African countries must even out trade to promote integration

By Tarah Shaanika

THE impounding of over 400 Namibian, Tanzanian, South African and Congolese trucks by Zambian authorities from February to July 2017 has raised serious questions on two important matters confronting Africa, namely;

• The need to protect our natural resources with a view to generate maximum commercial benefits from such resources.

  The importance of facilitating trade within the continent and with the outside world, in a manner that creates maximum ease of doing business and promotes genuine regional and continental economic integration.

It is a well-known fact that both Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are among the richest countries in timber resources within the SADC region. Both countries could make use of these resources to propel growth in their economy and create jobs and wealth for their citizens.

Unfortunately, timber resources in both Zambia and the DRC are not fully exploited to achieve economic potentials in both countries.

The exploitation of timber has been going on in Zambia for a long time, but not much value has seemingly been added within the country. For some time now, Zambia has been exporting timber logs to outside markets, notably China. It is a practice that is very similar to many other products in almost all African countries where natural resources are exploited and exported to outside markets in raw form, depriving owners of such resources an opportunity to benefit fully.

In the recent past, some Congolese businesses started harvesting timber in the DRC, following a general invitation extended by the government to investors to consider investing in timber harvesting. Most of these investors responded by setting up shop in south-eastern DRC for the purpose of harvesting and exporting timber to China via the ports of Walvis Bay in Namibia and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Some companies also reportedly exported these logs via the port of Durban in South Africa.

Incidentally, the Zambian government decided to embark on a ‘more robust’ management and control of their timber resources which included the complete ban on harvesting of protected timber species such as the controversial mukula tree, which reportedly makes very good wood and is quite expensive in the international markets.

It was absolutely a noble idea for the Zambian government to not only ban the harvesting of mukula timber but also the export of any raw timber from Zambia.

This means that Zambian raw timber must be beneficiated in Zambia and finished products be sold within and outside Zambia. This is a great initiative which should be emulated by all African countries.

It is important to note that this ban was implemented to boost value addition and to protect the mukula tree from possible extinction in Zambia following allegations of widespread harvesting and exporting of the protected species during 2016.

Some people alleged that there were individuals and companies which harvested and smuggled the mukula into DRC so that they could sell on the international market as Congolese timber.

The allegation of mukula timber smuggling from Zambia was one of the main reasons behind the impounding of Namibian and other trucks. But while it was banned in Zambia, it was allowed to be harvested and exported by the DRC government.

The impounded trucks had in their possession documents which confirmed that the timber logs they were carrying originated from the DRC. The Zambian authorities impounded trucks to verify if such documents were valid and authentic.

While the verification process was under way, the Zambian government passed a legislation banning the transportation of mukula timber on its roads which literally banned the shipment of Congolese mukula timber through their territory.

The verification of documents took very long – up to six months. The impounded trucks belong to companies which are in the business of providing transport services to various clients. As long as the client is transporting a legal product accompanied by valid and authentic export documentations, these businesses would make their trucks and licensed drivers available to provide the required service.

It is absurd that the Zambian government decided to punish Namibian and Tanzanian businesses for a crime they did not commit. The illegal harvesting and smuggling of timber out of Zambia is done by others, not the owners or drivers of the impounded trucks.

There has never been any evidence produced by the Zambian government that any of the impounded trucks were involved in the smuggling. Thus, the Zambian authorities released the trucks, including the timber logs they were carrying, after they satisfied themselves that such timber indeed originated from the DRC – a process that took a good half a year.

I could not understand why it was necessary for the Zambian government to detain trucks at checkpoints for so long just to verify documents or determine if among the timber logs on those trucks, there were those of Zambian origin. Trucks carrying suspicious products should have been investigated right at the point of entry, in this case at the Kasumbalesa border post.

It does not matter whether those trucks are ‘foreign’ or Zambian. It is simply wrong to impound trucks for such a long time and take as long as six months to process documents. It was the highest level of inefficiency, which speaks volumes about our countries’ readiness to engage the world markets competitively.

Africa needs to act in a business-like fashion if it wants to compete in the increasingly competitive global market. Our application of law should also not end up killing businesses but facilitating business growth.

The ease of movement of goods and people remain the most important ingredient for a genuine regional and continental economic integration. Africa needs to trade with itself as much as it trades with the outside world. But intra-Africa trade will be difficult to increase until our governments demolish their trade restrictions behaviours. We cannot want to create an integrated market within the continent but still act unilaterally on business and especially trade matters. We can still protect our natural resources and achieve local value addition without creating unnecessary and self-harming barriers to trade. What happened in Zambia should never be allowed to happen anywhere else in the future. Africa must act as one if it wants to be one.

• Tarah Shaanika is the CEO of the Namibia Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The opinions expressed in this opinion piece are his personal views and not necessarily those of his employer.

August 2017
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