Removing barriers to regional trade within West Africa is among the main goals of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). But in practice this has proven difficult to implement: border checkpoints across the region remain fraught with long delays and the harassment of drivers for bribes.
Olu Ogunojemite will direct the new Border Information Center at the Benin-Niger border slated to open in December.
For the region’s governments to take control of the situation, it is crucial for them to know what is really going on at border checkpoints. The Abidjan-Lagos Corridor Organization (ALCO), a World Bank-funded organization which monitors road governance practices on West Africa's busiest trade corridor, estimates that each truck crossing the Nigeria-Benin border at Seme-Krake faces an average delay of 45 hours.
Olu Ogunojemite, Director of the new Border Information Center
at Seme and a veteran of the Nigerian Customs Service, is the man tasked with finding out why.
“A border community is a very, very strange community,” he observed. “It includes a lot of things both legal and illegal, so if you’re trying to change it, you must expect some resistance.
“If you take time to look at a border almost anywhere in West Africa, you will discover that the people who open the gate for you are not engaged by the government,” he continued. “They are paid directly by the officials in the place. So how do you engage them? You must find out how they get paid, and get them paid officially instead. That is the first task. The moment you can do things that will make the agencies take control of the borders, some of the interests will diminish.”
The intersection of many interests is one driver of delays at borders.
Ogunojemite joined the Borderless team at the USAID West Africa Trade Hub in September after a long career in the Nigerian Customs Service, where he was instrumental in the service’s nationwide adoption of electronically-submitted customs declarations and pre-payment of customs duties by bank transfer using the ASYCUDA system (http://www.asycuda.org/
). Having seen first-hand the effects of a customs system moving to a computer-based model, he is convinced of the merits of computerization.
“Most of the problems at borders come from the human factor,” he said, “and what is slowing down the procedures is human contact. If each country can strictly stick to electronic transactions with minimal physical contact, they are likely to have far faster clearance times.”
Away from the border itself, traders also face the problem of multiple checkpoints along the roads to and from the border. Nigeria-Benin is a highly porous border: it has over 40 official crossing points, but over 100 unofficial ones. Thus a multitude of checkpoints dot the region, all theoretically geared towards channeling traffic towards the official crossing points, but in practice a further source of delays and bribery.
“I don’t think we need so many of them,” said Ogunojemite. “But it’s improving. Until recently we used to have more than 30 checkpoints on the Lagos-Seme road, of various agencies. But we have just three now, and those three compress all agencies into those points. So that is quite an improvement on what we used to have, but it needs to be better.”
The new Border Information Center at Seme, and its counterpart across the border at Krake in Benin, are the latest steps in the ongoing Borderless mission to increase West African business competitiveness by addressing the problems of bribes and delays along primary trade corridors.
As well as collecting data from stakeholders to inform government-level policymaking on international trade, Border Information Centers also provide drivers with vital information on road regulations and customs laws, to help them minimize potential delays and harassments.
As the World Bank’s February 2012 report “Defragmenting Africa
” points out, “effective regional integration is more than simply removing tariffs - it is about addressing on-the-ground constraints that paralyze the daily operations of ordinary producers and traders.”
The first Centers were launched at Aflao and Kodjoviakope (Ghana-Togo border) in August 2011, followed by Dakola and Paga (Burkina Faso-Ghana border) in September 2012. The Seme and Krake Centers are scheduled for launch in December 2012, to be followed by Noe and Elubo (Côte d’Ivoire-Ghana border) in January 2013. Both Seme-Krake and Noe-Elubo benefit from additional support from BEAM (Business Environments for Agile Markets), a USAID initiative to support the development of business environments.
The Borderless initiative, a partnership between the USAID Trade Hub and public and private sector stakeholders, continues to grow. Preparations are already underway for the second international Borderless Alliance conference
next February in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
“Borderless 2013: Connecting Markets” will feature presentations, discussions and networking forums with all levels of stakeholders interested in improving West African transport governance – from regional bodies ECOWAS and UEMOA, to national government ministries, to leading trading companies, transport and logistics companies, banks and other financial institutions, technology companies and other service providers.