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Trade Facilitation and Border Security: Striking the Right Balance

May 7, 2015 By Ann Marie Dumbuya

The National Revenue Authority (NRA) was established through an Act of Parliament, the NRA Act of 2002, with the core mandate of assessing and collecting revenues on behalf of the government. In addition to this, it is responsible for trade facilitation, border control and management. The NRA has over the past years modernized processes and procedures to create a positive taxpayer experience. Indeed, the opening of the Gbalamuya joint-border post in June, 2012 and rolling out of the Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA) to the post in April, 2014 seemed to have broken some trade facilitation bottlenecks. Customs officials of both Guinea and Sierra Leone are now under one roof which has significantly reduced the time it takes for people and goods to cross the border. Nevertheless, striking the right balance between trade facilitation and border security remains a challenge.

Like the Assistant Commissioner of the Anti-Smuggling Unit of NRA explains, trade facilitation and border security are important facets of NRA’s mandate and one aspect should not benefit at the expense of the other. Therefore, he continues, expediting the cross-border movement of goods, while at the same time ensuring that proper controls are in place to curb smuggling, import and export of prohibited goods, drugs trafficking, arms smuggling and other offences as well as protect the fiscal and financial interests of the state, is a priority for the NRA.

Working Together

The benefits of the ‘one stop’ joint-border post at Gbalamuya are immense. They include reduced compliance costs for legitimate traders; better services for exporters, importers and travelers; and enhanced cooperation and dialogue between the two Customs administrations. There is mutual confidence and support of each other’s anti-smuggling strategies and controls. In line with the theme for this year’s World Customs Day celebrations, ‘Coordinated Border Management: an inclusive approach for connecting stakeholders’,the Authority has strengthened partnerships with law enforcement and other relevant government agencies to better control the illicit movement of goods while making legitimate trade as easy as possible through memorandums of understanding (MoUs) and signing of standard operating procedures with all border management operating agencies. This has resulted in streamlined procedures and processes at the Sierra Leonean side of the border.

At bilateral level, MoUs have been signed with Guinea for the purpose of sharing intelligence and information while promoting simplification and harmonisation of international trade procedures between the two administrations, especially in streamlining formalities involved in cross-border import/export processing. This synchronized approach to border management and control has led to fewer interventions on the cross-border movement of goods and persons.

Getting the Local and Business Community onboard

Gbalamuya and its environs is a hotspot for tax evasion—it has about 90 illegal entry points. Nevertheless, taking advantage of greater cooperation with stakeholders like boat owners, drivers and bike riders unions; the NRA is more effectively and efficiently targeting high-risk movements using risk-based assessments, intelligence and surveillance. Also, the Authority has embarked on an intense social mobilization drive to encourage community people in Gbalamuya and its environs to provide information of movements at illegal entry points in their localities so as to help the NRA clamp down on those trying the cheat the system to increase revenue collection for government. These border management strategies, NRA’s anti-smuggling boss noted has enabled the Authority tackle smuggling.

Furthermore, inspection and examination of goods crossing the border is now 100%. Nevertheless, due to improved procedures for customs transit seeking to avoid delay in having to examine every item in trucks crossing the border, Customs officers now accompany trucks to their final offloading destinations for a complete physical examination. This allows for stringent physical examination at the destination rather than at point of entry so as to speed cross-border movements while protecting the country against threats such as contaminated food, unsafe consumer products, fake medicines and other counterfeit products and safeguard revenue collection.

Making life easier for traders and travelers

Taxpayer-centricity and trade facilitation has become the new way of doing business at the Gbalamuya border post. This ideology of putting the taxpayer first is part of a journey of transformation undertaken by the Authority under its flagship Modernisation Programme in an effort to modernise Customs operations to international standards. As such, ASYCUDA has been rolled out to the border post in April 2014 and has subsequently improved business processes, service excellence, Taxpayer experience and revenue collection. The computer software provides businesses with an electronic platform for the submission and processing of trade-related documents which has consequently improve system and valuation controls. Manual declarations are no longer accepted for customs clearance. The Authority has also trained its staff on transit and anti-smuggling procedures with funding assistant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for effective border surveillance and control to combat transnational crime, deter illicit activities, protect revenue collection and facilitate trade.

Compliance with Customs procedures

Anti-smuggling regulations are mainly enshrined in the Customs Act, 2011. Section 70 of the Act gives NRA the power to enter, inspect, and search without warrant any premises upon probable suspicion of tax evasion. This includes suspicion of unreported, undeclared or prohibited goods that contravene the provisions of the Act. Those found guilty of smuggling and/or making false declarations will have to pay a fine upon conviction. A first time offender will be required to pay a fine of twice the value of the import duty on the goods, while a second time offender will have to pay three times the value of the duty on the goods. Those who commit the same offence more than two times will be asked to pay four times the import duty. Customs Officers who aid and abet traders to cheat the system if found guilty will be fined/imprisoned/dismissed from the Authority according to the Act.

It is therefore clear that effective trade facilitation and border control is necessary to enhance the country’s economic competitiveness by enabling legitimate trade and travel while protecting citizens from harmful goods, drugs trafficking, arms smuggling and other cross-border offences. While there are other security agencies like Immigration, the Sierra Leone police and Army carrying out similar functions, it is the NRA that is holding the front line and it must be commended for making remarkable progress in balancing the two often contrasting roles.