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Who is responsible for the success of the AfCFTA? Traders? Customs? Or both?

The success of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) hinges not only on traders, but also on Customs. Traders, of course, must understand – so that they can apply – the rules introduced by this Agreement. This is essential for them in order to seize the opportunities offered by the liberalisation of African trade that the AfCFTA introduces. Customs, on the other hand, are the main actors responsible for the effective implementation of the Agreement’s rules. 

Currently, a lot of work is being done in Africa to sensitize traders and train them on how to harness the AfCFTA rules for increasing inter-Africa trade. But if they are not willing or not interested to apply them, that is ultimately their choice. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Customs. Being public authorities, they not only have an obligation to apply these rules correctly (so as to ensure their compliant application by traders), but also to refrain from overly scrupulous or bureaucratic behaviors that may restrict beyond measure the traders’ access to the preferential schemes they introduce. 

Unfortunately, performances of Customs in Africa are still mostly (or only) measured according to their ability to contribute to revenue collection or to the protection of society, health, safety, environment and other collective interests. Less often do these criteria take into account the role that such administrations play in trade facilitation. It is worth taking a look at the strategic criteria that inspire the daily work of most African customs offices, to realize that they are predominantly based on the achievement of quantitative objectives, e.g., in terms of amount of revenue collected, of penalties applied, or frauds detected. On the other hand, little or no use is made by African Customs of performance indicators that are more related to the evaluation of qualitative factors, such as the time taken to release goods or to process applications for access to simplified or economic procedures.

There is a growing need in Africa to develop a harmonised framework for customs performance measurement to assess, in a comparative manner, the role they play in facilitating, or rather, obstructing trade in the continent, especially now that a continental Free Trade Area has been established. This is necessary not for ranking purposes, but in order to better identify training and capacity building needs where to channel resources necessary to ensure that the AfCFTA is successfully implemented.

A few years ago, the World Customs Organisation introduced a program for measuring performance of Customs, called “Achieving Excellence in Customs (AEC) Framework, based on the monitoring of 20 indicators grouped into 4 categories. One of these categories included the assessment of their capability to facilitate trade. The trade facilitation indicators were mainly focused on measuring the progress made by these administrations in implementing WCO regulations such as the Revised Kyoto Convention or the SAFE Frameworks of Standard, as well as other trade facilitation tools recommended by this organisation, such as Time Release Studies, AEO programs or the WCO data model (a data format for coding messages concerning trade operations that are exchanged between Customs and other cross-border regulatory agencies).

Why then not to try to develop something similar for measuring the degree of use by African States of key trade facilitative procedures and tools introduced by the AfCFTA? A first indicator could be the rate of acceptance (or rejection) by customs offices of applications for access to preferential treatment under the Agreement…


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