Effective July 1, 2018, Ugandans will be required to pay a so-called social media tax in order to access sites like WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram.
I was hoping to find a fairly solid rationale for this tax but was disappointed to discover that the taxman’s objective is simply to reduce online gossip or lugambo, as President Yoweri Museveni explained in the native language.
Whereas this is ridiculous to say the least, Kenyans must be very wary of what is happening across the border since politicians are known to cut and paste experiences – whether positive or negative.
At about USh200 per day or USh6000 per month per user, the Ugandan government aims to collect a tidy sum of $1.5 from millions of social media users in Uganda.
Kenya raised tax on M-Pesa transactions in this year’s budget. Given our huge budgetary deficit, there is all likelihood that the people at the Treasury are monitoring events in Uganda with a lot of ‘thirst’ in their eyes.
But the social media tax in Uganda is completely misplaced at several levels.
Firstly, not everyone using social media is gossiping. And even if they were, it is their democratic right to do so. Trying to tax a populace out of a social habit is mischievous at best, but dictatorial at worst.
Communication or freedom of expression is a basic human right and any government proudly announcing policies to suppress it must be called out for what it is – a dictatorship.
Secondly, suppressing the use of modern technologies reduces the competitive edge of that population.
We live in a global village where Ugandans are competing with neighbours, who are hopefully not going to be as suppressed in terms of accessing modern tools of communication.
This means that while the social media tax on Ugandans may look good to the country’s treasury in the short term, it will actually slow down the march towards a knowledge economy for Ugandans.
Communication is the fulcrum of trade and commerce. One may chose the less optimal option and tax it at the source, or wait for the better option of taxing its productive income.
In simple analogy, it is better to provide tax-free fertiliser to farmers, and then tax their produce after harvest, rather than cripple their farming with high inputs costs.
Finally, as Ugandans are already doing, one can use technical tools called Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access social media sites without having to pay the misplaced tax.
COST EXCEEDS BENEFITS
It is already a cat-and-mouse game between Ugandan internet users, service providers and government as far as implementing the social media tax is concerned.
When the dust finally settles, Uganda will realise that the cost of implementing this tax policy is economically higher than what it is purportedly collecting from its citizens.
The government should just drop the draconian tax while it is not too late in the game.
Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT. Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu