Clearing goods from sea ports in Africa and most especially from the seaport located in the economic capital of Cameroon, Douala, can take many weeks. Such delays are definitely disastrous to the economy of Cameroon as well as to the economy of other central African states like Chad and the Central Africa Republic, who also benefit from the seaport in Douala.
According to a study conducted by the Douala based Atanga Law Office, over 50% of total land transport time from seaports to hinterland cities in landlocked countries is wasted at the sea ports. This is so because trying to clear goods from the sea ports has become a painful process mired with a lot of challenges.
Averagely, it is very difficult to reduce cargo dwell time at the Douala seaport in Cameroon. Planners at the Douala seaport set an objective of 7 days at the end of the 1990s, for goods to be cleared from the port in question, but it still takes 18 days to clear goods from this seaport, notwithstanding real improvements for some shippers.
What is the cause of such a quagmire? It is argued that the private sector, which includes customs brokers, owners of container depots, shippers, as well as terminal operators, all have an interest in reducing dwell time. But such a move is slowed down by big government represented by the Ministry of Finance including the centralised customs administration. Customs procedures which could have been handled in Douala still need to get approval from the Ministry of Finance and General Customs Administration sitting in the political capital, Yaoundé. One would have thought that issues concerning the seaport of Douala should have been decentralised. But this is not the case.
In as much as most of the blame goes to large government, the private sector is also partly responsible for such long delays. The research from Atanga Law office also confirms that low logistics skills as well as cash restrictions explain why most importers have no reason to curb cargo dwell time; because in most cases, it would increase their input costs. Additionally, conflict of interests may strengthen rent-seeking behaviours among controlling agencies, intermediaries and shippers. Similarly, some terminal operators gain a lot financially, by providing storage facilities. Customs brokers do not bother to curb long delays at the Douala seaport since the importer bears the brunt of the inefficiency and which is eventually shared by the consumer.
This research also adds that companies may utilise long delays at seaports as a strategy to prevent competition. Such a move acts as a strong impediment for international traders. Delays at the Douala seaport may also be considered a means to sustain rent generation for some shippers.
Such a precarious situation implies that the government of Cameroon needs to re-think its intervention strategies. One of such ways is to further decentralise the Customs administration, which will go a long way in curbing administrative bottlenecks, as well as corruption.
The Customs administration may also consider investing in additional storage facilities so as to curb congestion at the seaport. If facilities at the seaports are increased and existing ones maintained, then curbing delays can be checked so that international traders are not discouraged in trading with Cameroon and parts of central African states like Chad and the Central Africa Republic.
The private sector also has to show a sign of maturity by encouraging international traders continue to trade with Cameroon, as well as other parts of central Africa, via the port of Douala. Reducing conflict of interests may be one of the ways of creating a favourable environment for fewer delays at the Douala seaport.