully cowed every Cameroonian from ever demonstrating on the streets as it would amount to disturbance of public order and a threat to national security, and citizens have found new territory on social media where they can assemble and associate peacefully with little intrusion, government now wants to begin Muzzling this new civic space by tightening access to it through taxation. After Cameroonians experienced the longest interruptions to digital communications in a bid to control online assembly and the free flow of information in 2017, and realizing the negative publicity it would attract if it were to shutdown social media, government would rather go softly by directly taxing its use. If one considers the phone in the situation of Cameroon as one of the key equipments for accessing social media, justification for introducing such a tax and at such a moment would only arouse suspicion given that the ICT market is still relatively small. The cost of such a tax on the nationals’ right: political (the exercising of their freedom of expression), social (the Civil freedoms of association and opinion formation), and economic (to access electronic information at an affordable rate),therefore seem to outweigh all the potential benefits.

The introduction of the new tax mirrors the overall shrinking civic space and now virtually closed political space, and where government is getting more hostile to the political opposition as well as activists, critical media reporting and more importantly, to criticism by social media users. After confiscating physical civic and political spaces and, after realizing that a bulk of citizens are freely associating and assembling peacefully online, government of Cameroon is moving in to begin the shrinking up of online civic space through taxation. By transferring the custom duties and taxes from importers to end users can never make phones affordable as claimed by government. Affordability strategies should be in line with the Alliance for Affordable Internet’s Policy recommendations.

The new tax on digital technology tools as introduced by the government of Cameroon contravenes the UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of peaceful assembly and of association online when he states that: ‘States should promote and facilitate access to digital technologies and should not put restrictions on their use for the exercise of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association’. In relation to the new tax, Clement Voule rather recommends that: ‘Policies and practices should address equal access to the Internet and digital technologies, the affordability and participation in the digital age for all, so as to bridge the digital divide’.

The new tax already endangers the new found digital civic space in Cameroon. Worthy of note is the fact that online association and assembly play a particularly important role for the marginalized groups and interference with the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association can have a disproportionate impact on individuals and groups in vulnerable positions. And so, it is recommended that in fulfilling their obligations, states should pay particular attention to the desparate impact that limitations on access to and use of digital technologies can also have on minorities, political opponents and activists, as well as on the overall health of the internet.

Given that a growing number of Cameroon citizens are using ICTs on a regular basis and which has made digital technologies pivotal to their livelihoods, the introduction of the new tax could undermine internet access and affordability, and therefore weaken the potential for ICTs to catalyze free expression and civic participation. It is therefore incumbent on the Cameroon Digital Rights Coalition and the Cameroon Internet Society to quickly move in to convene stakeholders to deliberate on the economic, social and human rights impact arising from the new taxes, especially as it would mean that the end user would now have to share the little amount he/she had to pay for airtime with the mobile phone operator and the customs department. The proposed dialogue should also deliberate on how policy making processes can advance inclusive and equitable access to the internet, promote innovation and consumer rights protection as aptly recommended by Clement Voule, United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association online.

Colbert Gwain

Specialist on New Digital Civil Society in Africa

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