If you google Zimbabwe this week, you’ll read about the social unrest that has sparked when the government more than doubled the price of gasoline. A nationwide strike (#ShutDownZimbabwe) has been called. And people have been taking to the streets and to social media to express their anger and frustration at the government. As a Zimbabwean living abroad, I use the internet to follow political developments back home intently. I am the one expected to alert offline family members in Zimbabwe of any pertinent information, social or political.
A few days ago, I woke up to one such WhatsApp message from a friend in Australia. It contained a link to a tweet by the Zimbabwean state newspaper. “Considering the influence of social media in encouraging rowdy behavior such as that being witnessed during #ShutDownZimbabwe, the government is planning to block all forms of social media until further notice,” it said. I forwarded the message to friends and family in Zimbabwe. I took a second to marvel at how ubiquitous these kinds of transcontinental flows of information have become for Zimbabweans across the world, then began a series of conversations on Facebook about how best to prepare for—and possibly circumvent—the shutdown.
This shutdown strategy has been deployed time and again across a range of countries—Sudan, Kenya, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name a few. Shutting down the internet is exactly the kind of thing one might expect from authoritarian regimes. It’s a heavy-handed and clumsy way of repressing their citizens. It’s reminiscent of the typical strongman strategy for controlling local populations—the removal of access to any information that counters the official position of the state and is intended to keep people docile. It’s long been an effective strategy, but in the digital era, it’s become easy to circumvent these tactics, most commonly by installing virtual private networks.
More recently, however, governments have begun regulating digital infrastructures in increasingly sophisticated ways—primarily through the introduction of a series of taxes on internet access, justified on moral and economic grounds.
For instance, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has characterized social media usage in the country as idle gossip. In a letter to his Treasury Department last March, he also argued that Ugandans’ excessive use of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp was a waste of economically productive time and proposed the introduction of a new tax on internet access. This tax, argued Museveni, would curtail online gossip while simultaneously raising much-needed government revenue. He foresaw the daily fee collection as a way of generating the necessary resources to turn Uganda from a poor country to a middle-income one by 2020. And so, beginning in July 2018, Ugandans who wanted to use popular social media platforms and as many as 60 other sites, characterized as over-the-top (OTT), had to start paying a daily fee of 200 shillings ($0.05) in order to do so.
This is not the first time that the Ugandan government has introduced a regulatory framework to curtail internet use. In 2011, “The Computer Misuse Act”, aimed at preventing unlawful use of computers and with penalizing cybercrimes more generally, was introduced. In 2016, it was reported that the government absurdly invested in an $88,000 pornography detecting machine, which the Minister of Ethics argued would be used to enforce the country’s moral and cultural values. In 2017, the government established a monitoring unit that would be used to scan social media profiles for posts critical of the government.
Uganda’s various cyber policies are not unique. In fact, the Ugandan July 2018 OTT tax is part of a growing trend of not only regulating, but also taxing internet access in Africa. In April 2018, the Tanzanian government started charging bloggers the equivalent of $930 in annual fees to post content online—a prohibitive tax in a country where the average yearly income is less than $900. The government also stated that awarded permits could still be revoked if the content posted on a site “causes annoyance, threatens harm or evil, encourages or incites crimes.” In August 2018, the Zambian government also announced a daily levy of $0.03 on social media use (although this levy has since not made it into the national budget).
These varied taxes point to two distinct concerns—economic and political. Tax collection rates across the continent have historically been low. In recent years, there has been a push by the international community for African states to develop better ways of accessing fiscal resources from within their borders, rather than relying primarily on international aid and loans. Internet access taxation points to an innovative way to collect resources. But the collection of this additional tax revenue could make the cost of connecting prohibitively expensive, especially for those already living at the margins. Some governments have also included a tax on mobile money transfers. As many people rely on a combination of social media platforms and mobile money in order to conduct various types of e-commerce, these additional fees have the potential to dampen user consumption and reduce operators’ revenues overall.
The internet has been a space for connections—economic, personal and political, all across the African continent. People (primarily young people in urban areas) have been using various social media platforms to run small businesses, to foster relationships, and to keep up with the rest of the world. They have also been using the internet as a space to mobilize against and protest their governments. Twitter feeds and Facebook walls have become virtual spaces for discussion and debate, while WhatsApp group chats have served as tools for on-the-ground public action coordination.
And so, perhaps more concerning for scholars, activists and human rights organizations than the economic implications of these taxes, is the fact that their imposition points to a more sinister strategy to stifle freedom of expression, and the possibility of political dissent, under the guise of fiscal resource collection. It is a blatant yet sophisticated means of stifling internationally visible dissent and curtailing local political organizing.
Jacquelin Kataneksza is a Zimbabwean international affairs practitioner and political analyst based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Africa is a Country, and has previously written for Mobilisation Lab, as well as appearing on Al Jazeera’s The Stream, This is Hell Radio and Cape Talk Radio, South Africa, to discuss Zimbabwean politics. She is also a PhD candidate in public policy at The New School, where her research focuses on African politics, civil society and new media.