The social media sphere in Cameroon is exploding with an ongoing campaign for the government to halt the implementation of a new method for the payment of Customs clearance fees for imported mobile devices. The method pushes the burden of payment to the final user in case of default by the importer.

The measure, which makes Customs clearance mandatory for all telephones coming into the country forthwith, is expected to officially come into effect on 15 October 2020. Efforts by Cameroon’s Customs and Taxation Departments to convince citizens about the necessity of the new payment method of the tax are falling on resistant ears.

A top Cameroon Customs official justifies the necessity of the new telephone clearance payment method during a press conference in Yaounde on 12 October 2020.

Weeklong #EndPhoneTax campaign in Cameroon

On social media networks like Twitter, there is a hashtag dubbed #EndPhoneTax which has been trending since the start of the week, with more than 18, 000 tweets already. A similar experience is also playing out on Facebook, in a move that is pushing the country’s government to rethink the new tax payment method even before it has effectively gone into effect.

What appears to have pricked the bile of Cameroonians about the new measure is that the payment of the Customs clearance fees for a telephone can rest on the shoulders of a user who has no idea about how the phone or mobile device was imported into the country. That is to say, in the event where a user buys a telephone or mobile device that has not been duly cleared, the responsibility for such clearance lies on them.

For this to happen, authorities have explained that an automated billing platform, which has already been built to receive the Customs clearance payments, will be linked to the user’s mobile network provider, making it possible for automatic debiting of either user’s account. What, many say, is also exacerbating tempers concerning the method is the payment rate. Taxation officers have said it will be 33% of the total factory price of the telephone in question.

“A lot of people in this country don’t even have jobs. Many of them are working using their phones to make ends meet, and you want to take that away just because you can? Entrepreneurship isn’t fertile here (Cameroon) because you people (government) don’t do much for us to be creative. #EndPhoneTax,” a Twitter user who identifies herself as Becky tweeted.

Renowned Cameroonian-born female technology entrepreneur, Rebecca Enonchong, also called out the government on what she said was shifting the responsibility for the payment of Customs duties by importers to the end-users of mobile phones.

Music industry celebs, MPs join online protest campaign

Among the many Cameroonians who have joined the #EndPhoneTax campaign are music industry celebrities, politicians, and members of the country’s Parliament. While well-known urban music stars in the country such as Reniss, Blaise B, Blanche Bailey, and Ewube have lashed out at the government through various social media posts, Members of Parliament – especially of the opposition – such as Honourable Cabral Libii and Honourable Jean Michel Nintcheu, have also warned against the move saying it is intended to “punish” an already impoverished citizenry.

Hon. Nintcheu, a lawmaker of the opposition Social Democratic Front party, in a statement, accused the government of using the new measure to meet up with its budgetary shortfalls. He said the move was going to further compound the socio-economic woes of Cameroonians who, he said, have already been drained enough by constraints brought about by the new coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Cameroon's government explains the new measure

As the campaign to protest the new method for Customs clearance payment on telephones continues, the government has been on its toes trying to explain the situation to citizens. Officials of the country’s Taxation and Customs services have since held press conferences to explain what is going to happen with the tax issue. According to them, the tax under discussion is not new, but rather what is new is the system through which it will henceforth be paid. This, they argue, is because importers have, over the years, failed to pay Customs duties for telephones at the various ports of entry – hence making it incumbent on the government to device new strategies to ensure that such payments are no longer circumvented.

“The telephone user has always paid the 33% tax. The Customs department has not created any new tax. The only issue is that we have changed the way the tax can now be paid. It’s now either physically (at points of entry into the country) or by electronic means…,” Guy Innocent Diffouo, a top Customs official said in a press conference in Yaounde on 12 October.

He also explained that that the new payment method is part of efforts by the government to digitize its Customs revenue collection system and also expand the country’s tax base.

About the new payment method for phone imports

The new payments on imported telephones in Cameroon are in line with Section 7 of the country’s 2019 finance law which levies taxes on the importation of mobile phones and tablets into the country, on certain conditions. A plan to activate the provision of the finance law was first announced in March in a joint statement by the Ministers of Finance and Telecommunications.

The electronic payment platform for the purpose is being deployed by a company known as Artificial Intelligence Technology (ARINTECH) SARL. It is working with the competent government services in Cameroon to ensure that mobile telephone network providers in the country configure their systems in a way as to avoid any connections to their respective networks by phones and tablets that have not been cleared.

Cameroon has a booming market for mobile phones and other mobile devices. According to statistics, the country had at least 23 million mobile subscriptions as of January 2020, representing about 90% of the total population. Figures from the country’s Directorate General of Customs also indicate that about four million telephones are imported into the country every year.

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