Just over a fortnight ago in this column, we explored some ways in which smugglers attempt to ply their trade. I must say your feedback, especially from some ex-customs gurus with many examples of smuggling incidences that you experienced at the borders was very enlightening.
Someone could write a book just detailing those interesting experiences. For example in response to the Plumbridge Vapostori watch smuggling spectacle that I referred to in the exposé, a Ba Kundi who was a training officer of customs at the time wrote: “I was not at the border but was at the Training Centre and we ended up using it quite frequently as a case of reference on searches and during Plumbridge lessons.
“A group of vapositori (white garmented) were travelling in a pick-up truck with a coffin which they said contained the remains of a relative who had passed on in Botswana. I am told what triggered the officers’ interest was that they did not have satisfactory paperwork and that as the officers were standing by the car some of the watches started sounding their alarms.” (sic)
Another former training officer, identified Mr Zambezi said: “Again at Plumtree the train used to be very popular. So some smugglers would block toilet outlet with paper. Fill up the pan with watches then soil the top. No officer would dare enter the toilet. Unfortunately they put too much soiling that pushed the watches out on to the rail line” (sic).
Another officer a Mr Mandishona said he oversaw a number of botched smuggling attempts as a customs official. He was willing to share some of these occurrences for the benefit of our country’s revenue. In fact his offer to narrate these occurrences made me wonder if Zimra Training School has a dedicated database of these incidences, which could be easily be modified and used to improve the Customs Officer’s skills? These could be carefully scrutinised to perfect the art of catching smugglers.
On a slightly different note, one reader a Fungayi Van Strien, asked me via my Linkeln account, how much was being lost by the fiscus through smuggling per year. I was dumbfounded as I realised that Zimra has not published any specific figures. We only hear of “millions”, “hundreds”, “thousands”. We hope they will publish specific figures so that we can all appreciate the magnitude of the problem lest we waste precious time on a fruitless pursuit.
This was the first time I dedicated time to this topic in this column. I figured that equipping the gatekeeper with information on the methods of smuggling would be a good starting point. Smuggling has had a long history, rearing its ugly head at almost the same time that any forms of duties were imposed well before the 13th century.
It is therefore of paramount importance to explore the reasons why traders smuggle instead of following the legal routes of moving goods, people and services across national boundaries. How is it possible that this practice has stood the test of time?
Generally, the need to circumvent duty payments, controls and prohibition of movement of goods, people and services are said to be the main motivations for smuggling. A further look at these reasons can help us find better ways of effectively dealing with the phenomenon.
From my interactions with those who toy with the idea of smuggling goods like household furniture, fridges, building materials, motor vehicles, finished foods like cheese, cakes, canned foods, and beverages etc, the rates of duty are considered to be too high.
An importer will be looking at customs duty levels of plus 40 percent, with a surtax of 25 percent for some of the goods. Importers therefore find it tempting to navigate the smuggling route.
In addition, compliance is made much more undesirable as the time needed to comply is also a lot. I have heard of long distance buses passing the borders loaded with these items with the passengers having paid a token to the bus crew who facilitate passage with some unscrupulous border officials. Instead of having every single passenger make their own declarations, the “officers” accept the bribe and dispense with appropriate searches and verifications.
The requirement for import licences and permits is also another major motivation for smuggling. Controlled goods like used clothing, medicines, some finished food items like potato chips, cooking oil, cereals and snacks, sex toys, soap, milk, fuel, abundantly available agricultural produce like tomatoes, onions, potatoes, fruits, distilling equipment which can be used to brew “Kachasu, chi’1”, Lutuku, Tototo and others require a licence, permit or both documents in order to be imported. This list is not exhaustive.
Some importers are ignorant of the licence application processes or they are not willing to face denial of their applications by the respective controlling ministries. They forget that if they do lodge their application for a licence to import the product, there is a 50 percent chance that they will get it. In fact with some very good justification, the ministries have no reason to deny the applications.