In the last 15 years, Mitiku (last name withheld upon request) and dealers in the Sidst Kilo neighborhood, where there is an open market every weekend, have made a living by selling imported second-hand clothing. Throughout this entire time, Mitiku has been getting the clothes from another open market known as Chereta.
At Chereta, such products are put up for auction by traders. The traders, in turn, obtain the clothing from individuals that the authorities regard as contrabandists. Mitiku was never interested in joining those at the top of the market chain because of the legal risk it poses. He has instead been reliant on supplies that he got from Chereta traders.
Now, he believes the business is too lucrative to ignore, and he is developing an interest in joining individuals who are bringing in the products through informal means, despite the fact that this practice is prohibited.
“To do it, you need a lot of money, several millions, and an extensive network in the regional administrations and their security apparatus,” he said, seemingly accepting the fact that he is only able to sell the clothing on the streets during weekends.
In his own words, the convenience and expansion of the business in recent years, the diversification of both import and export contraband items, and the enormous profits they are earning are what attracted him to the contraband trade.
However, the industry’s dense web of connections is making it challenging for him to break in. He has no choice but to only witness the rapid growth of such lucrative businesses within his circle.
The increase in inbound and outbound contraband trade has recently been the subject of intense debate among top government officials, including Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonen, who indicated that it now poses a threat to national security.
“Contraband is one of the barriers preventing us from fully utilizing our capacity and resources. Smuggling of all our resources, including human resources, is now the most serious national security threat, negatively affecting our economic, sociological, and political situations,” Demeke said a month ago.
Last week, a discussion between media professionals and officials from the Ministry of Revenue and the Ethiopian Customs Commission was held as part of the new campaign announced by the Ministry of Revenue. Much of the conference was devoted to Customs Commission officials detailing how the contraband trade has grown more rapidly than ever in recent years.
During the past eight months alone, the Commission has been successful in seizing contraband items worth almost seven billion birr. Of this total, 5.3 billion birr worth of contraband items were confiscated while being imported illegally, and 1.6 billion birr worth contraband were confiscated in the process of being illegally exported.
It is the highest amount ever recorded.
Mulugeta Beyene, deputy commissioner of the Commission’s legal compliance section, detailed how contraband activities have evolved and continue to pose a security concern to the country.
The Commission confiscated illicit goods worth a billion birr four years ago, two billion birr the following year, and three billion birr two years ago. Mulugeta revealed that four billion birr worth of contraband was captured last year.
Figures provided by Commission officials illustrate how dramatically the contraband is rising, just four months before the current fiscal year ends.
During the course of his presentation, the Deputy Commissioner shared that the main corridors used for smuggling either into or out of the country at large. He made the accusation that the regional governments were not being sufficiently steadfast in their oversight of the activities.
The eastern part of Ethiopia, including the Somali region and Dire Dawa, is believed to be the country’s main corridor for contraband trade, with over a thousand kilometers of border in the area. The other corridor runs through southern Ethiopia, bordering the Oromia and Southern regions.
Agricultural products are smuggled out of Ethiopia through the Shashemene, Hawassa, and Moyale corridors, while electronic items are smuggled into the country along the same routes, as detailed by Mulugeta.
Contraband has a different form in the Amhara and Tigray regions of northern Ethiopia, as there is a high rate of firearms traveling around through contraband, which the Commission’s officials explained is more dangerous. Minerals and agricultural products are smuggled in this area as well.
It was unusual for a government official to criticize other state offices for allegedly refusing to assist the Commission in curbing unlawful trade. But the Deputy Commissioner laid the blame on the Regional Officers for their lack of commitment to cooperating with the Commission in preventing contraband activities.
“With all the security forces in the regions, the contraband trade proliferates. There hasn’t been any commitment among the regions, and there is an unwillingness from the security forces to make sure the rule of law is respected,” he said.
Narcotics, cigarette goods, clothing, electronics materials, drugs, food and beverages including the expired ones, cars and spare parts, individual or group firearms, bombs, cash, and minerals have all been confiscated by the Commission while unlawfully entering Ethiopia. Mulugeta explained that nearly everything, including humans, is smuggled out of Ethiopia. This may also include legally imported items such as petroleum, that are then sold in neighboring nations.
Exportable commodities such as Khat, oilseeds, pulses, and even coffee from Ethiopia are recently being smuggled out to neighboring countries, only to be exported from these countries later, as admitted by key government officials.
The mining industry is another important contributor to the unlawful contraband operations, which is to blame for the decline in Ethiopia’s export performance this year. “The hard currency Ethiopia gets from minerals is shrinking over time because it is highly susceptible to contraband,” Mulugeta added.
Contraband movements largely occur late at night, with an unlawful support group of youths known as “Abri” roaming with the merchandise. They escort the products by bribing security officials or even utilizing federal police emergency vehicles such as ambulances, according to the deputy commissioner.
Despite the authorities’ ambition to prevent smuggling, getting involved in the wider scale of the illicit trade, on the other hand, is a far-reaching desire for Mitiku and several others who are keenly interested.