Despite Malawi signing numerous trade agreements with other countries within and outside the continent, some local traders continue to face challenges when attempting to make the most of such pacts.
Malawi is a signatory and beneficiary of a number of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements including the African Free Trade Zone, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), the Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) Trade Protocol, the Cotonou Agreement between the European Union (EU) and African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) countries, and the United States-African Growth Opportunity Act (US-Agoa) initiative for concessional exports to the US market.
The country also signed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement but is yet to ratify it. Malawi also has bilateral agreements with South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malaysia, Mozambique, India, and China as well as a customs agreement with Botswana.
Further agreements are currently under consideration with Zambia and Tanzania. These, alongside other initiatives such as the Growth Triangle and Spatial Development Initiative, offer considerable opportunities for increasing trade and investment in the region and stimulating growth.
Ironically, it would appear these agreements are benefitting foreign traders only.
There is no secret that traders from countries such as Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania are freely bringing their products into Malawi, sometimes even crossing Malawian borders without paying necessary fees, including import duty.
The establishment of the Sadc regional integration was touted to be a key force for fostering deeper economic integration by opening up trade, investment and economic cooperation in the Eastern and Southern Africa.
And to overcome divisions that impede the flow of goods, services, capital, people and ideas among member states, Sadc initiated regional integration to facilitate smooth inter-country trade in order to achieve development and economic growth and alleviate poverty among the socially disadvantaged.
In his article, Deepening Integration in Southern Africa Volume 3, a renowned economic expert Professor Chinyamata Chipeta acknowledges that regional integration can be a key force for sustainable development.
Chipeta states that this arrangement has a critical role in promoting economic growth, reducing poverty, fostering social development or protecting the environment.
“But, it [the agreement] can also have negative economic and social impacts, notably when the domestic regulatory framework is inadequate or not implemented effectively,” he warns.
Chipeta says Malawi has such progressive laws and policies to promote and enhance inter-country trade.
State law enforcement agencieshave come under criticism for frustrating Malawi’s efforts to actively participate and benefit from various trade agreements, including regional integration.
Speaking in Lilongwe during a Sadc Regional Integration awareness meeting recently, chairperson for the Lilongwe Cross-Border Traders Association, George Mbayani, accused Immigration enforcers at Mchinji Border Post of employing threats and intimidation to extort money from businesspersons even when the latter have complied with the law.
Lilongwe Urban Office of the National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE) Trust organized the Sadc Regional Integration awareness meeting with financial support from the European Union (EU) and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).
Nice is popularising Sadc Regional Integration to create a conducive environment for the local businesspersons, including small-scale traders, to maximize benefits from the regional integration arrangement.
But Mbayani expressed fear that local traders may not be able to maximize potential from the initiative because of harassment, threats and intimidation by Immigration officials at the Mchinji Border.
He further complained that the Immigration officials deliberately delay the processes of checking the goods to incite businesspersons to give them bribes to release them.
At a similar meeting in Mzuzu, the traders took turns accusing the security agents of corruption, abuse and unfair treatment of Malawian businesspersons. They cited Dedza Checkpoint as the worst.
Businesswoman and councillor for Chiwanja Ward, Martha Jere, said Malawians are being abused in their own country by corrupt officers who demand ‘duty’ at every checkpoint and ask for passports even when one is travelling within the country’s borders.
“They threaten and frustrate us taking advantage of our lack of proper understanding of the laws governing cross-border business. They love shortcuts and hate official processes because they know that they will get something when formal processes are bypassed.
“Dedza border checkpoint is actually the worst in terms of corruption. Money has to exchange hands or you will not be assisted. Those with fake stamps are easily assisted and those who follow proper procedures are deliberately frustrated until they pay something,” Jere said.
Another councilor Hiwell Mkandawire alleged that there is a deliberate concealment of important information by MRA and Imigration officers so that they continue ripping off ignorant traders.
“Even police officers manning roadblocks will demand that you pay something to them yet you have already paid taxes at the border. We are Malawians and we demand that we should be protected,” he said.
Mkandawire urged the government, through MRA, to assume its obligation of ensuring that Malawians are well informed on taxation requirements, stressing that the absence of information is leading to the abuse of the traders.
A human rights activist Masauko Thawi said it was worrisome that the people that are mandated to protect Malawians have forgotten their mandate and are now abusing the vulnerable traders.
He said there was need to empower traders including women with information governing cross-border businesses to prevent the alleged abuses.
“We will make noise so that such things end. Women are being abused because of their vulnerability and we call on the government to empower them with information. The abusive officers have to be warned and reminded that their mandate is to protect the people. Their actions border on human rights violations which we cannot tolerate,” Thawi said.
The Central Region Research Officer at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services, Alick Nyasulu, condemned the practice, stressing that the officers have no right to demand additional money from the traders as their duty is simply to process and issue travel documents like passports, temporary border passes and visas.
His northern region counterpart, Demobly Banda, who also facilitated the role of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services in regional integration, said there was need to put in place whistleblowing mechanisms so that it should be easy for the public to report corrupt officers.
Recently, Minister of Information Gospel Kazako described this lack of awareness as unfortunate and called for deliberate civic education and awareness programmes to help popularize the protocols for the benefit of all Malawians including those living in rural most areas.