— 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.