Like every other country, the spread of COVID-19 is proving to be a double tragedy with effects on both health and economic well being. Despite taking a while to confirm its first case, which happened on 6th April 2020, the number of cases in South Sudan are growing rapidly with the count reaching 194 cases within five weeks.
The ongoing crisis is presenting particular challenges for trade and the movement of humanitarian aid.
Current Situation at Nimule-Elegu Border
Notwithstanding the fall of oil revenues and emergence and spread of the virus, formal trade flow through the main gateway of Nimule has responded positively to the formation of the transitional government of national unity. The table shows, the number of trucks cleared by customs as reported by South Sudan Customs Service.
Source: Sudan Customs Service 2020
A telephone interview with URA officer in Elegu (the Ugandan side of the border with Nimule) revealed that flow of goods to South Sudan increased in both April and May with the daily figures of vehicles cleared on the Uganda side, destined for South Sudan, in May ranging between 200-300 trucks per day.
Unfortunately, we are now seeing that, due to the coronavirus, a smaller fraction of the vehicles is allowed to enter South Sudan in a given day as screening of drivers for COVID-19 on the South Sudan’s side is slow and becoming a bottle-neck in the clearance process. This information was corroborated by an officer of the South Sudan Custom Service which confirmed that daily clearance rates have dropped to around 80-100 vehicles a day in May.
Accordingly, there is a growing number of trucks packed in Elegu as the drivers wait to be screened. As of 6th May 2020, the number of trucks waiting to cross to South Sudan was estimated to be about 1,000 trucks as per the information provided by URA and corroborated by Mr. Byron Kinene, Uganda’s Head of Lorry Drivers.
Informal cross border trading
While cargo trucks have been moving and quite frankly encouraged to operate more than ever before, both South Sudan and Uganda have been very strict in ensuring that people do not move back and forth across the border. Thus, since March 23 when Uganda closed its borders (and later followed by South Sudan), human movement between Elegu and Nimule has come to a complete standstill.
However, trade between the two point continues. A phone interview with the Chairperson of Elegu’s women Cross Border Traders’ Association (CBTA) confirmed that goods are still flowing from Elegu to Nimule on daily basis. To make is happen, the association has contracted two trucks to ferry goods from Elegu to Nimule literally every day. Traders in Nimule order and pay for goods on phone and once there are enough volumes to fill a truck, the goods are dispatched, taken across the border to be received by the Nimule Women CBTA. The two trucks and their drivers are known to both URA and SSCS officials, who have been very supportive in facilitating movement of the good across the border.
That said, the Chairperson confirmed the existence of the following challenges:
• There have to be enough orders to fill a truck for the vehicle to cross. This can cause delays and risk of goods going bad given that most of the goods traded are perishable agricultural products.
• The trucks are not free, hence the financial cost of doing business has gone up.
• Traders in Nimule use mobile money to pay their suppliers in Elegu, who have to withdraw the money at a cost, which reduces their profit margins.
• Only traders who have business networks and have contacts of traders on the other side of the border are able to continue selling across the border
• Trust between traders on the two sides of the border is an issue as nobody knows what happens on the other side of the border.
What can be done by donor partners to support trade and the movement of humanitarian assistance?
1) Help boost South Sudan’s screening capacity at the border by providing equipment, and if possible, develop a mechanism for sharing information between Uganda and South Sudan on drivers’ COVID-19 status. For instance, if a driver is tested in Uganda within a week or so, such information could be shared with South Sudan’s authorities so that the person could jump the que and not be tested again while entering South Sudan.
2) Support the smooth flow of humanitarian assistance by undertaking periodic assessments of potential Non-tariff Barriers (NTBs) along the Juba-Nimule road to ensure that emerging challenges are quickly brought to the attention of authorities including the COVID-19 HLTF
3) Undertake the follow measures to support cross-border trade within the Nimule-Elegu border:
- Establish information sharing platform so that traders have better information on what is available at a given time and at what price.
- Work with the CBTAs to develop aggregation centres/storage facilities. Only goods that meet certain agreed criteria (e.g. non-perishable like dry beans and maize) can be registered and traders on the other side can be informed as to what is in store and anyone interested can be connected with the owners to agree on price, delivery time etc.
- Work with border officials to see if special consideration can be granted to known and limited representatives of the cross-border associations to conduct periodic market assessments.
- Work with border authorities from the two sides to develop “simplified” border crossing arrangements for people who live and trade within the border communities with clear mechanisms for identification and facilitation of movement within the border.
4) Undertake regional study of the various national approaches taken by the EAC to fight the pandemic with a view of taking stock of best practices that can inform the development of a regional approach to dealing with trade in times of pandemics and other emergencies.
Charles Data Alemi heads up the Uganda office. Charles is an Economist with over ten years of experience in institutional capacity building, financial inclusion, regional integration and international trade. His interest lies in institutional development particularly, strengthening economic institutions and promoting private sector development. He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration/International Development from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; an MA in International and Human Rights from the UN University for Peace, a Bachelor’s Degree with a double major in Economics and Government from Colby College and an alumni of Nordic United World College