29 December 2016

Africa: Here Is to a Borderless Africa in 2017 and Beyond!

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Africa map.
opinion

On a recent road trip through south-western Uganda we did something I have always wanted to do; breakfasted in Kabale, had a long lazy lunch on the shores of Lake Kivu in Rwanda, contemplated but decided against high tea in Goma, DR Congo, and were back on the beautiful edges of Lake Bunyonyi, in Kabale, in time for a late dinner.

Incredibly, such a journey was inconceivable a few years ago. If one survived the heavily potholed roads and the highway brigands, one was likely to arrive at the crossing to learn that the border was closed and that one had to wait for it to reopen the next morning.

Today, the major border crossings never close and many are the times your columnist has driven, alone and late in the night, across the region with nary a worry about being robbed (it helps, as Oscar Wilde supposedly said on disembarking in New York, in January 1882, if one has nothing to declare, except one's genius).

The interesting thing about these changes at the borders isn't why they are happening now but why they took so long. The short answer? Incentives. To see this you need to look at Malaba, arguably Uganda's most important border crossing on the trade route to the Indian Ocean. For many years the road astride the crossing, on both sides of the border, was one of the worst in any urban area.

The towns on both sides of the border were loud, dirty, and buzzing with the seediness of cheap beer, loose women and corrupt officialdom. The border itself was a morass of ineptitude: money-changers jostled for attention with busybodies offering to fill in forms for hapless passengers for a fee; customs officers marked out the targets of their bribery shakedowns with effortless expertise while police officers prowled, looking for prey.

In their well-worn uniforms, they seemed to say, ready or not, here I come, you can't hide; gonna find you and take your money slowly. (To avoid them one had to play one's enemies like a game of chess, no stress, and dance around the border like Cassius Clay).

While it was all a nightmare for passengers and the economy, there was method in the madness. The inefficiency meant that truck drivers spent longer and thus spent more money at the border crossings. The confusion created jobs for the busybodies and bribes for the customs officials; it was not the way things failed - it was the way they worked.

It is not surprising that the change, when it came, was from outside agents and paid for by external money. Today you can clear your goods at Mombasa, pay your taxes online, and track your truck until your warehouse in Bujumbura.

Much inefficiency remains - clearing of vehicles for temporary importation, for instance, remains cumbersome and needlessly expensive, while immigration processes remain slow and ponderous - but there is a lot of progress.

Of course there are concerns for instance about smuggling, human trafficking and same-such but the solution is to examine the incentives, not shore up the punishments. Traders will pay taxes if they are fair, simple and if they can see the services they pay for; they will also find ways to evade the toughest rules if they are unfair and complicated - and they will be assisted by the customs officers in doing so.

Incidentally, I found many friends at the border crossing into Rwanda and into Uganda. Most were going for just the day or a couple of days. More than 15 years ago when I first travelled to Rwanda by road the two countries were sworn enemies and it was inconceivable to imagine either being a preferred holiday destination.

Today it is hard to imagine war between the two countries - there is simply no incentive to bomb your trading partners! The next step should be to bring the elephant in the room - the Democratic Republic of Congo - into the East African Community.

Up in the misty hills, away from the restless queue of impatient travellers awaiting their brief encounters with grim-faced, stamp-wielding immigration officers, peasants walked across countries, oblivious to imaginary borderlines and the self-inflicted discrimination of brother against brother.

Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi.

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