News had filtered from across the border that our neighbours, the Togolese Government had on June 29, 2018 demonstrated to its population and the world at large, its firm commitment to fight against illicit trade across all sectors. This news came as part of celebrations marking the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, the Government had organised a massive destruction ceremony of all products previously seized by the various agencies involved in the fight against illicit trade and circulation of illicit products.
The exercise which was conducted under the theme, “For A Balanced Approach, Let Us Together Support Preventive Actions for A Safe and Drug-resilient Youthful Population”, saw the destruction of important quantities of cocaine, cannabis, tramadol or other fake medications, illicit cigarettes, fake alcoholic products amongst others.
Sadly, illicit trade in tobacco accounts for an estimated 600 billion cigarettes per year worldwide. These illicit cigarettes have either been smuggled, counterfeited or evaded duties. The illegality thrives on the fact that cigarettes are among the most commonly traded products on the black market due to high profit margins, relative ease of production and movement, weak regulations and low detection rates and penalties.
A historical analysis of proactive measures by the Togolese Government to combat illicit trade in tobacco show that they had signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) on May 12, 2004 and this was later ratified on November 15, 2005. With the realisation that illicit trade in tobacco was an even greater problem given the security, economic and health consequences that have arisen as a result of its growth, the Government took a giant step to adopt a directive to specifically regulate the transit of tobacco products through Togo in March 2016.
Interestingly, Article 2 of this directive is very clear on the fact that any cigarette products declared as being in transit must imperatively carry the health warning clauses and other packaging and labelling requirements of the country declared as country of destination. On February 1, 2018 the FCTC Convention Secretariat announced Togo as the 35th Party to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.
At the June 29 event to mark the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, over twelve containers of illicit cigarettes (over 120 million sticks) were destroyed during this exercise organised by Togolese authorities. This included brands like YES, Bon International, Gold Seal, Force 10, Red, Legend etc. NGOs and the private sector have in the past raised several concerns regarding the growth of illicit trade in tobacco products and have continually called on firm actions to be taken in order to discourage people from gaining interest in this illegal activity.
The important seizures recorded during routine port controls and product inspections is an indication that the transit space has been increasingly used by smugglers to continue to feed illicit products into the sub-region. In effect, tobacco smugglers have found new ways of expanding their illegal activities and now focus on a trend called “cheap or illicit whites”, which is raising new challenges for governments across the sub-region. These cigarettes may be legally produced but are then smuggled and traded illegally.
As part of the general trend, products are manufactured in free trade zones like the United Arab Emirates for instance, very minimal or no taxes are paid on them and they are shipped into West Africa and declared as transit. These products which do not meet the cigarette standards in the countries declared as either transit or destination eventually never get to the “masked” destination as they are later warehoused in remote locations and sold out illegally to the population.
The good news is that the Togolese government found a very smart and innovative way to tackle the issue. Other countries like Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso have also adopted similar measures to tackle illicit trade in tobacco products.
As such, whilst leveraging on the transit directive afore-mentioned, port activities in Togo revealed that these products which were destroyed had been declared as transit for neighboring countries like Ghana, Benin, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso but did not in any way meet the cigarette standards prescribed by the authorities in these countries. It has been observed that these products generally do not reach the declared destinations as they are later dumped in markets and across land borders at very cheap prices.
It should be noted that because they are declared as transit, the required taxes are not paid on them and thus significant revenue due to be paid to Government is lost. They are later sold out at very affordable prices thereby increasing youth access to cigarette consumption. Funds derived from this illegal activity are sometimes used to fund organized crime and/or finance other criminal activities like terrorism.
The Togolese Government’s initiative to adopt and implement a tobacco transit directive and the results that have come since this was done in 2016 is a glaring confirmation that West Africa is an area chosen by tobacco smugglers to carry out their organised crime. As such, it is time for all countries in the West African sub region to implement similar measures in a bid to stamp out illicit trade in tobacco products which in turn will reduce the increased access to tobacco products occasioned by these “cheap whites.”
Major legal players of the tobacco industry in West Africa such as British American Tobacco (BAT), Philip Morris International (PMI) and Imperial Tobacco Group (ITG) have all welcomed the regulatory direction taken by the Togolese government. For the industry, they believe that an ECOWAS directive to regulate tobacco transit is the ideal way to go as far as fighting illicit trade is concerned.
With the 40th ratification of the WHO Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products which now makes it international law, following the ratification of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on 27 June 2018, it is hoped that more stringent actions will be taken to fight this phenomenon.
For Nigeria, Togo and our other West African neighbors have provided a robust and working mechanism against illicit trade that we must adopt without delay. As one of the countries most hit by insurgency, we must take up the challenge and stamp out illicit trade if we are to safeguard the economic growth of the nation.
Ogunlade is of the Centre for Promotion of Enterprise and Business Best Practices
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