Monday, October 01, 2012

Small enough to drown in the toilet.

In an insightful piece in this week's The wag, Waga Odongo makes the case for a second look at the Communications Commission of Kenya's obsession with switching off counterfeit mobile phones (I don't trust the CCK over this fake-phone switch-off, Daily Nation, Monday, 1, 2012). Mr Odongo is right to ask why counterfeit phones are being switched off by the regulator when their International Mobility Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers play no role in tracking their use or their ownership; Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards serve this purpose. The only credible reason for switching them off is to protect the intellectual property of mobile phone manufacturers and to protect the Kenya revenue Authority's revenue-collection target from the sales of genuine mobile phones after the Big Switch-off.

It is hard not to blame CCK, KRA or the Kenya bureau of Standards for this event. After all, it is principally KRA and KEBS that are supposed to keep counterfeit goods out of the Kenyan market. And CCK has no business pretending that its actions are going to put a dent on the proliferation of counterfeit mobile phones. Who is to say that this programme will be sustained? Once the fanfare of the Big Switch-off is over and done with, isn't it in the realm of possibility that the mobile phone companies whose revenue streams rely on the continued use of handsets will simply refuse to switch off new counterfeit phones that come online on their networks? It is almost guaranteed that continued importation of counterfeit phones into the country will not be stemmed by the Big Switch-off. Since when have smugglers obeyed the law, especially revenue, consumer protection or standards laws?

Because of its pervasive presence, Kenyans have been made to believe that their government and its agencies can solve all their problems. As a result, the size and scope of the government to interfere in our lives has increased tremendously, especially since the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010. It seems that in preparation for a new government after the next general election, each ministry, department or agency is busy setting up new "autonomous" units to regulate or oversee one aspect of our lives or the other. What Kenyans should be asking for instead, to paraphrase Grover Norquist, an American anti-tax fundamentalist, is a government small enough to drown in the toilet.

For a nation that can barely afford to pay its teachers, doctors, nurses or lecturers and has shown to be spectacularly poor at protecting the rights of workers or marginalised, poor communities, it is too much to expect that in the area of the economy, it will be even-handed in its dealings, punishing the smugglers and their distributors while switching off the mobile phones of the poor. There is no reason why we should be expanding the size of the public service if we have so far been unable to use the already massive public service to protect the people of Kenya. It is manifestly unfair for the State to collect revenue and then turn around and demand that they dig deeper into their depleted pockets to purchase new, genuine phones conveniently being rushed to market at the price of the dead, counterfeit ones. The law should not be a weapon to browbeat the poor; it is a tool for levelling the playing field and give everyone an equal shot at the brass ring. It is time the mandarins of agencies such as CCK took this to heart or one day we really will shrink government into an easy-to-drown-in-the-toilet institution.

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