Business Visibility and Taxation in Northern Cameroon

By Muñoz, José-María | African Studies Review, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Business Visibility and Taxation in Northern Cameroon

Muñoz, José-María, African Studies Review


Through an analysis of the taxation of business activities in Adamaoua Province, Cameroon, this article aims to provide ethnographic substance to current debates about the "tax effort" in sub-Saharan Africa. Although the current mission of the tax authorities to identify all potential taxpayers and track their locations, movements, and activities is often presented in the context of nationwide reform and a commitment to making all taxable enterprises visible, a close examination of the government's practices reveals other factors at work. The case of cattle traders in particular shows that taxation policies in Adamaoua today are based on an interplay between, on the one hand, modes of state control and levels of administrative efficiency, and on the other, longstanding repertoires of business practice and idioms of documentation.

Résumé: À travers une analyse de la fiscalisation des activités commerciales dans la région de l' Adamaoua au Cameroun, cet article vise à fournir un contexte ethnographique aux débats actuels sur "l'effort fiscal" en Afrique subsaharienne. Bien que la mission actuelle des autorités d'identifier et de suivre les mouvements et activités de contribuables potentiels soit souvent présentée comme un engagement à la transparence dans un contexte de réforme nationale, une analyse détaillée des pratiques administratives révèle que d'autres facteurs sont en jeu. Si l'on regarde le cas particulier des marchands de bétail, il semble que la politique de mobilisation fiscale en Adamaoua se base d'un côté sur les méthodes gouvernementales de contrôle et les niveaux efficacité administrative, et de l'autre sur les procédés commerciaux en vigueur et les pratiques documentaires de longue date.

In November 2004, one of the top officials in the provincial tax services in Adamaoua Province, Cameroon (whom I will call Monsieur Nana) agreed to give me an interview. Our conversation lasted almost an hour and a half, and he did most of the talking. With few exceptions, he maintained the stern tone and meticulous manners of a conscientious civil servant. Early on, he offered a moderately complacent summary of the tax authorities' recent achievements:

As far as the visible [businesses] are concerned, we make a big effort to help people understand what their obligations are. We actually do it for their own good, since the owners, in case they are sole proprietors, do not generally allocate themselves a salary, and they do not make the difference between what belongs to them and what belongs to the enterprise. They cannot tell apart their own expenses and those of the enterprise. It is all mixed up. We push them to keep some kind of accounts, basic as they may be. In the last two years, we have made some progress. At the very least, we have succeeded in increasing the number of enterprises in our records. It works relatively well as regards the really visible sectors, people who have bricks-and-mortar pignon sur rue) businesses. . . .

During my fieldwork in Adamaoua Province, I came to think of such remarks as representative of governmental discourses on how local ways of conducting business complicate the state mission to regulate, control, and more specifically, tax economic activity. This article argues that such discourses are worth taking seriously and explores one of their main premises: namely, that governmental action entails the production of visibility.

Nana's reference to the "big effort" tax authorities were making is congruent with the emphasis of the literature that attempts to assess state effectiveness in mobilizing revenue (Stotsky 8c WoldeMariam 1997; Chambas 2005; Gupta 8c Tareq 2008). What economists call the "tax effort" is generally measured by the ratio of tax revenue to GDP One of the problems involved in interpreting these figures is that they result not only from tax policies and administrative capacity, which tend to be the privileged objects of study, but also from taxpayers' compliance. …

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