Stakeholders canvass single window to facilitate AfCFTA
There are two facts about Africa’s place in international trade that worry experts. The first is the abysmally low level of participation despite abundant resources – just two per cent. The other is the low level of trade among African countries, a paltry 17 per cent.
One of the major steps taken by African countries to redress this unenviable position was the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in 2018. For two days global leaders and stakeholders in the transportation and trade industry met in Abuja to deliberate on the roles of transportation in the implementation of AfCFTA’s objective of expanding Africa’s trade.
The Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, at the event, pointed out the crucial role the transportation sector plays as an instrument for the realisation of the goals of AfCFTA.
He said: “The transportation sector is the most critical in implementing trade facilitation, enhancing regional integration and key to every other AfCFTA protocol. Hence, the Nigerian government has embarked on huge transport infrastructure investment across the country to ensure efficiency in the transportation sector. These interventions include massive construction of roads, rail lines with access roads, inland water ports, seaports, new terminals in existing ports, dry ports with access to rail and roads, inland container depots/freight all geared towards building a modern and efficient transportation system that guarantees sustainable socio-economic development of Nigeria, regional integration and trade liberalisation.”
According to the Minister, transportation and AfCFTA are like Siamese twins as they are intricately linked. Transportation provides the vehicle through which the major objective of AfCFTA thrives; that is, creating a single continental market for goods and services with free movement of businesses, persons and investments, promoting regional and continental integration, market access and resources reallocation across sectors and countries.”
He also assured of the commitment of the Ministry to improve digital infrastructure “by automating train, marine and road operations, completing ongoing transport projects and upgrade through completing and operating the Abuja – Kaduna, Lagos-Ibadan, Itakpe – Ajaokuta – Warri standard gauge rail lines; rehabilitation of narrow-gauge lines, ground-breaking of the Kano-Maradi rail lines, commissioning of the deep blue sea project, commencement of the wreck removal exercise; among others.
One of the critical issues that dominated discussion during the two-day conference organised by the Nigeria Institute of Transport Technology (NITT) in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Transportation was the importance of a Single-Window system as an instrument to facilitate trade in Africa.
Hassan Bello, the immediate past Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council presented a paper on the subject, titled: “Single Window Planning and Implementation For Trade Facilitation in Africa ‘’.
First, the paper brought to the fore the need for both hard and soft infrastructure as critical factors in the success of international trade, as well as the achievement of the AfCFTA Agreement and its sustenance. He said a massive deliberate infusion of investment in transport infrastructure, especially in maritime infrastructure, would change the narrative of poor trade and economic growth in Africa. “An efficient connecting multi-modal infrastructure is key to achieving stable and higher economic growth,” he said.
The World Economic Forum 2014 noted that an “increase in trade, especially exports, is presumed to increase the earning of valuable foreign exchange, create more job opportunities and widen the international market. It reduces distance within and between regions. Well-developed infrastructure not only reduces the distance between regions but also integrates regional markets and connects them at low costs to other economies.”
According to Bello, these are all regarding physical maritime infrastructure. “The development of hard infrastructure must be complemented with the soft infrastructure required to maintain the socio-economic standards of a population as opposed to the physical infrastructure of roads, bridges, etc. It includes both assets such as communication, the body of rules and regulations governing the various systems, the financing of these systems and organisations by which professionals are trained, advance in their careers by acquiring experience, and are disciplined if required by professional associations. It includes financial institutions, the system of government, law enforcement and emergency response services.
Second, Bello stressed how AfCTA was critical to the development of the African economy, suggesting that the continental body must assume a supranational status whereby member states must surrender their sovereignty in certain economic structures.
He recommended, for instance, that the African Central Bank, the African Development Bank (AfDB), and other critical institutions must be under the supervision or association of AfCFTA. Such an arrangement, according to him, would eventually lead to the establishment of a Single Window System for the continent or its sub-regions.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) defines a Single Window as “a facility that allows parties involved in trade and transport to lodge standardised information and documents with a single entry point to fulfil all import, export and transit-related regulatory requirements.” The advantages of a Single Window system, according to Bello, include an increase in government revenue, enhanced compliance with rules, transparency and availability of trade statistics. For traders and other economic operators, it means a more transparent and predictable process, bereft of delay and government bureaucracy. For regulators, a Single Window brings enhanced productivity, simplification of processes and increased revenue, improved transparency in government, elimination of corruption, faster and more certain connection to the global market.
According to Bello, there is not a single framework for the concept of a single-window system. “It comes with a variety of characteristics, content and compositions, depending on, to a large extent, the domestic environment.” He, however, noted that there exist standards within which the single window must operate.
Various countries and organisations may operate a Single Window System for different purposes. For instance, there is a Single Window for foreign trade formalities, that is, administrative formalities and processes (private and public). Another Single Window is exclusively for logistics in the ports, focused on the processes from vessel arrival until delivery to consignees. This is also called Cargo Community System or Port Community System. There is also the National (Integral) Single Window. This is the most complex and extensive Single Window with bigger scope involving multiple stakeholders and government agencies. It is a single platform across the national territory. It is sometimes called the National Single Window.
Bello expressed the need for a regional single window to ensure standards are adhered to, processes are harmonised and which must serve as an effective monitoring, compliance and enforcement mechanism.
Nigeria has already taken preliminary steps towards establishing its National Single Window system. In 2019, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) constituted a Steering Committee on the implementation of NSW. The committee, in turn, set up a technical subcommittee on NSW, which has submitted its report. It recommends that the e-Custom project as proposed by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) is a subset of NSW even though it has necessary features that could transform it into the NSW.
The challenges being faced by Nigeria in the establishment of its NSW include Procrastination (reluctance to embark on reforms), resistance associated with reforms, lack of Change Management systems, lack of political will, failure to be weaned from a mono-product economy and absence of a specific legal framework to enforce compliance.
Bello expressed concern that, in Nigeria, so much time has been wasted. He said the country must set up a single-window structure, as soon as possible. “Procrastination is not in the best interest of the country’s goal of regional integration and economic development,” the former Executive Secretary of the NSC said.