Tuesday Column By VICTORIA NGOZI IKEANO
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“I can see everything turning around, everything turning around, everything turning around by my side”, so sang a Nigerian artiste whose name I cannot readily recall now. One can in like manner but slightly changing the wordings, say that things are turning around this July following easing of the coronavirus lockdowns. Things started turning around from the very first day of July. On that day, without any prior notice, popular telecommunications company, MTN suddenly discontinued the free short text messages(SMS) it had been gifting its customers during the lock-down, reverting to its normal N4 per SMS charge; Multichoice a.k.a. DSTV yanked off the sports channels it had added to its Yanga bouquet subscribers and effectively delisted the access bouquet; the inland revenue service, started implementing payment of stamp duty (tax) for house rents, various receipts issued for contractual agreements between individuals, corporate bodies, etc.; NEPA or rather the electricity distribution companies (DISCOs) made moves to kickstart a hike in electricity tariff; and so on and so forth.
When during the lockdown I called the MTN customer care centre to ask what palliative it was giving its customers to lighten its effects on them, they referred me to their 30 free SMS per month for each customer to enable us keep in touch with friends and relatives during the period. I only sighed. So MTN considered free texts rather than free airtime and free data as sufficient palliative to cushion debilitating effects of staying indoors for months? Boredom and depression threatened during the lockdown due largely to lack of activity and money. And one way of curtailing these while keeping ourselves informed and entertained was through listening to radio/television programmes, watching films, etc. Nigeria’s epileptic electricity supply is a hindrance here. Nevertheless, thanks to the internet, in this 21st century, we can do all of the aforementioned things and much more on our smartphones like video conferencing, etc. However, you need data for all these. Thus, the greatest gift or palliative our telecommunication companies and MTN in particular being the foremost, could have given their customers was free airtime and data, at least significant bonuses in that regard. It is true that MTN did give some data and airtime bonuses during the lockdown. In truth however, it was a case of giving with one hand and taking with the other as the tariff was high. You would need at least 20,000 megabytes of data and above if you wish do any significant streaming with your mobile phone or laptop.For example, a 9,000 megabytes data I bought from MTN for N2,000 (4,500 megabytes plus the bonus of 4,500 megabytes) got exhausted while streaming Sunday’s live premier league matches. Is that really bonus? I learnt that cost of data is falling in many parts of the world. Why not in Nigeria? A friend in need is a friend indeed.
Sadly, MTN did not prove to be a worthy friend when we were in greatest need during the lockdown. I am picking on MTN because it has the greatest reach, the greatest share of the market in Nigeria. And as the foremost telecom firm, it should be setting a good example for the others to follow, not least in the area of corporate social responsibility. The company donated one billion naira to the federal government’s fight against COVID-19. This was brought about by circumstance, not a pre-planned action by it. It did it mainly to project its image within government circles, to be in the good books of government and curry favour from it so to speak. For, what is the use of gifting billions of naira to government while also charging your customers high tariff? A case of robbing Peter to pay Paul or vice versa? By now MTN should have recouped the admittedly then high fees it paid in 2001 for its GSM operating license in Nigeria, given our large market and its big share of it. Its Group Financial Report show that Nigeria contributes the most to its turnover (revenue). Additionally, the company has always been forced to take positive actions. It was forced to change from the unjust per minute billing system to the per second system following entry of GLO which initiated such; it was forced to list its shares in the Nigerian Stock Exchange (capital market) after much public outcry. Next year will mark its 20th anniversary in Nigeria. I do not expect it to give millions of its customers any significant/worthy gifts in cash or kind during the celebrations.
DSTV also without warning yanked off additional sports channels it was giving its low bouquet subscribers even for those with subsisting subscriptions. It had last year, introduced the Yanga bouquet costing N2,500 promising that subscribers to it would enjoy more sporting events. Indeed, it was so for while subscribers to the Access bouquet (N2,000) had only Supersport channels 220,229 and 230, those of Yanga had 220, 227, 228, 229 and 230. When some smart Alecs noticed that DSTV had marginally increased its charges, the company denied it, averring that it was only effecting government increased value added tax (VAT) of seven percent. Then later it gave notice that effective from June 1, it would scrap the access bouquet, urging those on it to migrate to the higher Yanga bouquet of N2,500 with more sports channels. On the first day of July, 2020 Yanga bouquet subscribers woke up to find that Supersports 227 and 228 has been removed from their menu. Thus Multichoice (DSTV) effectively, albeit cleverly increased its rates, for, what we have from this July is effectively, an access bouquet renamed yanga with a higher price tag.
Our electricity distribution companies were about to increase their charges at beginning of this July for which they had since given notice pre COVID-19 when they were stopped on their tracks by the National Assembly. Recall that plans were afoot to give consumers free two months electricity during the lockdown as part of COVID-19 palliative, so we were told. The negotiation with the federal government dragged on rather unendingly, the long and short of it being that nothing came out of it; the proposed electricity palliative did not materialize. The bottom line is that consumers continue to bear the burden of poor electricity supply and high tariff. And to think that this July just as people were beginning to slowly come out of the long lockdown the first item on the DISCOs’ agenda was implementation of increased tariff. They were not keen on granting consumers electricity palliative but are keen now on tariff hike. They argue they are businessmen whose primary concern is to maximize profit. As I keep stressing, corporate entities’ main objective should be to make SATISFACTORY, not MAXIMUM (emphasis mine) gain/profit. Capitalism should have a human face. All companies mentioned here should not in a bid to make maximum profit simply because they control the market more or less, bleed their customers to death, so to speak.
On its part, our government in a desperate bid to shore up its dwindling revenue due essentially to the COVID-19 global lockdown is now literally taxing all the taxable. Chairman of the federal inland revenue serviced (FIRS) recently announced that tax is now to be paid on rents and contractual agreements, among others, via stamp duty. So, should a broke tenant go borrow money from a money lender for his rent, the contractual agreement paper/receipt detailing the transaction has to have a stamp duty? Perhaps the only thing that is not taxable for now is the air we breathe. What more will July bring? Only time will tell.
“I can see everything turning around, everything turning around, everything turning around this July”