In 1979, the Heads of State and Governments of the Member States of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) established the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme (ETLS) pursuant to the overarching objective of promoting co-operation and integration among Member States.

The aim of the ETLS was to establish a free trade area where enterprises of Member States may move goods within the ECOWAS bloc without paying duties and levies. However for so long, the operational effectiveness of the ETLS has been called to question.

The ETLS is not a myth but an operational tool for duty and quota free trade within the ECOWAS bloc, regardless of some severe challenges that still exist. Whilst a big part of the blame for the uncertainties around the scheme rests with the ECOWAS Commission and Member States, it is believed that some blame must be placed squarely on the private sector. In particular, it is noted that many intending users of the scheme either do not understand the technical requirements of the scheme or do not understand their rights when challenged by customs agencies at the various borders within the ECOWAS bloc.

It is therefore imperative that those responsible for designing and implementing the supply chain strategies within their businesses – small or large, must take urgent steps to understand the provisions of the ETLS and perhaps seek expert help when in doubt.

Furthermore, businesses who are yet to leverage the ETLS (and can do so) must begin to consider their comparative advantage over those businesses (from member States or third countries) who cannot leverage the ETLS.

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