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Keeping smugglers at bay

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FOR ONE STOP BORDER POST—Chakwera (right) and Hichilema

Save for shrubs and the squeal of small creatures, Malawi’s border with Mozambique in Nsanje District is as open as the skies.

This is also the case in Mchinji District where, apart from Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) offices that give the place a semblance of an official border, what passes for a borderline is replete with undesignated routes that are at the behest of goods smugglers.

Fortunately, goings-on in border districts have caught the attention of President Lazarus Chakwera who, in December last year, vowed to do something about the situation.

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On December 7 2021, the President and his Zambian counterpart Hakainde Hichilema agreed to tighten the borders and put in place sound monitoring mechanisms as one way of strengthening trade ties and economically empowering people of the two countries.

Chakwera described Malawi and Zambia as inseparable sisters, tied at the hip by history, culture, geography, economics, values and language.

He boasted that no two nations on earth could boast of ties closer to those which exist between Malawi and Zambia.

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“My brother president and I share a common conviction that the development and progress of Malawi and Zambia are inextricably linked. That is why we have agreed to harmonise and simplify border controls by jointly constructing the One Stop Border Post at Mchinji/Mwami border, which my brother President and I will commission together next year [2022],” Chakwera said.

Chakwera, who is also Chairperson of the Southern African Development Community also took advantage of Hichilema’s visit to brief him on Malawi’s priorities as Sadc chairperson.

“Top of the list is regional economic integration within the context of operationalising the African Continental Free Trade Area.

“For that to happen, it is imperative that we ensure that our region continues to register good political governance, peace and security as espoused by the Sadc Vision 2050 and the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan 2020-30,” Chakwera said.

Hichilema, on his part, said there was a need to bring sanity to the borders as one way of watering the relationship between Malawi and Zambia.

“Sustainability of democracy lies in us managing our borders properly and achieving economic success to offer opportunities to young people in the form of business and better health care services,” Hichilema said.

The issue of borders did not just crop up; the two leaders recognise how key borders are to national socio-economic development endeavours.

According to national security advocate Edward Chaka, who is also People’s Federation for National Peace and Development Executive Director, borders are a sensitise area because, if not well guarded, smugglers can use them to deny the government revenue through taxes importers of goods pay.

“That is why nations do their best to guard their borders jealously. Otherwise, smugglers can take advantage of loopholes to deny the government money in form of taxes,” Chaka said.

Just recently, people who are suspected to be linked to smugglers targeted Alinafe Bonongwe, MRA station manager at Dedza Border Post.

He was found dead in his house in the Central Region district.

The development prompted Mangochi South West Member of Parliament Shadric Namalomba to suggest that senior government officials should be allowed to have guns on them for protection.

However, Malawi Human Rights Commission spokesperson Kate Kujaliwa shot down the proposal, saying the best way would be to ensure that, like the rest of the population, officers who work in sensitive roles are accorded maximum security.

“This could be in the form of armed guards, secure housing and other alternatives but not guns. For example, our colleagues in the Judiciary need security due to the nature of their job and they are given adequate security and not guns.

“It is difficult to come up with national security lapses in other places. Institutions that expose their officers to security threats must analyse their security status and come up with appropriate interventions,” Kujaliwa said.

However, as the debate rages, and as Chakwera and Hichilema plan to finalise work on borders this year, smugglers continue to have a field day in the country.

That is why vengeance plays out in one way or the other in the mind of one 39-year-old man who told The Daily Times that it is easy to smuggle goods into and out of Malawi.

“I use my motorcycle to ferry goods from Zambia to Malawi, where I run two hawkers. I usually bring to Malawi goods such as wrappers (zitenje) and fizzy drinks because they are on high demand in Mchinji District. The advantage with goods from Zambia is that they are cheap, since transporters and traders often use unofficial routes to bring the goods into Malawi. In my view, many people bring goods into Malawi without paying tax because they believe that taxpayers’ money goes into politicians’ pockets.

“If you visit healthcare service delivery centres here in Mchinji, you will find that most health centres in hard-to-reach areas do not have medical drugs. They also have few healthcare workers because policymakers do not care about those in rural areas. As such, people do not care whether they pay tax or not; it is their way of avenging for poor public service delivery in Malawi,” he confided in us.

That is how some small-scale traders, whose real name is smugglers, passively avenge for poor service delivery.

Sometimes, however, things get physical.

On February 6 last year, for example, smugglers raided the MRA office at Ludzi Trading Centre in Mchinji District. They were high on the ‘drug’ called anger because officials from the tax-collecting body had bust their syndicate.

Mchinji Police Station Officer Charles Mpezeni indicated at the time that all hell broke loose after one driver, who is suspected to have smuggled goods into the country using a minibus, was being chased by MRA officials.

“Unfortunately, his car overturned and he died on the spot. After the driver was buried, his fellow smugglers organised themselves and destroyed a tent that was being used by MRA officials at Ludzi, causing commotion in the process. We, as police, restored order and MRA officials are back to the premises and are freely doing their job,” Mpezeni said.

This is how goods smugglers choke MRA’s work, a development that has a negative impact on public service delivery.

In fact, this is happening at a time local manufacturers of goods such as wheat flour, fizzy drinks and cooking oil have complained that the smuggling of such products from Zambia and Mozambique costs jobs in Malawi.

ETG Parrogate Cotton Limited Senior Operations Manager, Rajneesh Dabral, bemoaned the influx of smuggled goods such as cooking oil, wheat, fizzy drinks, among others, into Malawi.

“This illegal influx will culminate in local manufacturers losing out on sales as it’s really a daunting task to stop this smuggling as we have porous borders with Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. For example, illegally brought edible cooking oil often has quality issues which even the Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) officials have recognised. This defeats the MBS drive to sell consumers quality and certified products.

“There has already been a significant drop in sales of local products and it’s going to have a negative impact on the oil industry in the country. In the past, when the government scrapped VAT from essential products such as cooking oil, it greatly relieved the general masses and almost capped the illegal flow of oil from Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania and elsewhere but this is no longer the case,” Dabral said.

True to his words, when we visited Mchinji District’s borderline with Zambia on Saturday, we found people on motorcycles and bicycles smuggling goods such as wrappers and fizzy drinks into Malawi using unofficial routes.

When we visited Mchinji Border, we also found hordes of transporters and traders bringing wrappers and fizzy drinks to Malawi.

One of the few women we found at the border said that “wrappers and fizzy drinks from Zambia sell like hot cakes because they are cheap” and easy to find.

“It is expensive to buy wrappers in Lilongwe or Blantyre because of fuel and other costs. As for other products, notably cooking oil and wheat flour, we do not even bother to buy from Malawi’s cities because the products are more expensive than those from neighbouring countries due to high taxes one pays,” says the 35-year-old mother of two who identified herself as Ruth.

While wrappers and fizzy drinks sell like hot cakes in Mchinji District, we found, through snap surveys, that cooking oil, wheat flour and fizzy drinks are the products that attract good sales in Ntcheu, Mulanje and Dedza districts.

At Songwe Border in Karonga, wrappers and shoes are the most sought after products from Tanzania.

In these districts, smugglers use bicycles, motorcycles and minibuses to transport their goods from Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Recently, it has emerged that Blantyre is becoming the hub of smuggled goods, resulting in cooking oil manufacturing companies suffering a battering.

In the commercial city, smuggled goods have ready markets in Chileka, Limbe, Bangwe, Mbayani, Chirimba, Chilomoni and Ndirande townships.

“We find it hard to, for example, order cooking oil and wheat from wholesale traders in Limbe and Blantyre Central Business District because they are expensive. We would rather order from Mozambique to make profits. The introduction of 16.5 percent Value Added Tax on cooking oil and other products has made life difficult for both us, small-scale traders, and manufacturers,” one of the traders said.

Malawians’ propensity for smuggled goods, it seems, is eating into the fabric of the national economy, which depends on taxes and trade to be at par with those of neighbouring countries.

MCCCI Director of Business Environment and Advocacy Madalitso Kazembe is on record to have said the chamber had established that local manufacturing industries were significantly affected by goods smuggling in the country.

“Private sector involvement in the fight against smuggling can be effective as it is the one that is being affected more. Smuggling can only end if its cost, including the cost of being caught, is higher than the revenue derived from the sale of the smuggled goods. Putting in place stiff penalties and addressing the issues of corruption at the border points will therefore assist in protecting the local industry from unfair competition it faces due to smuggled products,” he said.

In terms of tackling the issue of smuggling, therefore, Malawi is sitting on a time-bomb.

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