At a time the government is fighting to seal leakages for state revenue, there is a thriving smuggling enterprise on the Songwe River in Karonga District which is bleeding the nation millions of Kwacha in customs revenue.
A Malawi News Investigation has unearthed this after penetrating a dangerous smuggling world on Songwe River.
Our reporter placed his life on the line when he went undercover, posing as a tourist to infiltrate the inner circle of the smuggling business on Songwe River, a gateway to Tanzania.
No passports or paperwork needed. All it required to guarantee the safety of our journalist was to win over the trust of one key member and in one night, we witnessed mounds of goods being shifted from vehicles to canoes until they landed on Malawi soil.
After infiltrating the hub, our reporter later learnt that the operators can kill anyone, including law enforcers, who tries to disrupt their business.
At the docking area along Songwe River in the Malawi territory, this reporter was welcomed by a burly Swahili speaking man who was hoping that he had secured a customer.
Standing in a canoe, he asked whether there were goods to transport. He was soon joined by two other men, also Tanzanians, one of whom became this reporter’s official interpreter.
The canoe owner, who called himself Messia, demanded 10 000 shillings (K25, 000) to take this reporter on to the other side of the river in Tanzania’s territory. To ferry goods, they charge 24 000 shillings (K60,000) per trip.
On the Tanzanian side, there were five more canoes floating on the waters, waiting for nightfall.
“This man should be a police officer. But he cannot arrest us. He is too young for the job. We can finish him in seconds,” one of the two men we found on the other side said, referring to this reporter.
The official Songwe Border post alone generates between K3 billion and K4 billion in customs revenue every month, according to Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA).
But going by findings of our investigation, that collection is deprived of significant sums by the tax evasion racket happening next door to the official border post.
Located less than a Kilometre (km) off the M1 Road and about 2km from Songwe Border on the way to Karonga Boma, ‘Pa Timote’, as this ‘border post’ is called, is a hub of smuggling enterprise operated by Tanzanian roughnecks.
According to them, no officer from the Police, Immigration and MRA can dare visit the place. They can kill them, they said.
The men on this side were keeping watch over piles of cartons of goods awaiting transportation across the river into Malawi once darkness falls.
Asked whether the canoes can ferry such large cartons, one of the two men said: “If we carry vehicle engines and almost all parts of a vehicle in one canoe, how can we fail with this? We cross with dismantled vehicles here. That is our job and I can challenge you very few things fail to cross here.”
A woman customer identified as Nana, who had joined us, revealed that goods like hardware materials, clothes, drinks, motorcycle parts and many others are smuggled into Malawi on daily basis during night hours.
We returned to the place at 9:30pm. Watching from some 50 metres away for fear of detection, the place was abuzz with movement on both sides and the number of people had increased tremendously.
We watched vehicles, some of them without number plates, coming and going after carrying the goods.
A citizen in the neighbouring January Village said the smugglers pay K2,500 to chiefs in the area on daily basis so that they operate their business without obstruction.
Interestingly, these smuggled goods pass through four roadblocks manned by Police, MRA and Immigration officials between Songwe Border and Karonga Boma, a distance of about 45 Kilometres.
Karonga Police Deputy Public Relations Officer Frank Black acknowledged that they are aware of the scheme.
He said the police cannot be everywhere, hence the roadblocks they mount to intercept smuggled goods.
But Malawi News can report that police work in cracking down the smuggling activities is nothing but just mere theatre.
At Kiwe roadblock, for example, six vehicles without number plates passed between 11 pm and 12 midnight on February 19, carrying goods but only subjected to minor checks.
Karonga District Commissioner (DC) Paul Kalilombe said the security institutions have no capacity to stem the tide of smuggling.
“And as long as the situation is like this, smuggling will continue to be a problem,” Kalilombe said.
Head of Corporate Affairs at MRA Steven Kapoloma said they are aware of the smuggling problem in all Malawi’s border points and that they conduct routine intensive patrols to fight the malpractice.
“It must be noted that smuggling is a serious offence under the Customs & Excise Act and goods imported without licence are liable to forfeiture,” he said.
Kapoloma said besides depriving the government revenue for public investment and services, smuggling distorts market prices, thereby robbing local traders of fair competition which, with time, leads to the collapse of local industries.
He said Songwe border collects between K3 billion and K4 billion in custom duty revenue per month.
However, he could not tell how much the country loses due to smugglers.
Lecturer of Economics in the University of Malawi, Betchani Tchereni, said MRA is under collecting revenue in part because of rampant smuggling business.
“Import taxes are an important base for our revenue coffers so when people are smuggling goods, it means they are not paying taxes. This has negative implications on the implementation of developmental projects,” Tchereni said.