The Customs Commissioner has pleaded with Parliament to provide a political solution for a nationwide web of illicit trading that implicates regional administrations, the federal police, judicial officials, and customs and intelligence officers as well as the military.
Commissioner Debele Kabeta told MPs on December 6, the illicit trade of minerals and other commodities has “spread beyond the capacity of the government and federal police.”
The Commissioner said contraband mining has become a source of funding for armed groups.
“It requires a solution from higher levels of government. I’m telling you frankly: I have exhausted myself on contraband,” said Debele.
He suggested the establishment of a separate security force to fight contraband trade in the mining sector.
Illicit trade and smuggling are flourishing in hotspots in west and south Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, Tigray, and Gambella. A variety of minerals, including gold, are smuggled out of the country via formal and informal routes known as ‘black roads.’
The Commissioner alleges that while the illegal trade networks have their own security forces guarding these ‘black roads’, they are also afforded protection from various government institutions.
Debele says illicit traders send the commodities to subsidiaries abroad.
“Whenever illegal traders are caught, government officials pressure the Customs Commission to release them and the commodities seized with them,” the Commissioner told MPs. “There are scenarios where our agents are imprisoned for apprehending illegal traders.”
The Commissioner revealed that illicit trade in khat (among the country’s most valuable export commodities) is also out of control. He alleges regional administrations have rebuffed the Commission’s efforts to combat the contraband khat trade, claiming no jurisdiction.
“The Somali Regional State, in particular, requires serious attention. Regional states and governments provide protection to illicit traders. When they are detained, officials scramble to release them. They work together — it’s hand-in-glove,” he said.
Export revenues from khat and minerals like gold have nosedived over the last year.
During a speech at the Mintex Expo a couple of weeks ago, the Prime Minister scolded mining companies and officials for the slowdown.
“You cannot keep using conflict to excuse the mining sector’s poor performance,” said the PM. “Conflict will continue. You must improve the mining sector performance under any circumstance.”
Well-placed sources told The Reporter that senior military officers, officials at the Ministry of Mines, as well as in regional administrations, are behind the grand contraband scheme that interfaces with both licensed and unlicensed miners.
The network has significant potential to influence the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, according to the sources.
Military officers exploit armed conflict as cover for the contraband business, the sources allege.
The Commissioner told lawmakers the illicit trade networks possess technologies that customs agents do not. Debele revealed the Commission has been requesting the procurement of fast vehicles, tracking devices, and surveillance equipment, among others, for years.
“We presented our requests in detail several times – twice already this year,” he said. “The Ministry of Finance is not responding – not so much as a bicycle has been provided to the Customs Commission. Our employees are fighting the contraband trade barehanded and on foot.”
Parliamentarians acknowledged the issues.
“We’ve seen Customs agents who were wounded while engaged with contraband traders. Some government employees have also lost their lives,” said Desalegn Wodaje, chair of Parliament’s standing committee for Budget, Finance and Planning.
Desalegn revealed past incidents where customs requested insurance coverage before going out into the field.
“They told us they can no longer risk their lives without insurance coverage,” he said.
The Customs Commission reports seizing export contraband valued at close to 1.5 billion birr over the last four months, and another 3.2 billion birr in goods destined for markets in the country.
The Commission and the Ministry of Revenues report the retrieval of 40 billion birr from investigation audits, under-invoicing, post-clearance audits, and export audits over the first quarter. It is a sharp increase from the 26.6 billion birr registered over the same period last year.
“The contraband we are seizing is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Debele.