14.12.2017 Africa

Central Africa's free market plan hits the roadblock of reality

By Samuel OBIANG
Lengthy border controls are a major hurdle for trade in Africa.  By Isaac Kasamani (AFP)
LISTEN DEC 14, 2017
Lengthy border controls are a major hurdle for trade in Africa. By Isaac Kasamani (AFP)

At the frontier between Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, a long queue stretches between two checkpoints as travellers wrestle with officialdom and the inevitable demand for a sweetener in order to cross.

The headache of crossing the border at Ebebiyin, at the crossroads of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Cameroon, is typical of many frontier points in Africa, where customs hassles and kickbacks add to delays, costs and frustrations.

But the problem here carries special weight. It is enduring despite a vow by a six-nation alliance in central-western Africa to create an unprecedented border-free bloc.

"To cross by car from Cameroon to Gabon, we pay 30,000, 45,000 CFA francs (45 euros/$50 to 69 euros/$80). There's no explanation why," said Jules, a Gabonese driver.

"Where is this free movement of goods and people?" he exclaimed.

On October 31, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Republic of Congo declared they were setting up a barrier-free bloc to foster trade and free movement of their citizens.

Under it, citizens holding valid national ID cards or passports would no longer be subjected to entry visas or exit permits, and could visit another country for up to three months.

Today, some traders and travellers say that crossing the border has in some respects become easier.

Citizens of the six-nation Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) are no longer required to show a visa, although in theory this should only be for those with a biometric passport, an AFP reporter found.

On the other hand, people who are crossing over just for a few hours have to leave their ID at the border post, which they pick up on their return, and still have to pay a fee of 2,000 CFA francs.

"I find that the things are going a little better than before," said Judge Adolfo Nguema from Equatorial Guinea, on the Cameroon side of the border. "Before we did not cross as easily as now."

'Still a dream'

Despite this, many complained that a lack of information and consistency was a problem -- and bribery was a deep source of frustration.

Hawkers swarm around travellers and merchants, proposing to carry parcels and goods across the border for a fee to incorporate the necessary inducement -- usually 1,000 or 2,000 CFA francs -- to get past the police.

"It's still a dream. Basically, we are still paying to cross from one side to the other," said Valerie Oyana, a Gabonese trader at a market at Kye-Ossi, on the Cameroon side of the border.

Standing beside a truck stacked full of giant bunches of bananas, which she sells in Libreville, the Gabonese capital, Oyana said it was standard practice to have to grease a palm with 3,000 CFA in order to get through the checkpoints.

Kye-Ossi is one of a number of market towns by the frontiers of Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, at the heart of the six-nation alliance.

CEMAC, set up in 2000, has a potential market of 30 million consumers.

Their leaders met in the Chadian capital of N'Djamena on October 31 to formally declare the borderless scheme had now been ratified by all members.

Negotiations on the deal began more than 15 years ago, driven by the idea of removing bureaucratic obstacles that cause delay and drive up costs, especially for transport companies and other service providers.

Talks culminated in a draft agreement in 2013 that awaited ratification by all its members.

The process was hampered by fears by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon -- oil-rich and relatively sparsely populated -- that they would be swamped by an influx of job-seekers from poorer members.

CEMAC has a poor history of implementing major decisions, particularly concerning economic or monetary integration. Plans that remain on the shelf include the creation of a regional airline and a single passport.

But the idea of a border-free zone remains alluring, although some customs and police officials at the checkpoints are clearly unenthused.

"Free movement is going to kill us!" one official could be overheard in conversation to another, moments after pocketing money from a traveller.

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