Building capacity to help Africa trade better

Customs modernisation in Africa and related challenges


Customs modernisation in Africa and related challenges

Customs modernisation in Africa and related challenges

Customs administration systems have to adapt to changes in the trading environment. The modernisation of customs administration systems is fundamental to ensure that trade continues uninterrupted. Customs modernisation addresses customs administration inefficiencies by upgrading and aligning their operations with international standards. It seeks to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency, transparency and predictability of customs administration operations and procedures.

This Blog discusses the general principles of customs modernisation as reflected in the various programmes of the World Customs Organization (WCO) and some of the challenges confronted by African countries in their efforts to modernise their customs operations.

Customs modernisation under the WCO

The WCO strategic document entitled Customs in the 21st Century lists the numerous elements crucial for efficient customs performance in the 21st century trading context. These include:

  • Intelligence-based risk management and post-clearance audit;

  • Enhanced cooperation and partnership;

  • Automation of procedures and maximum use of Information technology;

  • Promoting a culture of integrity;

  • Establishing a professional, knowledge-based service culture;

  • Enabling cost-effective dispute settlement processes (See chapter 10 of the Kyoto Convention);

  • Enacting adequate legal frameworks that support enforcement activities etc.

Customs modernisation is a broad and complex process. Challenges which vary across regions and countries are briefly discussed below.

Resistance to change

Resistance to change can be a major stumbling block. Among the many reasons, is that new practices can expose corrupt activities. Consequently, change can be seen as an attack on officials.

Dearth of national legal frameworks to back customs modernisation

Some African countries have laws and regulations which are out-of-date, confusing, and sometimes contradictory. Some countries are unable to establish clearly the regulatory basis for their modernisation efforts. Amendment of existing laws or adoption of new legal frameworks must be part and parcel of all customs modernisation programmes. 

Failure of transparency

There is a lack of transparency in customs administration operations in most African countries. Laws and regulations are not easily accessible. This negatively impacts the process of modernisation as traders are unaware of their rights and obligations and therefore, unable to challenge the decisions that are made concerning them in a fair and open process.

Dealing with corruption in customs

Customs is considered one of the most corrupt government agencies. Customs modernisation proposes ways to mitigate the negative impact of this practice. Instilling in all customs officials a culture of integrity through various programmes (e.g. Ethics Codes) is a starting point. Buyonge and Kireeva suggest enhancing existing internal systems of control and enabling third party audits; restricting the freedom of action of officers and limiting their contact with their interlocutors by automating procedures. Klitgaard invites government to seek advice and assistance to draw lessons from successful anti-corruption strategies implemented elsewhere from which they can develop their own systematic approach in addressing the problem. Besides these recommendations, a strong partnership with the private sector to ensure more compliance; integrity reward programmes and decent wages are also important.

Lack of cooperation and connectedness among government agencies

For customs modernisation to have the desired impact, government agencies involved in border management must step in and play their part. It has been demonstrated that delays in customs clearance procedures could be as a result of the lack of inter-agency cooperation. Being a focal point for revenue collection, the customs authorities should “evangelize” the benefits of modernisation and work to influence other agencies. This calls for coordinated border management (CBM). With the CBM, there are common principles for handling policies, programmes and delivery among cross-border regulatory agencies rather than isolated individual approaches that counteract the efforts of customs. This will ensure the interconnectedness of systems, practices and approaches which serve the interests of government and business. 

Failure to fully involve the business sector

There are many reasons that can prevent a full and open dialogue between customs and business in matters that concern them. Buyonge and Kireeva, submit that this specific relationship is “mutually antagonistic because compliance with customs laws and procedures is often involuntary.” This stance is however progressively changing with customs modernisation that strongly advocates Customs-to-Business cooperation in a mutually beneficial partnership. Customs administrations should not wait until businesses have suffered irreparable losses before the latter are called to be updated in response to changes taking place. Collaboration with business should therefore be a priority in all customs modernisation plans. 

Absence of contingency plans

In all efforts of modernisation, customs administrations are expected to have a contingency plan just in case some implementation challenges arise. Such a plan is indispensable considering the nature of the process which most of the time may have some setbacks. Although this appears as one weakness in a process that purportedly provides all the answers to customs problems, it also emphasises the importance of the proactive character expected of customs administrations. Here the plan will enable prompt action in case of system failure. For instance, traders have challenged Kenyan and Zambian customs during their respective modernisation processes, requesting on the one case that the old practices be brought back, and that the old system of operation be run in parallel to the new system to FastTrack the clearance of their goods, respectively.

The “Great Disconnect

The lack of coherence in the actions of customs officials can pose challenges. This points to the disconnect between the strategic and the operational levels in customs. Customs administration actions should be synchronised and consistent with one another at all levels of operation.

What is recommended?

Each customs administration must prepare adequately for a successful modernisation approach. Task teams can be set up to study the specific administration reality against the projected change and make informed recommendations and develop adequate contingency plans. Partnership with the private sector will ensure they are consulted, aware of changes, know what to expect, and how to solve potential problems. Neighbouring countries must receive advance notice of changes to prepare customs operations and traders accordingly (South Africa is often mentioned as a model country that successfully followed and applied all the above steps and even beyond). Specific evaluation teams can be set up to monitor the progress of each aspect of the programme as it unfolds.

Customs modernisation is indispensable to enable customs administrations to meet both their national and international trade obligations. In a trade environment dominated by the desire to compete in the global economy, attract foreign investment and sustain economic growth, customs modernisation is indeed the way forward. The WCO proposes a range of tools and instruments to help its members to adapt to the new reality. Despite the impediments that customs modernisation may encounter at various stages of its development or implementation, it remains undisputed that this process provides a solution to most if not to all the problems of customs administrations. The reality is that new approaches take time to adopt and implement. If the necessary steps are taken, these impediments will be progressively eliminated as the process takes off and takes root.

About the Author(s)

Juliette Armelle Kouamo

Juliette Armelle Kouamo holds a Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree in Trade and Business law as well as a Master of Laws (LLM) degree in Import and Export Law from the North-West University, Potchefstroom Campus. She also holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Business Law and Corporate entities as well as a Bachelor of Laws in Law and Political Sciences from the University of Dschang, Cameroon. Her research interests include International Trade Law, Trade and Business Law, Trade Facilitation and Customs Modernisation in Africa. She is a former tralac intern.

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