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Satellites Help Cameroon Track Illegal Trading

Cameroon is an economic hub for Central Africa. Its lone port in Douala handles practically all import and export traffic for the country as well as for landlocked neighbors Chad and Central African Republic.

But the manual tracking of goods in transit through the country and across its borders has been a tricky job for the customs department. Much of it is illegally diverted back into local markets, causing unfair competition. When items are redirected to the black market, the government loses revenue in the form of taxes. So the country is installing an improved tracking method -- the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Hundreds of cargo trucks carrying imported goods leave the Douala port daily, destined for local markets and those in neighboring countries. Merchandise heading for Chad and the Central African Republic benefit from customs duty exemptions. Their importers pay a small fee, refundable once it's proven the cargo has reached its final destination.

Present Procedures Poor

Over the years, the tracking of imported merchandise along the transit corridors between Douala, Ndjamena and Bangui has been operated manually. But customs officials say the reporting system is so bad they get feedback on less than half the operations.

They blame communications lapses and long distances between checkpoints. They say dishonest importers re-route goods back to local markets. No duty is paid on them because they haven't crossed a border. Businessmen who don't pay duties have an unfair advantage because they can charge less than those who do. But the situation is about to change.

The government is installing the GPS to trace the route taken by cargo trucks once they leave the Douala port. GPS is a tracking device attached to moving objects like vehicles, ships, trucks and even people. The system allows the user to know the precise location of the unit carrying the GPS such as a truck. The system shows the location in real time by transmitting the location of a shipment to a central data base through radio, Internet or satellite connections. The exact location of the object can be displayed on a map using customized software.

Global positioning systems are not new. They've been in use for over three decades in a number of sectors including transport, the military, wildlife control, sports, espionage and surveillance.

GPS -- Good New Start

The general manager of the Cameroon customs department, Linette Li Likeng Libot, says the move is ground-breaking. Libot says the system will make it possible to instantly pinpoint cargo trucks anywhere in the country and see if they leave Cameroon with their load. She says customs officials in the landlocked countries depending on the Douala port for access to world markets have been complaining they don't get all the goods declared at the port.

Cameroonian customs officials say they'll also use the new tracking system to curb transit delays and resolve disputes with importers. They often accuse police, gendarmes and customs agents at remote checkpoints of demanding bribes from cargo truck drivers.

"We will secure the goods on transit better," says customs official Edwin Fongod. "We will be able to visualize goods as they move across the country and across the borders. It will be possible for the importer himself to track and know what is happening to the goods as they're moving. Lastly, there'll be a reduction of the bottlenecks. You know there are lots and lots of controls and because of these, there are delays and cries from all angles."

The installation of the Global Positioning System is one of many reforms aimed at boosting trade in the six-member Economic and Monetary Community, CEMAC. Critics say the reforms have been slow.

Donors are funding the rehabilitation and construction of inter-state trade corridors – both road and rail -- while linking up customs departments. A single passport to facilitate freer movement of people in the region will be introduced next year.