Regional revenue authorities have established collaborative partnerships to combat the proliferation of smuggled goods in the wake of Covid-19 transborder restrictions.
Information collected from revenue authorities from five countries suggests that illicit trade, mostly in consumables like alcohol, cigarettes and groceries, has boomed in the five months that regional states imposed lockdowns restricting cross-border movements to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
This has, however, opened floodgates for illicit trading across the region's porous borders. This is enabled by the fact that Sadc countries are highly dependent on each other for goods and services given their interconnectedness.
Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) public relations officer Topys Sikalinda said they were collaborating with revenue authorities from other countries they share borders with to try and curb smuggling.
"We have declared zero tolerance on smuggling of all forms, transit frauds, under declarations, under valuations, miscalculations and false documentations among others. This is our hope for closing the gap on lost revenue and all our neighbours are collaborating with us," Sikalinda said.
He added that the authority was now making use of information and communication tools that help combat smuggling. They have used this information to intercept huge quantities of alcohol and groceries, which were being smuggled from Zimbabwe to Zambia.
"We are now more aggressive than ever and our customs and inspectorate officials are on the ground patrolling, fully equipped with various ICT tools such as specialised advanced fighter drones. In the past few weeks, we have intercepted various goods such as alcohol, cooking oil and used clothing coming from Zimbabwe. Most of these goods are brought all the way from South Africa and Zimbabwe is used just as a transit route," Sikalinda said.
"We are working closely with the law enforcement agents and the judiciary to ensure successful prosecution of offenders and only last week, we had our first conviction by the courts of a Zambian smuggler in Nakonde who was jailed for two years. We are also relying on data exchange with other revenue authorities in the region to help us know what is being exported to Zambia well before the goods reach our borders," Sikalinda added.
South Africa, the region's manufacturing hub, has also suffered serious revenue losses at the hands of smugglers. Although the country is mostly a source of the goods being smuggled, it has in recent months suffered a huge influx of smuggled cigarettes from Zimbabwe, driven by a high demand on the black market following the banning of the sale of cigarettes in the country.
The South African Revenue Authority (SARS) estimates that the country loses at least R8 billion (US$476 332) in revenue annually to cigarette smuggling alone.
"The issue of smuggling at border posts is very broad and multi-faceted. In terms of statistics, SARS Customs has seen a 50,3% overall decrease in the number of illicit busts year-on-year, which is due in large part to the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant restrictions at South African borders. The number of cigarette seizures, on the other hand, increased by 154,1% year-on-year.
In terms of the value of the seized goods, there was a 4% increase year-on-year," SARS head of media and communications Sicelo Mkosi said.
"Despite the challenges experienced during the Covid-19 crisis, SARS has continued to focus on goods control in terms of its risk identification' targeting capabilities and inspection strategies. The specialised cargo scanners have also assisted in stopping the illicit movement of goods across our borders, leaving smugglers with fewer options to facilitate the illicit movement of goods. SARS Customs also continues to work closely with sister revenue authorities from the region to fight the scourge of agencies in order to combat the illicit trade," he said.
Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) public relations manager Francis Chimanda said: "Numerous measures have been put in place to deal with smuggling, which include collaborative borderline patrols, roadblocks, post clearance verifications and audits, use of risk management, collaboration with other law enforcement and security agents. Bilateral and regional engagements have been taking place to ensure that cross-border movements of cargo is carefully monitored to reduce incidents of smuggling."
Malawi, Botswana and Mozambique are also implementing strict border control regulations to curb smuggling.
"We are a landlocked country and goods are mainly brought into the country through Tanzania, and Mozambique and we have received a lot of help from authorities there to curb the smuggling," Malawi Revenue Services Steven Kapoloma said.