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Nigerian customs officials blame complexity of the ETLS scheme for low levels of trade

18 February 2013

According to Nigerian customs officials cited in media reports in July 2012, there is ‘no barrier hindering free trade between Nigeria and other West African states aside from the lack of understanding’ of the ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme (ETLS). The ETLS allows for free trade in goods originating in ECOWAS member states, provided they are registered with ECOWAS. While the ETLS was seen as complex, Nigerian customs officials did acknowledge that some customs officials ‘were over-stepping their boundaries by imposing charges which discourage free trade and economic development’.

This followed complaints from the Ghanaian Trade Minister, Hanna Tetteh, in an article that cited ‘random road blocks, entrenched bribery and bloated tariffs along the Ghana-Togo-Benin-Nigeria corridor’, which it was held were ‘seriously affecting the achievement of the ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme. Ms Tetteh maintained that the absence of effective implementation of the agreed ETLS was ‘costing the sub-region millions of dollars in trade foregone’.

In a similar vein, however, traders from other West African countries have complained of import duties ranging from 5 to 20% charged by the Ghanaian customs authorities, alongside a range of other levies and fees.

These comments also need to be seen in the context of a further press report suggesting that the vast majority of Nigerian non-oil exports to ECOWAS countries are not formally recorded, alongside concern and commitment on the part of the Nigerian government to increase the percentage of trade taking place through formal channels. 

Editorial comment

According to a World Bank Policy Note in March 2012 entitled ‘Removing barriers to trade between Ghana and Nigeria: Strengthening regional integration by implementing ECOWAS commitments’, the degree of regional integration in West Africa has lagged behind expectations, with many political commitments either not translated into policy and regulatory reforms, or agreed reforms not being implemented. While trade integration in West Africa is still a work in progress, it is worth noting that a very large part of the regional agricultural trade is still informal and therefore official figures greatly underestimate the scale of this trade.

Tariff barriers remain in place either where restrictive rules of origin are applied or where the ETLS is seen to be too cumbersome to be utilised. In addition, as highlighted by Ghana’s Trade Minister Hanna Tetteh, substantial non-tariff barriers to trade remain. This is the case even in areas where regional guidelines have been established (e.g. on the harmonisation of axle-load regulations, where varying interpretations of the ECOWAS guidelines effectively result in the persistence of non‐harmonised axle weight limits within the region).

The delays faced in reaching a final agreement on the ECOWAS CET further complicate the situation, with divergent national tariff schedules being applied. This in turn complicates efforts to harmonise the ECOWAS and WAEMU trade regimes. The World Bank has further suggested that transport quotas ‘which reserve two-thirds of loads to landlocked countries for trucks from those countries’, further increase the costs of trade.


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