The difference is that these are indirect taxes that are not charged directly on the individuals buying the service or product
By Oscar Okech Kanyangareng
The new tax on social media of sh200 per day per person has raise a lot of hullaballoo and protests that you may think Uganda is going to war with a foreign country on the magnitude beyond World War II.
However, with all the argument for and against the tax, I am not taking sides, but I want to give a different perspective on the tax. That is, how the social media tax is a blessing in disguise. My point is how can this new tax be an avenue to empower Ugandans to engage more in governance and development issues?
If you look at the taxes we are paying, this is not the first one of its kind that bites people hard. Take for example, taxes on beer is about sh650 per bottle, of which some like Eagle and Senator are beer for rural and low income earners. Another one is the tax on fuel which is about sh1,200 per liter and on cooking oil which is sh200 per litre. These are high but why were people not up in arms?
The difference is that these are indirect taxes that are not charged directly on the individuals buying the service or product. They are part of the total cost. So, people don't feel the pinch instantly, much as it's even higher than the tax on social media. The reason people complain about the social media tax is because it's direct.
The other reason is because it's targeting the educated class and the most affected are the youth who use social media most and yet they have limited sources of income. This group are also restless, informed and have the intellectual capability, strategy and channels to express their dissatisfaction.
These channels are social media which has been awash with complaints, as well as access to lawyers or those who are lawyers take up the mantle to lodge a case against the government. So, it's an elitist thing. Which peasant or woman who sells roast maize on the roadside and can't afford a smart phone have you found protesting?
But there are many peasants and ordinary people out there who are suffering; they lack access to drugs, they can't afford lunch for their children in UPE schools or don't have access to safe drinking water. However, they are quiet. Why? This is because they don't know their rights to services, lack access to basic information like when and how much drugs are delivered to the health center etc. Much as some of the elite are informed, these basic needs don't affect them much. So, they are now directing their hanger on social media tax that touches them directly but not so much the common person.
My call now is for the elite to use this social media tax as a wakeup call. They should know that we are being taxed every day in our lives, in many other ways, directly or indirectly and in huge amounts. We should not just think about taxes or government policies that scratch us directly but think nationally, including about the peasant or ordinary person on the street and mobilize them as well.
We should use this opportunity to rally the usually docile Ugandans to start questioning why government collects taxes, how it's done, what its used for and how effective is it? Do we get value for money? The elite should leave the comfort zone of smart phones, engage in public Barazas or public debates and get on the streets to protest on issues like why agriculture which employs 69% of Ugandans has been allocated only 3.8% of the national budget?. That is when the peasants and slum dwellers will join us and we cause a social revolution that will lead to the structural changes and the eradication of poverty and inequality.
Key features of a developed state is one that has resources, good development plans, good policies and strong institutions to deliver the services. This is the supply side. Then there is the demand side. These are a free press and a strong civil society that exposes and counters where the state has gone wrong. Coupled with an active citizenship that is engaging with the state throughout the cycles of development programmes where the people demand, negotiate and track service delivery as their right. So, that the state enforces what it promised to do, it is answerable to people, it is responsive and takes responsibility where things go wrong like in NAADS.
In Uganda's case the supply side is fairly catered for. The biggest gap is on the demand side. So, given the hullaballoo we are making over social media tax now, we should now go beyond social media tax, expand and translate this into an everyday practice where we are engaging the state by demanding and negotiating for fairness and neutrality in taxation, correlated with better services delivery. That is how we shall reach the middle income status by 2020.
Writer is a development specialist and civil society activist