Lusaka — Truck driver Alfred Ndlovu transports cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) mineral rich Katanga Province to South Africa twice a month. He has been doing this for the last five years but now he is considering giving it up because he fears for his life every time he crosses the border.
"It is not good to always be in fear. The soldiers and police officers are supposed to protect us, not to punish us for refusing to give them bribes. We are one as Southern Africa and the Congolese security forces should not try to create unnecessary strife," Ndlovu told IPS.
Conflict claimed two lives at the Kasumbalesa Border post between Zambia and the DRC since the start of the year. In January, a 28-year-old Zambian truck driver, Patrick Mwila, was shot dead by Congolese officials following a dispute over a bribe. And at the start of February, Zimbabwean truck driver Joseph Howard Mwachande, 52, was shot dead on the Zambian side of the border.
"We are no longer interested in promises, we want to see action. We are pleading with the government, please help secure our drivers." -- Chilufya Chansa, SADC Truck Drivers Association
The border is the DRC's biggest link to trade routes in southern Africa and internationally. According to the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA), Kasumbalesa is Zambia's busiest border in terms of traffic volumes. The ZRA says that traffic through the border has increased by over 120 percent in the last two years, with the border currently handling "an average of 600 trucks on a normal day and up to 800 trucks per day during serious congestion."
But from Feb. 1 to 4, no truck crossed into the DRC from Zambia. Now even though the post has reopened, Chilufya Chansa, the interim coordinator for the Southern African Development Community Truck Drivers Association's Zambia chapter, told IPS that the truckers felt unsafe crossing into the DRC.
"We are not safe. We are just moving by the grace of god," Chansa told IPS. "Just last week, we had an incident where four trucks belonging to a South African company were attacked by gunmen wearing military uniforms. The gunmen ransacked the trucks and took the drivers' personal belongings.
"We have been crying to the governments of Zambia and DRC to enforce security measures at the border and surrounding areas. Security wise, we are not safe. The border is still very porous," he said.
On Feb. 7, a few days after Mwachande's death, Zambian President Michael Sata issued a statement that his government had "swiftly engaged our Congolese counterparts on the need to avert similar occurrences in future by tightening security at Kasumbalesa and ultimately preventing criminal elements from taking advantage to peddle their narrow and selfish interests."
Zambia's Home Affairs Minister Ngosa Simbyakula said that the government was considering setting up a dry port where trucks would offload their cargo for onward transmission by the Congolese truckers.
"If security and safety of our drivers can't be guaranteed in DRC, the idea of a dry port in Zambia will be seriously pursued so that trucks transporting goods to the DRC can offload here and allow trucks from that country to pick them up here," Ngosa told journalists.
But Chansa thinks the government should talk less and do more.
"We are no longer interested in promises, we want to see action. We are pleading with the government, please help secure our drivers," Chansa said.
"The government should take charge to help ensure that when we go to the DRC, we come back safe with everything still intact."
Despite the truckers' concerns, ZRA corporate communications manager Mumbuna Kufekisa told IPS that "the traffic situation at Kasumbalesa has returned to normal."
"The queue on the Zambian side has [typically] less than 200 trucks and all of them are new arrivals. We had to put up some management intervention measures to mitigate the situation," he said.
"We are still making sustained efforts to ensure efficient trade facilitation across our frontier. We will also continue engaging our valued stakeholders, the drivers and clearing agents, to ensure minimum disturbances at the border by employing proactive and peaceful conflict resolution strategies," Kufekisa added.
However, Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa secretary general Sindiso Ngwenya told journalists that the skirmishes were affecting regional trade, and called for the removal of armed security personnel manning road blocks for goods in transit.
"If we can remove them and put them where they should be, I don't think we would be having these problems," Ngwenya said in a statement.