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Report seeks harmonization of trade, transport regulations for improved ties

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Citing living with COVID-19 as the new normal, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), has urged Nigeria and other African governments to adapt and innovate, to facilitate new safe ways of conducting cross-border trade.

According to a new report, titled: “Facilitating Cross-Border Trade through a coordinated African Response to COVID-19,” by the Regional Integration and Trade Division (RITD) of UNECA, maintaining trade flows as much as possible during the pandemic will be crucial in providing access to essential food and medical items, and in limiting negative impacts on jobs and poverty.

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The re-opening of Nigeria’s land border to its neighbours has been stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic, even though the closure was implemented a year ago to stall the influx of smuggled goods into the country.

Following the COVID-19 outbreak, nearly all African countries have imposed various degrees of restrictions on cross-border movement of goods and people, including suspension of international flights, quarantine requirements for entrants, and closures of land and maritime borders.

Under a set of strict regulations, these closures target reducing movement of people, while allowing exemptions for the movement of emergency and essential freight supplies. Such regulations typically cover mandatory testing, sanitizing trucks, limiting the numbers of crew members, and designating transit resting areas.

These restrictions and regulations have helped in the continent’s COVID-19 battle, but they have also had negative impacts on cross-border trade and economic activities. Such actions risk impeding the continent’s progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out in the 2030 Agenda, and the aspirations in Agenda 2063.

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Indeed, the report provides a critical assessment of existing border restrictions and regulations, with a view to providing guidance on how to strike an appropriate balance between curbing the long term spread of the virus, and facilitating emergency and essential trade.

Director of RITD, Stephen Karingi, while commenting on the report, noted that COVID-19 may become the “new normal” for some time, and countries have to adjust to this.

In the light of these challenges, the report advocated that African countries cooperate to harmonize COVID-19 border regulations, to reduce delays, while not undermining the safety of trade.

To this end, the report proposes fast-tracking the implementation of existing Regional Economic Community (REC) COVID-19 guidelines, including establishing regional coordinating committees with the primary task of addressing operational issues at national borders.

“In addition, these regional efforts must also be coordinated at the continental level through the African Union. A common COVID-19 AU Protocol on trade and transport is needed given the overlap in membership of RECs and shared trade facilitation goals of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

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“In developing such a protocol, the experiences and best practice of RECs need to be considered. A common African Union COVID-19 test certificate for truck drivers and crew members will also be required to facilitate movement of essential personnel across borders with the least possible interference.

“In some instances, new COVID-19 border regulations and concerns of cross-border transmission of the virus have caused clashes between truck drivers and border authorities, and even disputes that have required diplomatic intervention.

“Amid the pandemic, African economies should not let COVID-19 undermine regional integration and must maintain the momentum and ambition of the AfCFTA process,” the report added.

The landmark Agreement offers a tool to hasten economic recovery, while protecting Africa against future adverse global shocks. As AfCFTA state parties finalize tariff offers and gear up to begin trading, African countries can already start to prioritize the implementation of elements of the Agreement that are complete and “ready to go”, including the non-tariff barrier mechanism, and annexes on trade facilitation and customs cooperation.

The primary take-away of the report is that by magnifying Africa’s cross-border inefficiencies, the pandemic presents an opportunity to reinvigorate efforts targeted at overcoming long-standing trade facilitation challenges.

The report added that COVID-19 has increased the urgency to do better and find innovative solutions to facilitate safe and efficient cross-border trade, noting that it will be important for Africa to maintain and upgrade these solutions post-COVID-19, to lower trade costs, boost competitiveness, and support more resilient cross-border trade in the face of future shocks.

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