By Okoh Aihe
ALTHOUGH this government gives the impression that things are pretty cool in the country, there are some strands of activities which really magnify the desperation with which those in authority are trying to paper over the nastiness of the times.
Two of them played out recently. At a stakeholders meeting in Abuja, government announced that it was ready to introduce excise duties on telecommunications services in the country.
The tax was pegged at five per cent for every N1000 of recharge card purchased, for instance. You will still be charged even if you bought just N100 worth.
In the broadcast sector, government is spoiling for a fight with BBC and Trust TV for their coverage of terror activities in the Northern part of the country which the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has described as a glamorisation of the bandits who are inflicting pain on the country. He informed the nation that government has indeed directed the broadcast regulator, the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, to sanction the organisations. Very desperate times indeed. The meeting in Abuja is obviously a response to the failing fortunes of the economy which has been on a free fall.
The airlines are shutting down and flight tickets within the country have soared beyond reason, international flights have nearly been shackled by cost, Emirates is reducing flights to Nigeria because it cannot remit money from the country because of Dollar scarcity, and you need over N700 to buy just a dollar; everything is going up, and in fact life has become so expensive and very meaningless that the only tangible commodity across the nation is hopelessness. The Abuja meeting was more of an announcement than a stakeholders gathering, although it actually provided opportunity to the service provider to table their protestations.
Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, Professor Umar Garba Danbatta, in his opening remarks, pointed to the Finance Act, 2020, which states clearly that: “Telecommunications services provided in Nigeria shall be charged with duties of excise at the rates specified under the duty column in the Schedule as the President may by Order prescribe pursuant to Section 13 of the Act”.
The regulator was only fulfilling a responsibility in facilitating an understanding among stakeholders so that they can maintain full compliance with government policy.
The Nigeria Customs Service attended the meeting armed with the excise valuation of five per cent and payment schedule of the 21st day of every month. While the Ministry of Finance presented a draft Order awaiting the President’s signature. This Order may be cited as Customs and Excise Tariff, Etc. (Consolidation) Act Excise (Telecommunications Services) Order, 2022.
From all indications it was fait accompli that the telcos must pay that money. But is it the telcos really?
You see, all over the world, the telecommunications industry suffers an industry curse, to the effect that the wealth and success of the industry easily exposes it to the various governments as low-hanging fruits that must easily be harvested to bridge revenue shortfall or gap. Nigeria is not an exception, except that the tax cocktail is overwhelming the industry to the point of inertia. The operators are nearly drunk with tax exaction and they complained about it very bitterly at the forum.
Industry bodies, the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria, ATCON, and the Association of Licensed Telecoms Companies of Nigeria, ALTON, remonstrated bitterly, that: “We currently pay a lot of taxes, running into 39 of them, so we can’t add more to the existing burden. We won’t be able to absorb this on behalf of subscribers.” The tax must be passed to the subscribers, some of them still earning the minimum wage of N30,000, which is not paid regularly as monies coming into the federation account have been in staggering decline. The industry has received massive support from a rare corner.
Speaking in Lagos at the Maiden Edition of The Nigerian Telecommunications Indeginous Content Expo, a furious Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami, observed that the five per cent excise duty was one tax too many, while declaring that the industry could not be taxed to death, having been very supportive of the nation’s economy.
He admonished government, which he is part of, to breathe more life into other sectors of the economy. It is a principled position that may yet declare the good part of Pantami in the face of a government whose debt burden is more than the revenue it generates.
While Pantami got some much needed ovation in Lagos, same cannot be said for Alhaji Lai Mohammed who seems to have been angered by the BBC and Trust TV for giving bandits generous TV time. The government spokesperson has vowed to direct the NBC to deal with the two stations according to the laws of the land. His position has not enjoyed salutary acceptance by some other stakeholders of the broadcast industry.
I have had to spend some time watching the two documentaries – “The Bandit Warlords of Zamfara” by BBC and “Nigeria’s Banditory: The Inside Story” by Trust TV. From one journalist to another, I have loads of appreciation for the daring enterprise and creativity of the teams involved in the projects. What has long been suspected was confirmed with visual reality and exactitude. The bandits are no apparitions and they don’t live in space.
They have their locations, they have neighbours and friends and even their victims know where they live and their pattern of migration. I know that sometimes the truth told at a time a government is in trouble could be very unnerving and particularly irritting.
But looking at those pictures, no matter how disheartening, I see positives. For instance, they tell stories with lavish pictures. What advantage can government squeeze out of these works? What engagements need to happen for security efforts to enjoy some traction, and even in terms of pursuing a negotiated resolution? How can government squeeze out some positive advantages from the documentaries instead of blanketing them as stage-managed flagellations.
You can see that I am not interested in saying that if those who made the documentaries could access the bandits in their locations, what makes it so difficult for the Nigerian security forces to do the same? But can the NBC go after BBC and Trust TV because government has directed it to? I have tried to speak to some broadcasters and they couldn’t provide me with any comforting answer. For instance, I watched the BBC documentary on YouTube. Some are of the opinion that the NBC cannot punish YouTube for curating a programme.
This is what I think. Confronted with a multiplicity of problems across the nation, government is getting too desperate to sift solutions out of a maze of challenges. So will this government impose five per percent excise duty on telecommunications services? I believe it will do so no matter how much we cry because a government operating on net zero really doesn’t care so much. But the subscribers will have to cough it out.
Will this government punish the BBC and Trust TV for spilling the inconvenient truth? I believe it will for the simple reason that a government in this kind of position, of near epidemic hatred by the people, will always see the acceptance of hurtful truth and reality as manifest weakness. Unfortunately, quite a number of people who watch TV today do so on their phones, iPad or tablets or even computers. With a little network coverage and data subscription, the subscriber will have express permission to as many TV channels as possible.