Museveni tells the poor: Ain’t got no mobile money? You got life

Wednesday July 11 2018

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni takes a phone call at a roadside in Kyeirumba. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

By FREDRICK GOLOOBA-MUTEBI
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It has been an angry week in Uganda. Citizens are furious at their government for coming up with new taxes, which, as it happens, are not payable by everybody.

They are not, for example, like value-added tax, which is so difficult to avoid. Only people who use mobile money services and those who own phones that allow them to be active on social media platforms must pay.

If one neither sends cash to anyone via mobile money services nor receives any, the new tax is irrelevant to their day-to-day existence.

If one has a cheap phone that they can’t use to access social media and if they have never connected to any platform and know nothing about Facebook or WhatsApp, the tax is equally irrelevant to their day-to-day lives.

And even if one is in the habit of using mobile money services, truth be told, the tax can be avoided.

They could simply drop the habit and look for other ways of transacting whatever business they have been transacting via mobile money services.

If you’re a social media addict and can’t bear to be off WhatsApp or Twitter, all you have to do is moderate or kick your addiction.

Easier said than done, I know.

And here is where things get interesting for detached observers, and potentially complicated for the Museveni government. Reducing one’s use of social media may be easy, but not mobile money transactions.

Mobile money users in Uganda, as elsewhere in the region, have grown tremendously in number. The ubiquitous mobile money kiosks and the number of mobile money agents everywhere one looks in Kampala and its environs, and even upcountry, testify to the popularity of the service. And so when the tax on transactions came, it was bound to hit a large percentage of the population up and down country.

We are not talking of only the well-to-do urbanites who talk a lot but who rarely do anything tangible to demonstrate their anger. They are notorious for not voting. Nor do they do political activism. This time, the poor have also been hit.

It is probably too early to tell how they will react.

One thing is certain, though: The rural poor whose better-off relatives send them modest amounts of money via mobile for food and other needs, are a key Museveni constituency.

They include women whose husbands have migrated to towns to look for work, leaving them behind to look after the children and whatever assets they may have.

One way that these wives of poor rural-urban migrants survive is through the modest funds their husbands send through mobile money.

As with the rest of the rural poor, women are a key Museveni constituency, for historical and other reasons.

So how will they react to portions of their modest remittances being chopped off by the government in the form of taxes, in addition to the fees telephone companies levy on transactions?

There are two views about this: One is that support for both President Museveni and his party, the National Resistance Movement, may plummet farther if his hitherto solid constituencies decide to defect, and that at the next elections NRM could suffer massive electoral losses.

Such a possibility must concentrate Museveni’s mind and the minds of other NRM strategists.

This argument is quite popular among all sorts of analysts, but it is probably too easy.

As it is often said, a week in politics is a long time. The next important elections for both Museveni and his party are some years away.

It is hardly farfetched to imagine that the anger that users of mobile money are feeling now, will have dissipated, as other more important issues come up.

It is not so long ago that Museveni and the NRM engineered moves to remove the presidential age limit from the Constitution. The anger it caused across the country was palpable. These days hardly anyone talks about what happened. And it is only a few months down the road.

But perhaps one thing Museveni and his strategists ought to worry about is something the media are already reporting, albeit only anecdotally so far.

It seems the volume of mobile money transactions has fallen drastically since the tax kicked in. This could be a temporary reaction, sparked by anger and a degree of bravado, the latter stemming from knowledge that there are, after all, other means of sending money home and paying the bills one has hitherto been paying by mobile money.

That there are other ways is true, of course. They are, however, not as convenient or secure in comparison. The implications of this are that people may simply swallow their anger and return en masse to using mobile money and paying the taxes. The government will have won the argument.

But there was a time when there was no mobile money, and people still sent money to their relatives and paid their bills. If many return to the old ways, then Museveni will have to think again.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]

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