Cameroon: Social Media goes into Overdrive, Sends Gov’t Battling to Avert Nationwide Unrests

President Paul Biya has ordered Cameroon’s Prime Minister to postpone the implementation of a controversial phone tax and propose a better way of collecting the money. The tax that should have gone into effect October 15 requires phone buyers to pay a 33% tax if the importer never paid customs dues.

But in an October 18 letter to the Prime Minister, the Presidency ordered the Head of Government to suspend the tax and develop “a more appropriate mechanism” for collecting the said customs dues and other taxes.

 

 

Libom Li Likeng Minnette, former Director-General of Customs and currently Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in Cameroon

 

The measure is seen as a response to country-wide protests of the new tax. Social media went into overdrive when the government announced the new tax, and a hashtag “EndphoneTax” lit the internet. The hashtag has already hit tens of thousands of tweets, with similar complaints playing out on Facebook. Cameroonians are angry that the tax means the payment of customs clearance fees for mobile phones and tablets imported into the country could be borne by end-users and not the businesspersons doing the imports.

Authorities say the dues will be collected through an automated billing platform. The platform will be linked to the user’s mobile network provider so that the tax is automatically debited from the user’s account that is 33% of the factory price of the phone or tablet.

“A lot of people in this country don’t even have jobs. Many of them are working using their phones to make ends meet, and you want to take that away just because you can? Entrepreneurship is not fertile here (Cameroon) because you people (government) do not do much for us to be creative. #EndPhoneTax,” a Twitter user who identifies herself as Becky tweeted.

 

Renowned technology entrepreneur, Rebecca Enonchong also criticized the government for shifting the responsibility for the payment of Customs duties by importers to the end-users of mobile phones. Celebrities and politicians in Cameroon have also joined in the criticism of the government, with lawmakers, Honorable Cabral Libii and Honourable Jean Michel Nintcheu, saying the move is intended to “punish” an already impoverished citizenry.

 

Colbert Fulai Gwain, Director of The Colbert Factor

 

Bamenda-based journalist and Specialist on New Digital Civil Society in Africa, Colbert Fulai Fulai sees the phone tax as one more step the government wants to take to stifle freedom.

“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,” Mr. Gwain wrote.

The president of the National League of Cameroonian Consumers, Delor Magellan Kamgain, accused the government of trying to take more money from consumers at a time when the national economy has been significantly weakened by the global health crisis, the ongoing genocidal war in the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons and, at a time financially stretched parents were sending their kids back to school.

In addition, government, he said failed to play by the rules in introducing the tax. “The Cameroon government did not respect the procedures for implementing this decision. The government also did not carry out campaigns to inform consumers,” Mr. Kamgain told Timescape Magazine.

“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,” he emphasized.

He questioned why the government should give importers a license to evade paying customs dues and instead heap the burden on consumers. “This is just wrong,” he asserted.

A private French firm, Arintech had been hired to collect the tax and remit to the state on a monthly basis, but this raised data privacy and security concerns of its own, as well as issues related to multiple-taxation. As anger flares, the government has been forced to try explaining the new tax. According to the Customs Department, at least 4 million phones are imported into the country each year, but customs revenue on phones has rather been falling. The government estimates that smuggling and informal importation of phones cost the state at least $21.5 million each year, and the new reform would help optimize revenue collected on phones by 2,500%.

“The telephone user has always paid the 33% tax. The Customs Department has not created any new tax. The only issue is that we have changed the way the tax can now be paid. It’s now either physically (at points of entry into the country) or by electronic means…,” Guy Innocent Diffouo, a top Customs Official said in a press conference in Yaounde on October 12.

But that explanation is not appealing to a vast majority of Cameroonians who say they will continue to protest until the burden of paying the tax rests with the importers.