Border crossings in the SADC region have become a nightmare for commercial truckers. Queues stretching at times to over five kilometres and bureaucratic hassles not only cause unacceptable delays, the losses they generate can amount to $60,000 a day. A one-stop system installed at the all-important crossing at Chirundu to speed things up has again broken down. Tom Nevin finds out why.
Governments of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) continue to ponder ways and means to boost intra-regional trade and speed up investments and commercial interaction. But not all projects have been roaring successes.
The border post at Chirundu is one such; it’s also an example of how the devil can play havoc with the detail and upend the best-laid plans. The Chirundu immigration and customs facility is on the banks of the Zambezi River separating Zimbabwe and Zambia and is one of Africa’s busiest border crossings. To help ease the congestion, the governments got together to devise a one-stop facility which, they reckoned, could cut waiting time by half.
African leaders are well aware that healthy economic growth for the region will rely on strong economic interaction between neighbours. Accordingly, efforts to boost intra-regional trade have become increasingly prominent elements of African regional integration and economic development agendas.
“Among other things,” notes researcher Sean Woolfrey and intern Elisha Tshuma at the Southern African Trade Law Centre (Tralac), “these efforts address the poor quality of trade-related infrastructure in the region and seek to promote trade facilitation through initiatives for easier cross-border trading in the region.”
Despite these efforts, the Chirundu border post was closed for a few days at end October when truck drivers blockaded the facility’s access road in protest at Zimbabwe customs authorities slow clearance procedures. They claimed that weeks of slow service had caused such heavy congestion that the queue waiting for attention extended for five kilometres.
What has happened?
Chirundu border post, the principal border crossing for traffic travelling between Harare and Lusaka, is Africa’s first – and thus far, only – example of a ‘one-stop border post’ (OSBP). OSBPs differ from ordinary border posts in that a bilateral agreement between the bordering countries gives each country authority to enact its rule on the other country’s side of the border.
This means only one stop for those crossing the border, which in theory should result in reduced costs associated with long delays at the border. At Chirundu OSBP, those travelling from Zambia to Zimbabwe can complete all their formalities on the Zambian side, and those travelling from Zimbabwe to Zambia can complete all their formalities on the Zimbabwean side. This is made possible through efforts to keep systems in both countries as similar as possible and to move towards a process and tool oriented approach to integrated border management.
Since it was implemented in December 2009, Chirundu one-stop border post (OSBP) has been hailed as a notable success and an important step towards greater integration in southern Africa. In particular, the implementation of an OSBP at Chirundu has been credited with reducing the time and number of processes required for passenger and commercial clearance at the border.
“Various studies and reports note that prior to the implementation of the OSBP, cumbersome border procedures resulted in very long clearance times at Chirundu,” says Woolfrey. “Estimates of the average border crossing time for commercial vehicles before the implementation of the OSBP range from two to nine days, and it could take up to 20 days for cargo trucks to be cleared at the border.”
$600,000 a day in savings
Reduced clearance times translate into cost savings, and TradeMark Southern Africa, a British development agency, has estimated that savings from reduced border delays could be as high as $600,000 a day, with transporters, brokers, traders, producers and consumers all potentially benefiting from reduced costs. Furthermore, the increased efficiency of operating systems at Chirundu, coupled with greater traffic flows through the border post have led to an increase in government revenue, without tax rates having been increased. Between 2009 and 2012, tax collection on the Zambian side increased from $10m to $20.3m a month.
“Despite some initial success, Chirundu OSBP has not been immune to sporadic episodes of dysfunction, and the recent delays and subsequent chaos at the border were not isolated incidents. In July this year, Chirundu experienced similar scenes as congestion at the border resulted in five kilometre-long queues of commercial trucks. That occasion saw a brief demonstration by truck drivers, some of whom had been forced to wait at the border for almost a week for clearance, and necessitated a crisis meeting involving the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority, clearing agents and other border agencies.
The joint committee established at this meeting found that the delays were a result of increased commercial traffic passing through the border and the fact that Chirundu OSBP was only open to commercial traffic between 8am and 5pm, and not 24 hours a day like the Beitbridge border post between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Nevertheless, regardless of how big a role increased traffic and insufficient opening hours have played in recent delays at Chirundu OSBP, the smooth functioning of the border post faces additional challenges. These stem largely from the fact that it was not originally designed as an OSBP and was instead modified so as to incorporate the main features of an OSBP.
“One of the most significant challenges currently facing operations at Chirundu is the lack of information and communications technology (ICT) connectivity between the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides of the borde,” says Tralac. “This has resulted in certain clearance procedures having to be duplicated as Zimbabwean Revenue Authority officers on the Zambian side of the border are unable to connect to the ASYCUDA system for computerised customs administration used on the Zimbabwean side.”
To overcome this problem, procedures are being completed manually on the Zambian side and then inputted on the computer system on the Zimbabwean side. Zambian border agents based on the Zimbabwean side face a similar problem in not being able to access the electronic systems used in Zambia. The lack of connectivity between the two sides of the border has also prevented the designated ‘fast track’ lane from becoming fully functional.
Other challenges include a need for training of new border agency staff, significant downtime of the electronic customs systems, insufficient office space on either side of the border for officers from the other country and a lack of appropriate signage on the approach to the OSBP and inside the customs control zone.
“It is important,” concludes the law centre, “that in the rush to proclaim the ‘success’ of Chirundu and to use Chirundu OSBP as a model for similar OSBPs throughout the region, these and other defects in the current operation of Chirundu OSBP are not simply glossed over.”