Peter BurdinBy Peter Burdin|February 2, 2021|7 Minutes|In AfCFTA



Former BBC Editor for Africa Peter Burdin – a veteran of scores long sweltering queues at African border posts - takes a sideways look at the prospects for increased continental trade.

We used to laugh at Nigerian billionaire entrepreneur Aliko Dangote.

We couldn’t believe it when he told his much-loved anecdote about how he needed thirty-eight visas to travel around Africa. We in the UK Press were the lucky ones – we could travel to far more places on the continent than him armed only with a well-thumbed European Union passport and, if really necessary, a tatty dog-eared Yellow Fever card for dealing with the more stern-faced officials.

The thought of one of Africa’s richest men and most successful entrepreneurs having to apply for thirty-eight visas to develop his multinational business empire which employs more than thirty thousand people and earns around $4 billion a year seemed incredible.

In many ways it confirmed how far Africa had to go to unleash its economic muscle across the continent, and was a stark reminder of all the impediments African business leaders had to overcome to succeed.

We all remember hours stuck at border posts queuing behind lines of trucks on blistering hot days, with the smell of decaying fruit and vegetables slowly roasting in the heat of the sun as officials checked paperwork and customs forms.

Beit Bridge on the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe is one of Africa’s busiest crossing points with around 200,000 people and more than 3,000 trucks passing through it each week. It’s very difficult to find water, there’s no sanitation, and at busy times it can take hours to cross.

It’s not just officials and bureaucrats who clog up the system, Beit Bridge was never designed to cope with this amount of traffic. It’s not simply a border crossing for Zimbabweans and South Africans but it also used by traders trying to get to Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi. And inevitably in Africa there are always some Nigerians and Congolese who are trading their wares from market to market.

A friend of mine once told me that even as a Zimbabwean trying to return home it once took her four days to cross.

Even when you get through there can be further delays. Zimbabwe’s roads are in a poor state so the road ahead can be blocked with broken down lorries with flat tyres or other mechanical failures caused by the rough terrain and pot-holes.

Some truckers say their journey from South Africa’s commercial capital Joburg to Harare in Zimbabwe can take anything up to twenty-four hours.

Further north I remember once having the romantic idea of taking a mini-bus taxi from Arusha where I’d been attending an African Development Bank annual meeting to Nairobi. It was a pleasant experience travelling through northern Tanzania, until we arrived at the Kenyan border — papers, passports, no bribes, mercifully, but long delays sitting under a burning sun with no shade, nor water.

While we suffered,  the Masai traders profited with women crowding round our minibus selling their bracelets and jewellery. It was an impressive demonstration of African enterprise, making the best of a frustrating experience.

West Africa is also not immune from border blockage. According to the Improved Road Transport Governance Initiative the Abidjan- Bamako corridor has the highest number of checkpoints and levels of bribery. A lorry driver moving along the West African corridors can expect significant delays, from 18 to 29 minutes per hundred kilometres as police and customs officials check their goods and vehicles. This equates to around seven hours of delays per trip.

Likewise, a truck transporting goods on the Koutiala-Dakar corridor between Mali and Senegal has to pass through close to a hundred checkpoints and border posts. That’s a real barrier to any traders seeking to transport perishable agricultural products. Value-chain crops like maize and rice and livestock can only deteriorate if their transport is delayed by time-consuming checkpoints.

No wonder intra-Africa trade has traditionally been so low compared to other regions. At the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area intra-Africa trade stood at around 16%, far below trade with Asia, the Americas or Europe. That’s why this new Africa trading block is so important and why people feel it can only have a transformative impact on Africa’s trading prospects.

And then there are Mr Dangote’s visas. A one-month visa to Ivory Coast is $125, Burkina Faso. Togo and Benin all charge anything between $60 and $120. I can’t remember the price of a Nigerian visa but recall that it usually involved popping round to the local Embassy with a bottle of Baileys or some similar inducement.

Now intra-Africa trade is designed to liberate those blockages as the AfCFTA sets about developing the world’s biggest free trade area.

In many ways we’re trading places. While Africa is getting its free trade act together we in the UK have decided to quit the EU, the world’s richest single market.

Now, its not Beit Bridge but Dover and Kent -the so-called garden of England- where the lorries will queue up in massive car parks waiting to have paperwork checked and to receive the approval and permissions to cross the Channel to the world’s richest single market in Europe.

It seems Mr Dangote has the last laugh after all.

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