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 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 Linkedln 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 license 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.
We only need to be mindful that if they do deny your application, due consideration will have been taken to balance your need to import and the country’s national economic interests.
Some say the mental effort required in order to just make a declaration is a tall order for the average importer? Realising that, some importers then seek the help of clearing agents. Where they are not willing to follow due process and the higher cost of the formal customs clearing professionals who are knowledgeable, they approach the briefcase “magumagumas” who then smuggle their goods sometimes without their knowledge.
There is also a widespread lack of understanding of the difference between controlled and prohibited goods. All the goods mentioned in the previous paragraph are allowed to be imported as long as you can get a license from the controlling ministry.
Of course any quantity imported in excess of the licensed quantity becomes “prohibited”. Prohibited goods are those which are banned, you should not even think about bringing them into the country.
Examples of prohibited goods are flick knives, flick guns, all oils and hazardous substances if they are in transit though Zimbabwe (if without EMA Licence). According to the Customs & Excise Act, Section 47, the following goods are also prohibited:
(a) Base, counterfeit or forged coins or currency;
(b) Any goods which are indecent, obscene or objectionable;
(c) Any goods which might tend to deprave the morals of the inhabitants, or any class of the inhabitants, of Zimbabwe;
(d) Prison-made and penitentiary-made goods;
(e) Spirituous beverages, which contain preparations, extracts, essences or chemical products which are noxious or injurious.
Now these prohibitions in the Customs and Excise Act are also the reason why importers will smuggle certain goods. The law gives the Customs Official a lot of discretion to decide what is objectionable or not. Instead of going through that demeaning treatment from Customs Officials, some individuals resort to smuggling their sex toys, for example.
For some smugglers, I have heard the idea that the act is simply retaliation against perceived government mismanagement of collected duties. I am not sure though if this is really a reasonable rationale for taking the risk of facing hefty financial and even custodial incarceration implications?
Zimra’s very high penalties also encourage smuggling especially for those who would have smuggled before. They try to keep away from any form of formal recognition within the Zimra database. In cases where a smuggler has been penalized by Zimra and they have lost their goods completely or they have paid three times the duty paid value fines, they work harder and perfect their smuggling skills. At times they prefer to be caught by other law enforcement agents well past Zimra’s jurisdiction.
Earlier this year a man who smuggled 28 bales of used clothing was fined $100 and counselled to look for legal means to survive after being caught by the police. If this does not incentivise smugglers to be more daring to succeed what will?
One of the column’s readers advised me, in response to my article on penalties a fortnight ago, that Zimra’s new dispensation is taking a more conciliatory approach to penalties and has introduced an agreeable penalty loading model. While this is highly commendable, it is yet to be practiced and published. In addition, they should also coordinate with other law enforcing agents to rationalise penalty structures for crimes arising from customs and taxation matters.
It is unfortunate, but it appears that the nature and culture of smuggling may be with us for a while. A culture change by the general populace to always being honest, accountable and paying unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar is needed; on the other hand Zimra needs to revise some of its procedures and processes that appear to assume that all importers like thieves so that they do not turn the few honest ones into thieves.
In conclusion, I believe that the compliance system favours smuggling rather than towing the line. Smugglers do not need any reason to smuggle; the ‘cultural’ environment leads them.
Disclaimer: This Article is not meant to create a consultant/client Relationship. Readers are advised to consult their Consultants for specific advisory services.
About the author: Gertrude Mawire is a Fiscal Compliance and Investment Advisor based in Harare. She writes in her personal capacity. Gertrude, a member of ZNCEE ( customs & excise experts) holds an MSc in Finance & Investments (NUST) Bachelor of Business Studies (UZ), IOBZ Diploma various other Certificates. She can be contacted on [email protected], [email protected] and 0712 437 256.