Taxing Questions

In 2018, there has been a growing trend of African government’s trying to tax, and in some instances restrict, the internet usage of their citizens. While governments see this as a way of strengthening their positions by raising much-needed funds, protecting state-owned telecom companies and reducing online criticism, it appears they have overlooked the long-term effects of such policies and their potential for provoking unrest.  

It has long been recognised that East Africa has led the way with respect to internet and mobile money innovations on the continent; as illustrated by the growth of platforms such as M-Pesa. It is therefore unsurprising that governments in East Africa have similarly been at the forefront of taxing and restricting internet usage and mobile money transactions. As user-bases have rapidly grown and opposition groups have increasingly used online forums, governments have simultaneously looked at the potential tax revenue provided by such users and the ability to which they can restrict opposition activities online. In the past year, the governments of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have imposed taxes on internet and mobile money usage. In Kenya and Uganda, the focus has been on mobile money payments and data usage, particularly in relation to social media, while in Tanzania the government imposed a so-called ‘blogger tax’, which required online bloggers to purchase a license that costs the equivalent of the country’s average annual income.

Although it can be argued that taxes on internet and mobile money usage help to broaden the narrow tax base that exists in most African countries, such taxes tend to be regressive. While Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni considers mobile money and social media platforms as “luxury items”, he overlooks their broad user-bases and the increasingly important role they play in Uganda’s economy and society. In Kenya in particular, where over 93 percent of the population have mobile money accounts, taxes on mobile money transactions are likely to affect disproportionately the poorer in society, who do not have bank accounts and have become reliant on such platforms.

The imposition of taxes on internet usage and mobile money is not limited to East Africa and it seems that governments across the continent are increasingly examining the viability of such taxes. Since August 2018, the governments of Benin, Zambia and Zimbabwe have announced similar taxes on internet usage and mobile money. In Zimbabwe, this has had a had a damaging effect on the economy, where mobile money was one of the very few economic successes of recent years.

In Benin, the tax was so unpopular that the #TaxePasMesMo [Don’t Tax My Megabytes] protest movement managed to force the government to overturn its decision within less than a month. Similar protests have been seen elsewhere, not least Uganda, where Museveni was forced to halve the levy on mobile money following protests. It is likely that such protests will continue and intensify as people increasingly feel the everyday cost of such taxes.

Much has been written about the role of the internet in protest movements and, at least in the African context, commentators have tended to exaggerate its influence. That said, although it has not been particularly effective at strengthening the organisation of opposition groups, the restriction of access to internet and mobile money platforms is likely to become an important catalyst for protests and social unrest across the continent. The direct implications of such taxes can be easily exploited by opposition groups and, due to broad user-bases, it is possible that protest movements that coalesce around such issues could cut across traditional political divisions. Accordingly, African governments should think twice before following Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania’s examples.

This article originally featured in Africa Integrity’s October 2018 Newsletter. To join our newsletter mailing list, please contact us.


Elections in 2016

There are a number of important elections across Africa scheduled for 2016 and over the next year, Africa Integrity Insights will examine a selection of these. As an introduction to the upcoming publications we have compiled a list of countries where elections are set to take place in 2016, including the scheduled date (when available) and the type of election.

  • Benin: Presidential (28th February)
  • Burkina Faso: Municipal (31st January)
  • Cape Verde: Parliamentary and Presidential (February & August)
  • Central African Republic: Parliamentary and Presidential Run-off (31st January)
  • Chad: Presidential (April)
  • Côte d’Ivoire: Parliamentary (December)
  • Comoros: Presidential (21st February)
  • Congo-Brazzaville: Presidential (20th March)
  • Democratic Republic of Congo: Legislative and Presidential (27th November)
  • Djibouti: Presidential (April)
  • Equatorial Guinea: Presidential (November)
  • Gabon: Parliamentary and Presidential (December)
  • Gambia: Presidential (1st December)
  • Ghana: Parliamentary and Presidential (7th November)
  • Niger: Parliamentary & Presidential and Local (21st February & 9th May)
  • Rwanda: Local Government (8th, 22nd & 27th February and 22nd March)
  • Sao Tome and Principe: Presidential (July)
  • Senegal: Constitutional Referendum (May)
  • South Africa: Municipal (May-August)
  • Sudan: Darfur Referendum (11th April)
  • Tanzania: Zanzibar Re-run (20th March)
  • Tunisia: Municipal and Regional (30th October)
  • Uganda: General (18th February)
  • Zambia: Legislative and Presidential (11th August)

Time Out?

Presidential term limit

The events in Burkina Faso in late October last year highlighted the potential conflict caused by presidential term limits and entrenched leaders who are less than willing to give up their presidential positions. Blaise Compaore had ruled Burkina Faso since 1987 and was the archetypal strongman but his decision to try to alter the constitution in order to enable him to run for a fifth term sparked protests which ultimately caused his downfall.

On the back of the democratisation wave which washed across Africa in the post-Cold War period many countries adopted term limits for their presidencies – a policy greatly encouraged by the West. The adoption of presidential term limits appeared to be a constitutional check against the continuation of presidencies dominated by strongmen in the new democratic period. However, as many of these assigned term limits approach for the current generation of leaders political opposition groups are growing wary of how presidents may attempt to circumvent them. Following on from Campaore in Burkina Faso, other countries where presidents are approaching their term limit include Burundi; the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); Congo-Brazzaville; Rwanda; and Benin.

Apart from Burundi, where a presidential election will take place in June this year, the rest of these countries’ presidents’ terms do not end until 2016 or 2017. However, if they are to attempt to alter their constitutions it is likely that they will do this well before election campaigns start, which could make 2015 a decisive year. Nonetheless, the removal of Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso as a result of his attempt to extend his presidential term limit may act as a warning for other African leaders seeking the same. It is highly likely that opposition parties across the continent will have taken inspiration from what happened in Burkina Faso, and will be planning to stage similar protests if their presidents attempt to extend their terms.

So much has already been made apparent in the DRC where, on 19th January 2015, students protested against a proposed revision to the country’s electoral code. The change would have required a census to take place before elections in 2016, which would have enabled President Kabila to delay the election beyond his term limit. At the time of writing, it appears that the protests have been successful in preventing a change to the electoral code as the National Assembly withdrew the controversial section of the electoral bill on 24th January 2015.

In Togo, where the opposition are calling for the adoption of a presidential term limit, protestors have taken to the streets to try to prevent Faure Gnassingbe from extending his family’s rule of the country. Faure Gnassingbe took over the presidency after his father, General Gnassingbe Eyadema, died in 2005 after ruling the country since 1967. In late November 2014 a protest erupted in Lome calling for a presidential term limit, which would prevent Gnassingbe from running in 2015. Demonstrators clashed with security forces that used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the thousands of protestors. The opposition has championed this issue leading a number of smaller scale demonstrations and promising more as the election in March 2015 approaches.

Although it must be recognized that the conditions in Burkina Faso are not the same across Africa and that Compaore’s loss of military support was vital in explaining his downfall, it appears that the events in Burkina Faso are already inspiring opposition movements across the continent. This does not mean that opposition movements in other countries will necessarily experience the same success as that in Burkina Faso but it does make it increasingly likely that presidents approaching the end of their tenures will not be able to circumvent their constitutions quite as easily as they may have thought.