‘Human Taxis’ Rife at Northern Borders

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By Surihe Gaomas WINDHOEK Tax dodging, bribery and illegal immigration into Namibia from Angola and Zambia and human taxis are rife due to lax and inefficient border controls by inept and corrupt immigration officials who collude with unscrupulous importers. These damning findings are contained in a report that looked at small-scale cross-border trade between Namibia and her northern neighbours, namely Angola and Zambia. There is virtually no data or information available on the types, volumes and quantity and the value of goods carried through land border posts by small-scale traders as well as their contribution to national trade statistics on imports and exports from Namibia. With the ever-increasing small-scale border trade taking place predominantly at Oshikango and to a lesser extent at Wenela border post, there is a raft of illegal activity involving bribery, tax-dodging and more seriously human trafficking across the country’s borders. There is also a new trend of illegal activity taking place through the use of “human taxis” comprising of gangs of youths hired to smuggle goods across the porous borders. The study, in which hundreds of traders were interviewed using the Origin and Destination (O&D) questionnaires, says unemployed youths are hired by Angolan traders to illegally carry huge quantities of goods across the border in smaller units. These so-called human taxis in most of the cases travel by foot, but they also make use of bicycles, wheelbarrows and canoes to transport goods undetected by immigration officials. These developments were revealed in a recent research document compiled by the Southern African Migration Report (SAMP) at the University of Namibia entitled: “Unpacking Huge Quantities Into Smaller Units: Small-Scale Cross-Border Trade Between Namibia and Her Northern Neighbours.” The most startling finding of this report is that the vast majority of Angolan traders at the busy Oshikango border post are literally “unpacking the huge quantities of goods purchased on the Namibian side into smaller quantities to evade taxation and notably higher customs charges on the Angolan side”. Quite interestingly, the report further says this illegal activity is happening under the “watchful” eyes of the Namibian police and customs officials who virtually take no reaction against the culprits. After shopping for the goods in Namibia these Angolan traders spend a lot of time unpacking the huge quantities, sub-dividing them into much smaller units that Namibian youths or “human taxis” carry for them across the border into Angola on condition of payment. Expressing this concern, SAMP Coordinator Ndeyapo Nickanor informed New Era that most of these small-scale Angolan traders who strive to make a living through the business of buying and selling goods across the borders, do this in an attempt to avoid the excessive tax they get charged by the Angolan officials. “All they tell the Namibians customs officials is that the ‘small goods’ are for my house, although they are going to sell them for business,” said Nickanor, adding that this illegal activity is rife at both the Oshikango border with Angola and Wenela with Zambia. One Angolan trader who’s been frequenting the border post for the past five years, as he conducts business between Oshikango on the Namibian side and Ondjiva on the Angolan side, said: “During this time I have come to know all the officials on both sides and they also know me very well because I cross this border on a regular basis. Really, we have a lot of problems with the Angolan officials, especially the immigration and customs officers. They are charging us very high taxes and if we cannot pay they seize our goods and keep them in a ‘park’. When you have the money and you come back to pay for your goods you will not find your goods. They are rude and unfriendly and sometimes they even beat us. We are really suffering from them.” Negotiating their way through seems to be the order of the day for most small-scale traders, opening up avenues for bribery and other underhand activities. Meanwhile, the story on the local side is better where according to this trader the Namibian “brothers” are better, friendlier, and do not beat people or even charge high tax. “They even allow us to stay here and separate our goods although sometimes they also chase us when we are too many in front of their side of the border. We really want higher authorities in Lubango to come and see what these Angolan officials are doing at the border – a lot of corruption,” explained the trader from Angola. In just the space of ten days an average of 14 276 traders cross the Oshikango and Wenela border posts while making daily use of “human taxi” couriers between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. when the borders close. Generally, most of the traders who do declare goods are those who have bought heavy items like motorbikes and generators and would like to claim their value added tax (VAT) from Namibian customs. However, the majority of the small-scale traders, who mostly carry perishables like vegetables, assorted cooldrinks, sweets, fruits and bread, do not declare anything at all. The latest report found out from Namibian customs officials that if goods carried are less than N$500 in value then the trader is not required to declare them. On the other hand, there are also a lot of difficulties in estimating the value of goods carried by these small-scale traders as most are bought on the open market or from Chinese shops. It appears that “most traders have discovered gaps in the current system and are neither declaring nor claiming VAT,” reads the report. At Wenela in turns out that the large quantities of goods that pass through the border simply “disappear into no-man’s land” without even reaching the Zambian borders for VAT to be claimed. Since Wenela border post is without any fencing, people or human taxis cross the border by river or by walking around the border point across about 400 metres of “unmanned no-man’s land” or open veldt area between the two physical borders. The report states that this “is a zone for plenty of illegal activities like smuggling and soliciting of goods and services”. This situation is aided by the fact that 110 kilometres west of Wenela border remain unfenced to date. What is worrying is that this illegal activity amounts to huge losses of customs revenue for both the Zambian and Angolan governments whose countries are already striving to fight poverty and under-development. Over the past year investigations by the Ministry of Finance revealed that the smuggling of goods is rife, particularly in the north. As quoted in a local daily, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Finance Calle Schlettwein told the Parliamentary Committee on Public Accounts that in the past two years more than 14 cases had been uncovered and had led to customs officials being charged and dismissed. “We are trying to implement a zero-tolerance policy, but bribery happens at all levels. It’s not only officials who are bribed. The private sector plays a big role. The rewards of bribery are huge,” said Schlettwein. However, the SAMP document recommends amongst others that a joint management of the border framework needs to be worked out between Namibia and its neighbouring countries in order to ensure that corrupt practices are curtailed. SAMP falls under the University of Namibia’s Multi-Disciplinary Research Centre.