Liberians Outraged over Hike in Voice, Data Charges

10
2320
The LTA mandate comes just a day after asking the GSM companies to restitute the money they earned from the implementation of the surcharges—a mandate which the companies have agreed to follow.

— Say GOL is insensitive to the plight of the masses

Anger and frustration flared in Monrovia and other parts of the country early Thursday morning when Liberians woke up to news that charges on voice calls and mobile data had suddenly doubled. Initially, US$2 could purchase 1.2GB of data, but with the new pricing, US$2 gets only 600MB of data. For on-net voice calls, the cost has suddenly tripled, from the previous US$1 for 45 minutes to only 15 minutes of voice calls for the same price.

These unprecedented hikes mean Liberians are no longer enjoying the modest mobile call and data rates they became accustomed to during the administration of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, as the administration of President George Manneh Weah has chosen to implement a tax hike that has essentially doubled data rates and tripled voice rates.

The government, through the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA), however said that it was taken aback by what it terms as “illegal and arbitrary increase in the cost of service (voice & data bundles) by both Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), Lonestar Cell MTN and Orange Liberia, under the pretense of complying with the surcharge order.”

However, Liberians in their numbers took to the social and traditional media to express their disgust over the move by the government as implemented by the GSM companies.

In this Information Age, when young people around the world are using the internet to access education, share their talents, market their products, connect and engage with each other, as well as manage and improve business performance, the Liberian government has chosen to implement a tax hike that has essentially doubled data and tripled voice rates.

Many believe the move is shortsighted at so many levels, and it shows the extremely predatory approach taken by the government toward fiscal policy in the country.

The increase in communications costs takes money directly from the pockets of ordinary citizens and transfers to the government — as they wonder how does such a move by a government that prides itself on a pro-poor promise benefit the citizens in any way, without any corresponding increase in the people’s living conditions and welfare.

In light of repressive tactics by governments around the world, especially where freedom of expression and access to the internet are concerned, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations (UNHRC), in July 2016, declared online freedom as a human right, in a resolution, titled: “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet”. In count 10 of the resolution (A/HRC/32/L.20), the UNHRC “Condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law and calls on all States to refrain from and cease such measures…”

Such intentional prevention or disruptions of access involve making access to the internet economically prohibitive for the masses, especially in the midst of growing dissent against the ruling establishment.

How it all started

In February 2019, the Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA) released an LTA Order: 0016-02-25-19 which introduced floor prices on voice and data calls. This order was implemented in September 2019 and led to the cancellation of the widely popular “3-day free calls”. The order mandated that within six months of passage, there would be another automatic imposition of surcharges of $0.008 per minute on voice-on-net calls and $0.00065 per MB (or $0.6656 per GB) on data.

The cellular giant, Orange Liberia, has been raising alarm over surcharges imposed by the LTA and upheld by the Supreme Court of Liberia.

The surcharge is a government revenue generator from the telecommunications sector which was recently implemented to replace the 5 percent tax.

The surcharge represents US$22 million on a turnover of US$93.3 million turnovers, with a big sum of that going to Orange France as management and royalty fees to avoid further paying local taxes.

Mr. Mamadou Coulibaly, General Manager of Orange Liberia, who has complained to the Supreme Court said: “We pay an average of US$20 million in taxes each year. On its own, this surcharge represents US$32 million on a turnover of US$63.1 million.”

Orange Liberia objected to the LTA’s move and challenged the government with the belief that mobile and data price increase would have had a negative impact on its customers as well as its operations in Liberia.

The company initially sought legal redress at the Civil Law Court, 6th Judicial Circuit Montserrado County, seeking Judicial Review filed against the LTA.

Later, Orange Liberia took an appeal to the Supreme Court, requesting the Court to reverse the ruling.

However, the Supreme in its recent ruling adjudged that the word “surcharge” as used in the LTA’s order, published on February 25, 2019, is construed within the context of imposition of additional fees or charges on data services and on-net voice calls under the authority of the LTA Act of 2007.

The Court added that the imposition of the surcharges does not invade Legislature’s authority to levy tax.

“It was not the intent of the Legislature to preclude the LTA from imposing surcharges on data services and on-net voice when it repealed and amended Section 1165 (Mobile Telephone Usage), and 1022(B)(2) of the amended Revenue Code as amended in 2016,” the Supreme Court added.

According to the Bench, the trial judge was not in error when he held that Orange Liberia did not allege sufficient legal grounds for the granting of its petition for judicial review, and that the LTA acted under its Act of 2007.

The Supreme Court also noted that the argument on economic factor is not the prerogative of the Court, rather the technical and political actors.

“We must add that question arising from public policies on the imposition of price and their accompanying economic impacts are addressed to the judgment of the technical and political actors hence not cognizable for judicial determination unless there is a clear show of arbitrariness or that the administrative agency exceeded its jurisdiction touching on the imposition of price as required by law,” the Bench noted.

The ruling from the Court has since compelled the GSM operators to abide by the LTA mandate and it was in adherence to that the companies, early Thursday morning announced to the Public the new charges.

The public response

But Liberians do not take lightly these extra financial burdens that the government has brought upon them. Some said that the government is being insensitive to the plight of the impoverished masses.

“How in the world does a regulator levy fees and surcharges and expects that a private company will not pass it on to consumers in their pricing is beyond me,” says Henrique Caine, a Liberian management consultant with a background in investment and business development. “Companies don’t go into business for revenue sharing with the regulator or the government unless it was a PPP and the government has an equity stake in the business. Otherwise if you tax a business or levy fees, then expect them to price for the taxes and fees in their products and service options! Simple!”

Comfort Wreh is not also feeling good about the hike in the prices of the cellular services. “How do these people want us to live? Are they not seeing how Liberians are suffering already? How do they want us to survive now?  This is too disgusting. Liberian leaders are so wicked and selfish,” Madam Comfort said.

One of such persons who seem to be really hurt by the latest move is a prominent young Liberian entrepreneur, Mahmud Johnson. Johnson is the founder and CEO of J-Palm-Liberia, the dealer of kernel fresh—skincare products.

“This is shortsighted at so many levels, and it shows the extremely predatory approach taken toward fiscal policy in Liberia,” Johnson said.

He wondered whether the revenues generated from this tax hike would be invested in some sort of tech academy for young Liberians to learn to code. “Will it be used to fund Liberian innovations and entrepreneurs? Will it ADD VALUE to the lives of ordinary Liberians in any substantial way?”

“This sort of insensitivity is precisely the reason why people are losing confidence in the government. You can’t keep taking and taking. How are people supposed to survive? When does it end?”

“And while this affects us all, the people that will be hurt the most are precisely the ones this government is supposed to protect the most. An overwhelming majority of Liberians live on less than $1.25 a day.”

He noted that government officials and other middle-class people can afford to buy internet data for their children to access the internet and take advantage of tons of free eLearning content online.

“Poor people forget it! The cost of 600MB is now even more than what some families spend on food per day,” Johnson said.

“Other governments know that the future is digital, and are making massive investments to prepare their people for that future. What is our government doing? This really makes you wonder whether the government really has a clear economic model and a plan to seriously transform the lives of ordinary people in the long term.”

12-hour Ultimatum to GSM Companies

Barely eight hours after the news of the hike went to the public like a wide fire, LTA said in a release that it was taken aback by the “illegal and arbitrary increase in the costs of voice & data bundles by both Lonestar Cell MTN and Orange under the pretense of complying with the surcharge order

LTA said under relevant provisions of the Liberia Telecommunications Act of 2007, no ‘Term Services” can be increased without approval of the LTA.

LTA order 0016-02-25-19 resulted in the imposition of a Floor Price on Voice and Data, under which the MNOs eliminated the 3-day free call last year September; the government is legally due charges accrued on revenue derived there from.  “The New Term of Services” has been promoted far in excess of what is required for implementation of any order and designed for profiteering and political purposes.

10 COMMENTS

  1. There is a important subject area in economics called tax incidence. It says that the entity upon whom a tax (surcharge) is levied does not necessarily bear the full burden of the tax. Some or all of the tax burden is shifted to another party.

    In other words, when the looters at LTA levies a surcharge (tax) on Orange Liberia — and if Orange Liberia wants to survive — it will have one of three responses or some combination thereof. 1) It will raise the price of its product (customer pays more), 2) lower dividends (shareholders get less money) or 3) lay off its workers (pink slips to workers)

    In this case, Orange Liberia chose #1 (make the Liberian people pay more). But the point to remember is that, corporations do NOT pay taxes. They merely collect taxes from you and me , and pass them to the born rogues in your government!

    • Martin, you make too much sense. I wonder why they call Tweah a genius. This term in Liberia is being used to award incompetents with unnecessary praise (use big words and the masses are in awe). Simple economics 101 tell you that there is a direct relationship between taxation and the cost of goods purchased. Increase tariffs surcharges and/or taxes and that decision is always passed on to the consumer ( i learned that in St. Patrick’s high school). What is so hard for Liberians to understand? Technology is the core for success in a global economy. AM I MISSING SOMETHING?

  2. The Liberian people are not outraged enough, if they are really outraged they will show it by a sustained, peaceful mass protest until some of these draconian measures are repealed. Liberians are the laughing stock of the sub-region, because a hand full of incompetents have taken over state power in the country, and are running it like it is their private farm. The president gets on the pulpit at his private church and insults the youths of the country that overwhelmingly voted him to power, but complains that he can not do favors for people that get on social media to insult him. He is a president with a very thin skin.
    Our compatriots are brazenly murdered in cold blood by the powers that be, yet we do nothing, but talk about it in our little corners. Our sense of nationalism is kind of warped, as we will glaringly see our country imploding, as the distribution of the national cake is very skewed, yet we will only complain in our little corners.
    Instead of us organizing peaceful mass protests, we flock to the churches on Sundays to pray to God to come and change things for the better, but things only change for those that fight for the change, cause no matter how long we might fast, or cry to the high heavens nothing is going change until we, as a people decide to take our destiny into our own hands. That is the only way that these criminals masquerading as our leaders will understand that we exist, and that we know how they are misruling our country. We shouldn’t be perturbed by the threat of a violent put down by the powers that be, after all freedom is not given to a people on a silver platter, freedom is the result of struggle, harsh, difficult struggle, some of our compatriots have paid the ultimate price for the nascent democracy that we are enjoying today, it then becomes our bounding duty to defend it at all cost.
    We sat down and let the LTA and the GSM companies take away the 3 days call for $1.00 and we did not massively protest peacefully, so they have developed the thinking that they can rain down any voice, or data price on us and there is not a damn thing we can do about it, but this time we the people must do something about it. We must not just be outraged, we must show our outrageousness by some concrete steps that will show the LTA and the GSM companies that enough is enough, by organizing a nationwide boycott of the GSM networks for a week, where no one will buy any data for a week, or organize a mass peaceful protest across the country demanding some changes in how they deal with the Liberian people.
    We fought a protracted, violent civil war because of the same bad governance of today, but it seems like we did not learn anything from the long years of butchering each other, we as a people are not doing enough to protect our democracy. We have not really come out in mass demanding the creation of a war and economic crimes court, to try those amongst us that are responsible for gross violence visited upon our people for over 15 years. We elected those who heaved the most violence on us during the civil war to be our national leaders. No matter why we as a people are not making any progress, because we keep doing the same things that we went to war to stop. That is why those we elect think that instead of them being answerable to us, we are their servants. During elections we allow them to truck us around the country to cast votes for them that they have not work for, yet when living condition gets hard we look up to God to fix things up.
    Those who plundered our country, and did grave harm to some of our compatriots in their quest to enrich themselves are today masquerading around here like they are heroes, but they are nothing but mass murderers and common criminals; and until we muscle the national courage to demand a war and economic crimes court in Liberia for these so-called leaders to answer for the crimes committed against our people, we will not make any kind of progress as a nation.
    so to conclude, if we the Liberian people are really outraged at how our country is being misgoverned, we must come together as a people, organize ourselves to make some demands to change things around here; we have to let the oppressors know that we understand that the only language that they comprehend is violence.
    ORGANIZE TO TAKE OVER OUR COUNTRY, MY PEOPLE!

    Tolo Bonah Corfah
    Dixon, California

    • Tolo Bonah Corfah, you sit your opium backside there in Dixon, California telling others to act stupid and behave , lawlessly for you. Be man enough and come to Monrovia and do the organization, or just keep smoking your opium and spare us your rubbishing boredom.

  3. This is a tax on the poor and middle class. Liberians will suffer and sink deeper lacking access to the Internet. Does the government not want people to see how the rest of the world can live? Sorry for Liberia. There must be accountability at election time, this is no small thing. Hopefully the Starlink satellites and other space-bases systems will serve Liberia someday and bypass the graft and fraud on the ground!

  4. Remember the rice riots of the 70’s in Liberia? Well, NOW you cut the salaries of the civil servants by 30%, instituted harmonization policy, you impose high import duties on goods, alienate foreign businesses, you suffocate the poor.
    THE ELEMENTS OF A CIVIL STRIFE AND REVOLUTION

  5. Mr. Tolo B. Corfah,
    There’s no doubt that extreme poverty exists in every county of Liberia. Have you ever wondered why there’s so much poverty or why the government of Liberia is unable to pay its employees on time?

    One of the sources of poverty stems from the fact that the Liberian lawmakers earn huge sums of money per year. In a poverty-stricken country like ours, that kind of money shouldn’t be paid to a lawmaker! Example, the yearly income by a county Representative or lawmaker turns out to be over $10,000 per month. That simply means that a single Liberian lawmaker earns more money per month than the public school teachers of Gee, Kru Coast and Maryland.

    You and a slew of Daily Observer commenters always blame Weah for all kinds of reasons. Don’t get wrong. You and your colleagues have a right to vent your anger anytime, anywhere. But have you guys and ladies ever bothered to protest against the lawmakers’ compensation?
    Why not? Weah does not have the authority to make changes in salary payments. (I hope my critics will not accuse me of making excuses for Weah)

    As you know mighty well, the power to dethrone or prevent a lawmaker from earning a big salary rests in the hands of “the people”. But yet, instead of strategizing in order to prevent high salaries to be paid to the lawmakers, many times over, Weah is blamed because of Liberia’s hard times.

    Question:
    Will it ever be possible for you and the feckless opposition parties to demonstrate or protest against high salary payment in Liberia?

    • It’s true, the salaries are absurd. The theory was the high salaries would encourage honesty and conduct on behalf of the Liberian people. Instead it seems it formed a higher base on which to graft even greater amounts…

      There should be no tax on Internet data in Liberia lacking any viable alternative. It harms education, commerce, and political power of the people.

    • Mr. Hney! I salute you with greetings from the bottom of my heart this morning reading the views of others. Mr. Tolo B. Corfah is absolutely correct about the situation on this surcharge being hit on Liberians by our very own government. “Freedom and liberty”don’t come on silver plates and that’s the bottom line. Infact, it was one of the GSM company orange, that took our government to court on behalf of the Liberian people. That’s very disturbing for me when we have group like LNBA and many others that could mount pressures on the government to change its course. This has absolutely nothing to do with opposition or about one being opposition.

      Matters that affects the lives of Liberians becomes everyone problems and that’s why it is very paramount Liberians engaged in positive discussions and not insults plus names calling. You and myself once discussed leadership in one of our exchanged and Hon. Samuel Tweh should have known better that, these surcharges will automatically be passed on to the consumers rather sitting there thinking the GSM providers in Liberia will take the hits.

      Infact, the worst scenery could have turned out very bad if the GSM service providers had gone that direction. Imagine laying off 1000 of Liberians from work in such a hard time in Liberia because of these surcharges that’s being levelled? This is not the time to increase any service fees in Liberia especially on the GSM and cables network operating in Liberia. This is the time to open corridors for online services and encourage every Liberians to take advantage to what the Internet has to offer in terms of learning from home and current world events. Instead, we are trying to head into the opposite direction.

      Now that we have agreed on one thing which is the lawmakers salaries in Liberia, we don’t necessarily have to protest about this and our president of our republic is the only person that can fix the salaries issues if he wants to fix the bad to good. The very Darius Dillion that CDCians are against today was the very person to exposed the lawmakers salaries after he made public just how much was his salary and how much he needed. Many Liberians, including myself had no idea on how much was our lawmakers earning plus benefits. Now that we know, changes will come to benefit Liberia. We can not continued to have such mess on hand and expect anything good to happened in Liberia. We don’t need to protest necessarily for our lawmakers salaries. Protest will be the last option if our president failed to act.

      Why you think president Weah shouldn’t be blame for these surcharges? Wasn’t he aware that, his government was in court against orange Liberia for his government increasing surcharges in Liberia? If you personally think that president Weah shouldn’t be blame, then who should we be blaming as Liberians, my best friend Hney?

  6. Our country has been like this, against the masses, from time in memorial. I just can’t understand how did these GSM companies arrived at their current prices? How will 0.008 and 0.00065 increased all the prices so high? As for our government, shame on them! Shame on the legislators, the Judiciary and the Executive! They pushed these companies too much not knowing it could have landed on the ordinary people. The university of Liberia is offering their courses online, how many students can afford the needed data to access their lessons? How many people are currently willing to pay $200.00LD for 15 minutes calls?

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