Tobacco and cigarettes smuggling is regarded as one of the biggest illegal businesses in Southern Africa not only for traders but also for law enforcement officers working at the border posts. Botswana has of recent been regarded as prime route for tobacco and cigarettes smuggling syndicate to Asian countries and South Africa from the north due to laxity at its border posts and weighbridges, The Patriot on Sunday has established.
Recently the Hawks in South Africa arrested 16 border police officers and three home affairs officials for allegedly assisting smugglers at the Kopfontein border between South Africa and Botswana. The arrest is an indication that the smugglers managed to pass through Tlokweng border post without any problems, exposing the rot at the border. Most of the illicit cigarettes and tobaccos come from Zimbabwe and, according to sources, in the past smugglers used ungazetted areas to smuggle the cigarettes and tobaccos but after establishing good relations with customs are now using legal entry points.
Smuggling hot spots in Botswana
An investigation by this publication has shown that Ramokgwebana border post is used mostly by smugglers. According to a truck driver who usually helps in smuggling cigarettes from Zimbabwe, they target the time when the customs officials who are part of the syndicate are on duty. “Normally cigarettes are smuggled towards lunch time or when customs are changing shifts as in most cases they will be on a rush,” said the truck driver. He said that they have to pay the officials both at Botswana and Zimbabwean side a substantial amount of money. For a 1 tonne truck one has to fork out P5000 for it to be cleared at the border, said the source that is part of the syndicate.
In Francistown, the illicit cigarettes are then divided between those destined for local markets and the South African markets, said the source. The South African consignment is then loaded in goods trucks before they pass through weighbridge in Francistown and hidden among legitimate goods. In order to beat security agents, Southern region consignment – according to sources – is dropped in Artesia village. The smuggling syndicate includes police officers who will give intelligence information, especially if there are any roadblocks. Most of the smuggling is not done during peak months especially towards holidays or end of the year as that is the time when security checks are intensified on the roads.
“In the past most trucks used the Ramotswa border as it was the easiest one for smuggling but now even the Tlokweng border can be used,” said the source, adding that the recent strike by BURS employees has made things easier for them. This publication is reliably informed that most of local dealers buy in bulk and sell mostly to street vendors and local pubs. Some of the contraband cigarettes sold include the most sought after Peter Stuyvesant, Craven A Pacific, Remington Gold, Sevyes and Derby.
This is one area where organised cigarettes and tobacco smuggling is said to be thriving as they use ungazetted areas to pass it to Botswana. The smuggled cigarettes are not only targeted for South African markets as some of them are distributed in Selibe-Phikwe and surrounding villages.
The smuggled goods are then transported to South Africa through Platjaan border post where searching is said to be very poor due to shortage of staff and resources. According to the 2014 BURS Annual Report, 54% of seizures were made at the northern border posts while South Central region recorded the lowest at 2%.
Dangers of illicit cigarettes
The 2015 World Health Organisation (WHO) has indicated that one in every 10 cigarettes and tobacco products consumed globally is illicit. According to WHO 2015 report, The World Customs Organisation recently noted a significant increase in the seized quantity of chewing tobacco from eight tonnes in 2012 to 38 tonnes in 2013. During the same period, the seized quantity of water pipe tobacco rose from 69 tonnes in 2012 to 75 tonnes in 2013.
The report reveals that the tobacco industry is in cohort with smugglers as on the surface they claim to be against cigarette smuggling while indirectly supporting the illicit trade. “While publicly opposing the illicit trade, and voicing commitment to supporting governments to fight tobacco smuggling, evidence demonstrates the tobacco industry’s active involvement in fostering illicit trade in most economies,” reads the report.
The report said that the internal tobacco industry documents show that smuggling has been part of the industry’s strategy to promote their brands, increase market share or open closed markets. In their internal strategy papers, the tobacco industry uses code words, such as “Duty Not Paid,” “Transit” or “General Trade,” to describe smuggling operations, reveals the report by WHO.
British American Tobacco responds
One of the world leading cigarettes manufacturers British American Tobacco said that basing on the independent research which was conducted in 2014, Botswana has an estimated illicit incidence of eight to 10%. “Increasingly, Botswana is seen as a transit and source market for tobacco smuggling in the SADC region. More recently, Botswana has been significantly impacted by opportunistic tobacco smuggling from neighbouring countries due to the tax differentials across the region,” reads the response from BAT.
BAT said that the illicit trade in cigarettes has a serious social impact through fraud, local and trans-national organised crime, corruption and undermining government health agenda.
They added that the evasion of tax is an unfair and criminal practice which undermines the rule of law, and represents significant revenue losses for government. At the time of going to press BURS had not responded to a questionnaire sent to them.