Editor's Note: In early November, USAID Trade Hub Writer and Editor Craig Duncan traveled to the Benin-Nigeria border towns of Kraké and Semé, respectively, to see firsthand the issues that the region's third Border Information Center will tackle. This is his report.
Seme-Krake, on the Nigeria-Benin border, is notorious among traders in West Africa for being particularly difficult to cross. Drivers must pass through between 20 and 30 checkpoints and roadblocks, many of them less than 10 meters apart. Some checkpoints are manned by representatives of the uniformed services, but most are the work of non-uniformed individuals.
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to walk across Seme-Krake to see for myself how traversable it is. Perhaps surprisingly, it is far easier to cross the area on foot than by car, since pedestrians can easily step over spikes that can puncture a vehicle’s tires (see picture below).
Border towns are generally livelier than others in West Africa – the added energy probably comes from the confluence of many different interests in one place – customs, immigration, gendarmes, police, health, destination inspection companies, etc. – and then duplicated on each side. Language differences affect the interactions of the many stakeholders, but, above all, trade is the primary source of this energy.
Some experts have estimated that informal trade outweighs formal trade by as much a factor of three, depending on the border. It's not hard to see why: Thousands of petty traders cross back and forth all day long on any given border.
Pictured: The ubiquitous spikes on wheels. The baseball cap on the handle is a vital part of the mechanism, allowing checkpoint staff to quickly stop cars without burning their hands on the metal.
In the last few years, researchers have spent more time looking at border communities. A review of USAID Trade Hub road governance data shows that borders are indeed significant places for trade. The main reason is the presence of so many stakeholders.
“At a typical checkpoint along a corridor, you might find police officers and perhaps customs and police together, on the outskirts of a city, a representative of the municipality and a drivers' union might also be present,” said Christophe Bruyas, team leader of the USAID Trade Hub’s road governance initiative, implemented with UEMOA since 2006. “But at borders you have virtually everyone – customs, immigration, police, gendarmes, unions, water and forests, sanitary and phytosanitary inspection, destination inspection companies – and others whose authority is sometimes uncertain.”
“Borders are usually complex places and it is not always clear who is in charge nor what the processes are unless you are familiar with that particular border. Bribes paid at border account for roughly a third of the total a truck driver will pay as he hauls goods along a typical corridor," Bruyas said.
Myself and an international Customs consultant were visiting as part of the Borderless Alliance initiative: an association of West African public and private sector stakeholders which aims to remove barriers to trade across West Africa, and which involves regional bodies ECOWAS and UEMOA, the World Bank, and the USAID West Africa Trade Hub. As part of this project, Trade Hub staff consulted with stakeholders and senior officials on both sides of the Nigeria-Benin border, at Seme and Krake respectively.
From discussions with officials on both sides of the border, we learned that there is a surprisingly high level of agreement as to the nature of problems at Seme-Krake: most officials are confident that one side of the border is an efficient, highly-organized machine which takes merely an hour to clear, while the other side is a morass of corruption where drivers languish for weeks. The only point of disagreement relates to which side of the border is which.
To help drivers navigate the border as quickly as possible, the USAID Business Environments for Agile Markets (BEAM) project, in close collaboration with the USAID Trade Hub, is opening a Border Information Center
, with offices on each side of the border, to provide drivers, traders and other stakeholders with information as to their rights and duties under the relevant local laws. The center will also serve as a platform for stakeholders to address the issues affecting the movement of people, goods and vehicles across the border.
The center will open on December 11. Like its counterparts on the Ghana-Togo and Ghana-Burkina Faso borders, the center will also conduct research to identify the most constructive ways of reducing barriers to trade, and bring stakeholders together to effect change. The Border Information Center at Seme and Krake will be hosted by the Nigerian and Beninese Shippers’ Councils respectively.
The Borderless Alliance
is spreading across West Africa, with another center opening at the Ghana-Côte d’Ivoire border in January 2013, and the second international Borderless Conference, Borderless 2013: Connecting Markets
taking place in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in February.
A look at the problems facing drivers at Seme-Krake gives some idea of why the countries of West Africa are still doing more trade with the rest of the world than with each other: there are problems relating to regional border traffic which cannot be solved from the outside.
“Only by bringing together governments, regional bodies and the private sector can we move towards solutions which will work for all stakeholders,” said Borderless Alliance Managing Director Justin Bayili.
The Border Information Centers, by making sure that drivers have access to accurate information about their rights and responsibilities under the law, are a small but important step towards creating a more transparent trade environment across West Africa – thereby lowering the cost of African-produced goods for African consumers, and making West Africa less dependent on the outside world.