Checkpoints, axleweight and joint border posts dominate transport discussions

Friday, April 8 2011

Joe Lamport
After participating in a Borderless workshop in northern Togo, the country’s customs director ordered the immediate dismantling of two checkpoints where delays and bribes hamper the movement of goods, people and vehicles – one result of the 14th USAID Trade Hub-UEMOA joint report on road harassment as well.
 
Northern Togo was the site of another development: West Africa’s first Joint Border Post was scheduled to begin operating on the Burkina Faso-Togo border. The post, financed and built by UEMOA but under private management, puts customs and other officials under the same roof in order to make crossing borders more efficient. 
 
Meanwhile, in Accra, Ghana, ministers of transport from ECOWAS Member States agreed to begin implementing axleweight rules uniformly across the region by July 2012. The agreement must now be approved by heads of state at a meeting later this year.
 
“Initiatives to remove checkpoints, implement axleweight rules and make crossing borders less time-consuming and less costly are all encouraging efforts to reduce the costs of transport,” said USAID Trade Hub Transport Director Niels Rasmussen.
 
The developments occurred as the Borderless advocacy campaign continued to roll forward: Workshops in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mali brought hundreds of transport stakeholders together to discuss road harassment and mobilize to eliminate it. The campaign also launched a Facebook page in March to raise awareness.
 
Checkpoints removed
 
Beretin Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso's road governance national coordinator.
Beretin Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso's road governance national coordinator.
In March, USAID Trade Hub transport specialists accompanied a delegation of Togolese officials on a trip along the national highway, driving from Lome all the way to Cinkasse at the Burkina Faso-Togo border in the north. The goal was to raise awareness among regional officials of the problem checkpoints pose to the movement of people, goods and vehicles – namely, bribes and delays.
 
“We have done many workshops in capital cities but we find that stakeholders outside the capitals are unaware of the problem,” explained Lacina Pakoun, the communications officer for the USAID Trade Hub’s transport team.
 
A recent study by economists at the University of Wisconsin in the United States makes the case, too. The economists concluded that farmers would be paid significantly more for their produce if the costs of transport were reduced. Shea was cited as one example.
 
“We estimate that prices received by shea producers could increase by approximately 14% if all bribes could be eliminated” said Dr. Daniel Bromley, co-author of the study, “Sustainability Under Siege: Transport costs and corruption on West Africa’s trade corridors.” “If you give people a 14% raise, you will see a significant increase in production and household incomes, which is essential to stimulating economic growth in West Africa.”
 
Implementing axleweight rules
 
One way to improve the efficiency of transport is to make sure the trucks on the road are not overweight. Overloaded trucks are dangerous, leading to more accidents, and cause more breakdowns. They also destroy the roads: A European Union study in 2008 showed that roads that should last 15 years were riddled with potholes and almost impassable in as few as two due to heavy trucks.
 
Overloaded trucks are destroying West African roads and highways.
Overloaded trucks are destroying West African roads and highways.
The EU consequently made enforcement of axleweight rules – which have been on the books since at least the early 1990s – a condition for assistance to maintain and repair the region’s transport infrastructure. 
 
ECOWAS Member States’ ministers of transport met in Ghana in March to pave the way for regional implementation of the rules. They set a date of July 2012 for regional implementation of the rules – heads of state are expected to adopt the "Supplementary Act" in their meeting later this year. (In the same Act, the ministers called for the immediate implementation of measures to reduce the harassment documented by the joint USAID Trade Hub-UEMOA reports.)
 
“ECOWAS has adopted texts since 1991 to implement the axleweight rules,” said one delegate to the workshop who was not authorized to speak for his country. “EU conditionalities are a major reason this is moving forward now.”
 
An EU representative noted that ECOWAS was, in fact, behind UEMOA in implementing the rules, but that even in UEMOA the rules had not been widely applied – only Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger are effectively applying the rules. The short term impact in Ghana was a steep rise in transport costs - which led to a loss of business as companies used ports in Benin and Togo to bring in goods.
 
Overweight trucks destroy the roads - increasing trip times and maintenance cost
Overweight trucks destroy the roads - increasing trip times and maintenance cost
But delegates expressed enthusiastic interest in implementing the rules. A Guinea Conakry representative said his country had already installed weighbridges at the four major exits from the city and the port, which are now being used – but without imposing any penalties – yet. 
 
“We have not had any problems so far,” he said. “When we apply penalties, of course, we will probably have some issues. But we are preparing a broad awareness raising campaign. When transporters understand that this is in their long-term interest, they respond favorably.”
 
Delegates were optimistic that transport companies would accept the regulations without significant protest.  But one transport company manager said the formal trucking industry and public officials have different priorities that ultimately lead to differences in what policies to pursue.
 
“There is a conflict of interest between business companies aiming to increase efficiency in order to pass on cost savings to consumers, and public authorities who care only about the state of the road network and the fees collectable from transit,” he said. “Besides, it is not the professional transport companies that overload vehicles, but the largely informal trucking companies.”
 
The smaller companies overload trucks because they are paid by the ton. The new rules effectively mean a loss of revenue. But implementing the rules will lead to more business for truckers, turning the initial loss in revenue into an increase, said the manager of a company that exports shea nuts and butter.
 
“If transport costs were lower, we’d do more business,” said Senyo Kpelly of SEKAF, a shea exporter in Ghana. Roads in good condition and trucks in more roadworthy condition would ultimately mean lower transport costs.
 
The Joint Border Post in Cinkasse.
The Joint Border Post in Cinkasse.
Joint Border Posts
 
After months of false starts, the region’s first joint border post was ready to go into operation at the Burkina Faso-Togo border – 11 are planned across the region. Borders are notorious for delays and, in part to speed things up, corruption is rampant at many. The joint posts aim to speed things up by putting customs and other officials who facilitate the movement of people, goods and vehicles in the same place, from both countries.
 
But the approach is off to a rocky start, transporters said. The first difficulty was a steep fee the private company operating the post wanted to impose on trucks passing through – US$ 200 – in both directions. Trucks heading to Ouagadougou full of imported cargo protested at having to pay the fee again on their return trip – with an empty trailer.
 
Drivers refused to pay the fee and a big truck-jam was the result. The private operator has abandoned the fee, sources said.
 
“The new post is a pilot project, really,” said an UEMOA representative. “We are learning as we go along what will work.
 
“This one is being operated by a private company – and they have set this fee as a way to pay their investment and operating expenses. Not all of the posts will be operated by private operators. And at borders where the volume of trucks is not high, we envision a local border committee to manage the operation.”
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