The Illegal trade supplying Benin’s fuel needs

The Illegal trade supplying Benin's fuel needs
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Benin relies on a vast illegal network that smuggles petrol from Nigeria. The former French colony, with a population of almost 11 million inhabitants, located to the west of Nigeria, cannot compete with the oil prices in the neighbouring country and has insufficient service stations to cover the population’s fuel needs.

This need has given rise to a very lucrative business opportunity. Four decades ago, Beninese smugglers began buying petrol from Africa’s leading oil producer, Nigeria, and illegally transporting it to their country. The petrol sold illegally on roadside stalls, at prices lower than the service stations, now supplies the whole country’s fuel needs.

The heads of this illegal trade have, over the decades, become increasingly popular and powerful in Benin. Politicians are appointed and ousted in function of their interests and the authorities’ stance towards them is permissive, corrupt or fearful.

Women, disabled people, university students and even children are essential cogs in this illegal activity and depend on it to make a living.

They are all exposed to the noxious fumes the fuel emits, as well as to the dangers of the explosions caused by road accidents during the transportation of the fuel, accidents that have claimed hundreds of lives in recent years.

The drivers in charge of transporting the petrol by road, who typically carry dozens of litres on 100cc motorbikes, are popularly known as “human bombs”. The personal risk is high for the men travelling on the forest trails that crisscross the country, and the threat extends to all those around them when they drive through major cities in the south, such as Cotonou and Porto-Novo.

The petrol trafficking route begins in Nigeria, where Benin’s smugglers fill their tanks and jerry cans at Nigerian service stations. There are thousands of routes along the almost 800-kilometre long border that the traffickers use to take the petrol to Benin. The fuel is also carried via Lake Nokoué and the small rivers connecting Nigeria with Benin as well as clandestine sea routes in the Gulf of Guinea.

Their trips may involve crossing police checkpoints, but they are rarely stopped, not less arrested. The authorities give them free rein in exchange for small bribes, an amount usually settled on in advance with the big bosses of the illegal trade.

The smugglers distribute the petrol to their respective bosses’ customers across the country. It is a very well organised business and is governed by the Association of Importers, Transporters and Retailers of Oil Products (AITRPP), an officially registered body, despite its illegal dealings.

Joseph Midodjoho, popularly known as Oloyé, is the president of the AITRPP and plays an active role in Beninese politics. Under him are 12 departmental heads who are in charge of the country’s 77 regions. Further down in the hierarchy are the presidents of the districts, neighbourhoods and villages and, finally, the street venders.

The streets and roads of Benin are lined with petrol stalls. Everyone in the country has a friend or relative involved in some part of this illegal trade and whose family directly depends on the income derived from it.

For young people, it offers a practical way of paying for their studies, in a country with a high rate of unemployment, especially among the under thirties. It is a business that generates 105 billion CFA every year (around €160 million or US$172 million), none of which reaches the state coffers, as no taxes are paid on it. The government is caught between a rock and a hard place. Any attempt to halt the activity would face fierce public opposition (both from those who are part of the network and the customers who have become accustomed to more affordable prices), as well as depriving the whole country of its main supply of fuel.

Stability in Benin is totally dependent on this business and the people controlling it.

 

Jochua Leoto buys petrol at a Nigerian service station.

Photo: Javier Corso

Jochua Leoto, a smuggler from Towé (Benin), buys petrol at a Nigerian service station, very close to the border with the Plateau region of Benin, then takes it back to his country. The transaction takes place in naira, the currency of Nigeria, whilst one of the employees fills the jerry cans.

 

Jochua’s children load dozens of jerry cans.

Photo: Javier Corso

Jochua’s children load dozens of jerry cans into the back of the vehicle their father will use to cross the border and distribute the petrol throughout the country.

 

Ifangni River is an alternative route for smuggling illegal petrol between Nigeria and Benin.

Photo: Javier Corso

Another smuggling route used is the Ifangni River, in the Plateau region, the cradle of the illegal petrol trade between Nigeria and Benin. It is one of the shortest and safest waterways avoiding border controls. Thousands of jerry cans are unloaded and distributed among the drivers, who take charge of delivering them by road within the country.

 

Hundreds of men with motorbikes are waiting on the shore.

Photo: Javier Corso

When the merchandise arrives on Beninese soil, hundreds of men with motorbikes are waiting on the shore for the jerry cans bearing the initials of their bosses. Their first job is to identify their cans, then load and securely fasten them to their bikes.

 

Transporters drive their motorbikes loaded with jerry cans to cities and villages.

Photo: Javier Corso

The mission of these transporters known as “human bombs” is to drive their motorbikes across winding, forest paths until they reach the paved routes leading to urban centres. The slightest accident involving one of these drivers can cause hundreds of deaths in a built up area. An explosion in Cotonou, in 2006, killed almost a hundred people and injured dozens.

 

The distribution of the merchandise to roadside vendors starts.

Photo: Javier Corso

The drivers, following a pre-arranged route, distribute the merchandise to the various roadside petrol vendors.

 

Women and children occupy the last rung of the illegal petrol trade hierarchy.

Photo: Javier Corso

They are often in charge of the roadside stalls. They spread themselves out along the side of roads and paths, mainly in Benin’s towns and cities. The constant exposure to the fumes and the accidental ingestion of petrol has a devastating impact on their health.

This article has been translated from Spanish.