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Friday, April 26, 2013

Fuel smuggling in Nigeria, Benin and Togo: an intractable illicit trade

In Nigeria, nearly 150, 000 barrels of petrol are pilfered each day out of a daily production estimated at two million barrels, in order to feed the illicit trade towards Benin and Togo. The authorities in these three countries have been taking measures to do away with the phenomenon, but in vain. The petrol business in the informal sector seems to have resisted every therapy and continues, in full swing, with its share of consequences : fire outbreaks loss of human lives, money making and blunders by the security and control forces, losses to the national economy, pollution of the environment, etc.

Petroleum products, particularly petrol, in one, two, five, ten or twenty-litre bottles, are displayed on tables or wooden or metal shelves along almost every road in the cities or along trunk roads in Benin and Togo. The illicit sales points of petrol in the informal sector are recognized either by  an empty can on which the price is indicated, or by a funnel hooked on a pole or a bottle placed on a piece of block. To serve customers, the content of the bottles is poured out into the tanks of motorcycles or vehicles with improvised funnels, all in the open. Stocks of “kpayo” or “boudè” (Editor’s note: local name in Benin and Togo for illegally sold fuel), meant for sale are stored in cans, kept in the wreckage of vehicles, under a shed or a clump of leaves and in privies in houses, thus protecting them from any police intervention, but all this in the full knowledge of everyone especially the police, the gendarmerie and customs, and even the authorities in charge of the fight against illicit sale of fuel.

At the Benin-Togo border of Sanvee-Condji, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, there is a little village of fuel smugglers within the border’s “no man’s land”.  It is from there that most of the Togolese retail-wholesalers and retailers of this trade procure their supply of products coming from Benin or Nigeria. At Hilla-Condji, another border village which extends on both the Benin and Togo sides of the border, what is immediately striking is the sight of bottles, empty or filled with fuel, arranged on tables along the national trunk road, N2. In spite of the official ban by the Togolese authorities, the sale of adulterated fuel remains the main commercial activity of the inhabitants in the village. It thrives so well, it is the mainstay of several families. In nearly every compound in the village there is at least one person who is into this smuggle business. They are mostly unemployed young people, as well as school pupils and women. Though many of them admit that the sector is no longer as profitable currently as compared with the 1900s, they are however not ready to give it up for anything. A Togolese head of family told us that his life is steeped in this business. “With this activity I take care of the education of my three children, I own a house which I have leased out and many more other assets”. The trade has completely won over several youths and even adults who have taken to it, against all odds. In some Togolese towns such as Aného, which is 45km east of Lomé, the illicit fuel trade is the second activity after the operation of motorcycle taxis. The Director General of Togo’s oil and gas sector, Mèba Léopold SIAH reckons that “most of the young people who take to this business argue that it is because they are unemployed”.

Given that this product is known for being highly inflammable if not sold in the appropriate conditions, there have been frequent cases of fire outbreaks. In January 2009, an accident involving motor-tricycles carrying adulterated petrol which occurred in traffic in Cotonou caused a blaze which claimed four deaths, several serious injuries and considerable loss of property. On September 7, 2009 at Missérété, a town 45 km north-east of Cotonou, a dealer who in broad daylight was transporting eight 50-litre cans filled with smuggled petrol was hit by a vehicle. As he fell he brought down two motorcycle taxi riders. The explosion of the cans of petrol caused a fire. Result: three bodies were charred before the local people who looked on, powerless and scandalized.   

Origin and trend

Tragedies of the type are frequent in Benin and Togo, countries in West Africa, neighbors of Nigeria, a big oil producer, from where the fraudulent trade in hydrocarbons is organized. Zinsou Hounsou, in his sixties, an illicit fuel retailer since the beginnings of the trade in the village of Adjarra, a commune along the border with Nigeria and about 40 km east of Cotonou, explains that it was the end of the Biafran war in Nigeria (a conflict which occurred between July 6, 1967 and January 15, 1970) which marked the beginning of illicit sale of petroleum products. In fact, as Pascal Kossou, a historian, noted, “the then government of Nigeria, in its desire to satisfy certain social demands and contribute to the strengthening the peace after the war, decided to subsidize petroleum products meant for local consumption”. However, he goes on, “given that Nigeria’s borders with her neighbouring countries are for the most part porous, a certain quantity of this susidized fuel finds its way through fraudulent means into the neighbouring countries such as Benin where a litre of petrol is more expensive at the filling stations”. Hence, he explains, , “the rush of consumers towards this source of supply, despite the risks involved, both  for health, the environment as well as the engines of the motorcycles and vehicles served”.

Indeed, currently a litre of petrol is sold officially in Benin at 675 CFA F (that is about 1.35 dollars) in the filling stations, while it is sold on the informal market at 435 CFA F (that is  about  0.87 dollars) in Cotonou and surrounding areas. The closer one gets to the border towns and villages the lower the price of the litre, which moves towards 400 CFA F (that is about 0.79 dollars). In Togo, the ex pump price of petrol is 595 CFA F (US$1.19) per litre ; on the black market, the price varies between  575 CFA F (US$1.15) and 450 CFA F (US$ 0.9) as one goes towards the Benin border.

As a matter of fact, “it is the relatively low price of the litre of these petroleum products in Nigeria which encourages their being smuggled towards neighbouring countries in the sub region such as Benin and Togo”, reckons Omoba Olanrewaju of the company “Samatex Petroleum”, an oil consultancy firm based in Lagos. “Take for instance diesel which is highly patronised in the sub-region”; at a time when it was US$ 1.21per litre in Benin, it was being sold for 0.77 dollars in Nigeria. Even the litre of petrol which is being sold in Nigeria at 0.60 dollars per litre since January 2012, is the cheapest in the sub-region. This development has therefore encouraged the cross-border smuggling of petrol and other petroleum products between Nigeria and her neighbours”, explains Olanrewaju. Sagir Musa, Commander of the joint (Army/Police) force which ensures the security of the oil region of the Niger Delta, added: “more than 900 illegal refineries were discovered and destroyed, and dozens of small craft transporting petrol were arrested in July last year”. Austine Oniwon, former Director-General of the National Petroleum Corporation (from May 2010 to June 2012) confirms that “all the products are illegally sent to the neighbouring countries such as Benin by sea or by road because of the higher value of the currency in those countries as compared with the Niara, the local currency”.

Steal and sell fuel, to survive

Several nongovernmental organisations such as Amnesty International attribute this illegal activity to poverty which is rampant in the Niger Delta, the oil producing region constituted by seven States. More than 70% of the 35 million inhabitants of this region are poor, according to data for the year 2011 obtained from the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics and confirmed by Amnesty International. Yet, the region is the main crude oil production zone of Nigeria. Present in the country since the 1950s, some western multinational oil extracting companies, in collusion with Nigerian politicians, have been exploiting oil deposits without any regard for their commitments to the communities which are forced to live in their villages polluted by oil wastes discharged by the companies on unauthorised sites, without road infrastructure or sanitary facilities. Thus, in order to make ends meet and survive, inhabitants of the regions take to sabotaging pipelines to steal the oil. Clandestine refineries have been set up all over the Niger delta region. Notable also is the upsurge in the activities of pirates who hijack oil tankers and sell the content in the neighbouring countries.

Recently, the police at Sango-Ota, a settlement in the Ogun state, 60 kilometers from Lagos carried out a raid against a syndicate of petrol smugglers. The forceful raid, which resulted from tip-offs given by the inhabitants of the area, led to the arrest of ten persons and the discovery of two hundred 50-litre cans filled with petrol. Funmilayo Oke, the only woman among the suspects arrested, quickly confessed: “tankers come in the night to deliver petrol; we mix the fuel with chemical products used in making hair pomade; we have customers who come from Benin to buy it at 2.000 naira (12.50 dollars) for a 50-litre can; we normally meet in the Idiroko forest (an entry point between Nigeria and Benin, Editor’s note)”. 

Supply to Benin’s informal market is done by land and by sea. Gustave Avocèvou, who holds a Master’s degree in the Arts, is a former employee of a Beninese wholesale importer of illicit fuel, is now self-employed retail-wholesaler in the town of Banigbé east of Porto Novo (about  40 km east of  Cotonou) ; he describes the supply channel from Nigeria. According to Gustave who retails the supply by land, there are several supply sources in Nigeria : there are exporters to Benin who buy the product by tankers from filling stations in Nigeria; there are those who fraudulently obtain it at the official refineries; there are others who obtain their supplies from clandestine refineries which exist all over Nigeria (these clandestine refineries siphon the crude oil from the pipelines or simply operate their own  wells on land, then refine the crude product). All these clandestine exporters to Benin send the fuel to several depots located along the Benin-Nigeria border. Benin importers then send vehicles normally without number plates (there are clandestine transporters who have specialised in this type of transport) to take delivery of the products, often deep in the night, and by bush tracks well known to the gendarmes and customs officials in the border zones, who let them go scot free, since they “have been taken good care of” by the said importers.

Once the supply is brought to Beninese territory, it follows the following channel till it gets to the consumer: dealer importer – transporters – wholesalers – retail-wholesalers – retailers – consumers. When one takes the example of the different clandestine depots located at Igolo, a Nigerian village on the southern border with Benin, most of the stocks from the area known as “BB” in Nigeria are discharged there. There the following itinerary is followed: Igolo – Ifangni – Lagbè – Takon – Missérété – Porto Novo. Another itinerary is as follows: Igolo – Banigbé – Chaada – Avrankou – Porto Novo. From there, part of the stock is sent to Cotonou and other towns in the hinterland by land or along the waterways, in the full knowledge of the fraud squad, customs officers and the gendarmerie. Yet another itinerary which serves Cotonou passes through  Médédjonou, a storage area in the village of  Louho (not far from Novo which overlooks the lagoon ; from there, large motorboats convey the product to landing bays at Ladji (in Cotonou, near the Saint Cecilia Church in the suburb of  Ahouansori) or those of Abomey Calavi. The sell off at this last stage is what serves the sales points along the Cotonou-Bohicon highway.

Supply by land and by sea

Another land route is by motor tricycles manned by physically challenged traffickers or by intercity transport. They cross the border post at Sèmè Kraké (a coastal border town in the south) and obtain their supplies from the filling stations at the Nigerian side. Once the tank which is specially made bigger is filled they return to deliver the content to their retail customers on the Benin side. They make several round trips each day. Christian Agossou, a retailer at Sèmè Kraké, told us in confidence that he has been living on this activity for more than ten years. These sources also supply retain-wholesalers who leave the Nigerian town of Badagry, cross the border, take canoes which cruise along River Ouémé (a branch of which flows through that zone) up to the Porto Novo lagoon before delivering to the retailers.

 Users of the international highway between Cotonou and Malanville (a Beninese town on the border with Niger) are also served with fuel by the informal market. The import and distribution channels are practically the same all along the border up to the north of Benin. Issaou Amadou is a retailer at the side of the main road at Toui, a village about 300 km north of Cotonou. “Nearly all of us, the youths of this village, live on this fuel trade activity because agriculture is too hard and we do not have agricultural machines”, he volunteered. Kègnidé Allagbé whom we met at Savé, a community on the Nigerian border, about 350 km north of Cotonou in the central part of Benin, has been engaged in this trade for nearly fifteen years. With perfect calm, he told us that he gives free supplies to a member of the security forces in the zone and with that he is left alone, right from when he picks up his supply at the border, to his sales depot, up to retail level at the road side along the international highway. The deal is also carried out by foot or bicycle, by farmers along the Benin-Nigeria border.

The other major source of supply is by sea. In this case it is ships belonging to Nigerian shippers who divert on the sea petrol refined in Nigeria and meant for export, and sell it to Beninese or Togolese wholesalers who go and pick up their supplies with large motor boats loaded with 200-litre drums. In Benin, the cargo finds its way across the maritime borders and is off-loaded onto the banks of the lagoon in Cotonou or landing points at Abomey Calavi, to feed the informal channels. “The dealers who come for their supplies at the seaside sources are sometimes surprised by Nigerian coast guards who make them pay or who sometimes seize the small boats already loaded”, explains a big sea-supplied importer who lives in the suburb of Akpakpa in Cotonou, and spoke on condition of anonymity.

A big moneymaker

According to investigations conducted on the illicit fuel trade in December 2005 by “Action Sociale” (a Beninese nongovernmental organization), about 80% of consumers buy from the informal market. A report from an extraordinary meeting of the Beninese Cabinet on this illicit trade which was held on Friday November 2, 2012 states that there is a “predominance of the informal market which supplies more than 90% of the petroleum sector”. Claude Allagbé, Director General of internal trade promotion (of the Beninese Ministry of trade) reckons that “the petrol sold in the informal sector accounts for at least seven times the level of sales in the duly accredited filling stations”. Taking into consideration the sales figures of the said accredited station (based on statistics from Benin’s Ministry of Trade) estimated at about 2.5 million litres per month, Claude Allagbé reckons that « more than 17million litres of fuel are introduced every month into Benin by fraudulent means, which is more that 200 million litres a year”.

If this illicit trade still goes on, it is because those involved are making gains on the one hand, while the authorities in charge of fighting it have given up, by being passive or through complicity on the other. As a matter of fact, according to the above-mentioned report of an investigation conducted by the Beninese NGO “Action Sociale” in December 2005, on the illicit fuel trade, a retail-wholesaler sells on average 1100 litres per day, with a daily profit margin of 25.800 CFA F, that is about 52 dollars a day, while a retailer sells about 400 litres a day, with a profit margin of 2500 CFA F, that is about 5 dollars a day. Furthermore, when one takes into account the official estimates which present Benin’s informal market as taking up between  80 to 90% of the consumption, the quantity of fuel fraudulently sold in Benin thus varies between 200 and 300 million litres per annum. When one takes into account the average consumer price of the litre, the annual turn over of the illicit trade in Benin would therefore be approaching 150 billion CFA F, which is about 300 million US dollars.

In Togo, as in Benin, the drastic drop in the sale of fuel at the legal filling stations is most striking. With regard to the losses, this illegal sale caused accredited dealers in petroleum products more than 60 billion CFA F (that is about 120 million US dollars) during 2011, indicated a source close to the Bulk Oil storage Company of Togo  (STE). The smuggling of fuel also caused a fall in customs revenue and created unemployment due to the drop in ex pump sales. As a matter of fact, the customs post stationed at the Lome Oil refinery which was recording monthly revenue close to 4 billion CFA F (that is 8 billion US Dollars) is now recording exponential losses. During October 2012, the fall was estimated to be close to 900 million CFA F (that is 1. 8 million US Dollars).

It is clear that this business is a big moneymaker and one can therefore understand the lack of zeal, the apparent weakness and the slow nature of the fight against the phenomenon for years now. Gustave Avocèvou explained this by pointing out that his former boss, who was one of the major importers, was even supplying fuel to vehicles belonging to the police, customs and the gendarmerie which came to his depot in the night. He even noted that customs officials get paid for favors to let the goods through. Attempts to get the gendarmes or customs officials at the Benin-Nigeria border posts to confirm this assertion proved futile. However an officer at Igolo confided, under condition of anonymity, why and how he and his colleagues are no longer bothered about this type of fraud: “when we arrest a product fraudulently brought into Beninese territory, we receive a percentage on the value of the fraud and the penalties; but since the fuel importation by this route is banned, it is difficult to apply the laws in force and there is no point in tracking the smugglers”. That certainly explains why the few rare stocks of fuel illegally brought into Beninese territory which are impounded by the National Commission for restructuring of the internal markets of petroleum products (CONAMIP)  are not sold like other impounded goods, but rather assigned to meet the needs of some units of the police or the gendarmerie. Claude Allagbé, Director General in charge of the promotion of internal trade, seemed to confirm this position when he acknowledged that “the laws on combating fraud related to petroleum products, while sufficiently repressive, need some tidying up all the same, so as to adapt them to the current needs of the fight against fraud”.

Customs “doesn’t see anything”

This customs official who asked to speak on condition of anonymity thus concluded by observing that it is profitable for him and his colleagues to  “negotiate” with the smugglers, but for their benefit and not for the benefit of the state’s coffers. Certainly, he added, “the revenue from the negotiation with the smugglers goes up to the top, to the bosses”. In any case,  the major import and export dealers are known ; they are only a dozen but are left untouched because they are protected by politicians”, said with some regret an official of  Sonacop (Benin National Hydrocarbons Marketing Company) whose business is being weighed down by the negative effects of this trafficking. As a matter of fact, one of the “kingpins” of the trafficking was elected as member of the National Assembly in the 3rd and 4th National Assemblies, on the list of one of the country’s main parties (currently in opposition) and whose stronghold is in the south-eastern region of Benin. It is in fact this region which is the buffer zone through which the greater part of the smuggling is done. Still in this region, the current presidential majority presented on one of its lists during the elections to the National Assembly in 2011 another big time smuggler. The latter narrowly missed (by just a few dozen votes) being elected member of the National Assembly. J.N., a cousin of Gustave Avocèvou who works for another major smuggler recounts that “sometimes when the retail price shoots up in the informal market in Benin, without an increase in the ex pump price in Nigeria, it is because a margin is collected in a matter of a few days and a paid to the authorities who protect the smuggling business”.

The smugglers are thus covered. They are also protected by the communities who give them their support during electoral contests. Indeed, these “delinquents” of the petroleum fraud are also engaged in social actions. They build schools and health centres, contribute towards the payment of school fees for the children in their town, take part in the rehabilitation of rural feeder roads, give microcredit to the very poor for income generating activities, etc. All in all, it is a social investment, to ensure they are covered. This perhaps partly explains the failure of various control measures carried out so far. Certainly, the fight against trade in adulterated petrol received a further boost from the attempt by Conamip when operations to combat and eliminate the trade degenerated into a riot on August 18, 2004 at Porto Novo. The house of the then Minister of Trade, Fatiou Akplogan, was nearly burnt down. Instead of going ahead with the fight, Conamip started sensitization activities through advertising spots on radio and television channels about the harm associated with this activity.

When the government of Boni Yayi came on the scene in 2006, fiscal measures were taken to reduce the price of fuel to the lowest possible level; yet the problem remained. The government did not give up, however. It took tax relief measures on imports of building materials for small filling stations. . However some operators simply closed shop; others rejected any proposal to expand their network; still others, though they had received the approval, refused to set up, for fear of the poor sales. The accredited operators are no longer willing to take risks so long as the authorities will not take bold measures to effectively combat the illicit sale of petroleum products which have once more taken over pavements and road sides since the state is giving the impression of having thrown in the towel in the wake of strong pressures from the Kpayo lobbyists. In fact, in Benin, most of the “pavement stations” or “pavement pumps” stopped functioning over a year ago.

Realism and powerlessness of the authorities

In February 2012, President Boni Yayi held a meeting with consumer association at the Presidential Palace. On that occasion, the issue of the fight against “kpayo” was raised once again; all in vain. Still no effective  solution was found. It is clear that the Beninese President who made this fight one of his main concerns had to go it easy. As a politician, it certainly dawned on him how complicated it was to stop an activity which employs about 50.000 people (according to estimates given by consumer associations) and which feeds nearly five times more mouths. Observations and on-the-spot-interviews held in the regions where this activity is carried out revealed that this illicit activity attracts jobless graduates, frustrated agricultural producers, artisans with no support, etc. It there for helps to reduce the unemployment rate (both among adults and youths), delinquency, insecurity, etc. A look at the sales points, an observation of those involved help to note that the operators of this trade use labor made up mostly of children and young school drop-outs. The latter also set up very early on their own. Thus, it easy to understand that this activity helps those without any occupations to avoid being idle and be able to pay for basic needs. This enables them to avoid falling into the trap of vices. The trade in adulterated petrol has led to the birth and development of certain activities: manufacture of tricycles by artisans (a vehicle which enables the physically challenged to engage in the illicit trade in adulterated petrol), transporters, etc.

Fuel smuggling which would simply not go away

Section 23 of Togo’s Law 66-22 of December 23, 1966 pertaining to the Customs Code provides that “all goods of which the importation or exportation is …subject to restrictions, rules of quality or packaging or to peculiar formalities shall be identified as prohibited”. Adulterated fuel is part of prohibited goods. Thus, based on this regulatory text, customs officials and other bodies deploy means for combating trade in it. On March 25, 2009, the then Minister for Security and Civil Defence,  Colonel Atcha Mohamed TITIKPINA, in order to combat this scourge, set up the operational mechanism code-named “ OPERATION FUNNEL”  at the end of a meeting which brought together around him his colleague of the Trade Ministry, authorities of the National Police, the National Gendarmerie, the National Navy, the Army, Customs and various partners namely dealers in petroleum products and officials from the ministries of trade, finance and security. In connection with the fight against this illicit trade, the various units of the security forces received specific assignments. The National Police is charged with combating the trafficking in urban zones. It set up a standing team at the Bulk Oil Storage Company of Togo (STE) in order to keep surveillance over the loading and carry out verification of the destination of petroleum products. National Gendarmerie, on its part, is charged with combating the trafficking in rural, urban zones and along the sea front, in support of the Navy which in its case is responsible for combating it over the maritime space. The Army fights against the trafficking along the land borders. The last unit, Customs, deals with the suppression of the smuggling at the various entry points and at the “check-points” anywhere within Togolese territory. The coordination group of this operation is made up of an officer from each of the above-mentioned units.

Due to the lack of material and financial resources, this operation had to be put on hold. However, in October 2010, the ministers Atcha Titikpina of security and Kokou Gozan of trade, reactivated the operation, not only because of the proportion the trafficking was assuming but also and more especially because of the damage to property and human life being caused by the fires provoked by illicitly stored fuel. In fact, since the launching of operation “FUNNEL” the security forces recorded at least 15 cases of fires which caused dozens of deaths and more than 67 seriously injured. In 2011, the National anti terrorist Brigade (BNIR), a border unit, recorded the seizure of 703, 305 litres of fuel (petrol and diesel) in connection with the fight against the illicit trafficking. As at November 12, 2012, the total of petroleum products seized was 330.264 litres. Yet these figures which are the result of a joint action carried out by customs, the police, the navy and the Togolese Armed forces (FAT) are far from the reality. According to the Commander of the BNIR, Agoro MEDJESSIRIBI, “these quantities of fuel which were impounded are insignificant compared with the flux of adulterated fuel observed on the market. These amounts account for a fifth or tenth of what is really in circulation”.  A total figure for seizures for the year 2012 is not known but a quick comparison between these two figures shows that the total for 2012 could be lower than that of 2011. This is proof that the fight is still not effective and that the traffickers are using strategies which are yet to be detected by the forces involved in this fight. It is therefore urgent, says the Director General of the Department of Hydrocarbons, Mèba Léopold SIAH, to intensify the fight.

On August 30, 2012, Togo’s Minister for Economic Planning and finance, Adji Otèth AYASSOR, published a communiqué in which he reminded the population of the official ban on the smuggling into the country of petroleum products, the storage, and sale of the said products in dwelling places as well as other unauthorized places. The same communiqué mentioned a telephone number “22 23 00 00” which is made available to the public to report those who have taken to this illicit and dangerous trade. At the end of October 2012, the Minister for Security and Civil Defence, Yark Damehame, went to meet his Ghanaian counterpart in order to discuss various means to adopt to eradicate the scourge of illicit trade in adulterated fuel. A few days ago, the Togolese head of state, Faure Gnassingbé, asked the customs authorities to furnish him with statistics of products impounded and see how a national debate could be generated around this trade activity which is pulling in more and more people just like the phenomenon of motorcycle taxis.

In other places, seizures have are made every day. However, this does not seem to dampen the determination of the traffickers. On October 19, 2011, the police carried out an operation to seize adulterated fuel at Agbodrafo (a town 25 km east of Lomé). During this operation, a seller received gunshot wounds; a police communiqué explained that the shots were meant as a deterrent during the operation. On October 29, 2012, a chase given a motorcyclist who was carrying two cans of fuel by customs officials turned tragic when one of the officials (also on a motorcycle) hit the cyclist. The latter, as he fell hit another motorcyclist. So hard was the impact, he died instantly. The inhabitants of Adidogomé, (a suburb west of Lomé) came out to protest against this action of the customs official. Tyres were burnt and barricades erected along the No. 3 trunk road; when the police were alerted, they came to disperse the protesters with tear gas. In spite of all that, the business still goes on, even in Lomé, the capital.

In all the cases, the dealers, thanks to the “network” they have set up, are able to sell their products on the Beninese market, with impunity. A certain amount is even sent to the market of neighboring countries of Benin, despite the “official” measures adopted. Thus, the Committee set up by the government of Benin as part of measure to manage the impact of the oil crisis which occurred in January 2012 in Nigeria, effected seizures in the night of Sunday 22 to Monday 23 January, 2012, towards the Jacquot beach in Cotonou and in the village of Pahou, 20 km west of Cotonou. Some 1,521 25-litre cans of adulterated petrol, all estimated at 22 million CFA F, was the operation’s haul. Two trucks which were conveying the cans ended up at the premises of the gendarmerie in Cotonou. These trucks which came from Nigeria were to move towards the Mono and Couffo regions, more specifically the Hillacondji border, in order to go to Togo.

 Failures and limitations of the fight

In the hinterland, both in Benin and Togo, filling stations are lacking. One can, in fact, observe the absence of filling stations over a distance of 100 to 150 km along the N°1 national trunk road which leaves Lomé towards the hinterland. The same applies to Benin. Motorists in need along these portions are forced to turn towards retailers who display their products on the road sides. In towns such as Notse, Kambole, Niamtougou whoch are close to the Benin border to the east, or Noepe, Kpadape which are towards the Ghanaian border and where filling stations are rare, even the authorities have no choice: they are supplied by the dealers. An officer of the gendarmerie stationed at Notsè (a town located at about 80 km north of Lomé) who spoke on condition of anonymity said that clamping down on illicit fuel traffickers would be difficult: “How can we clamp down on those who provide us every day with fuel?  We know that it is prohibited, but as there are no filling stations, we have no other choice”. In some Togolese towns and villages, the trafficking is tacitly authorized. Thus personnel from the police the gendarmerie and customs, make their rounds during the night to “claim their share” of the turnover for the day or the week from the traffickers. In Nigeria, source of the ill, in an effort to put an end to the illicit trafficking, Olusegun Obasanjo, former president (1999-2007), reviewed upwards the ex pump price of petrol seven times. Thus the price of the litre went from 20 nairas (0.12 dollars) to 30 nairas (0.18 dollars) on June 1, 2000, date of the first increase under the Obasanjo regime; then to 70 nairas (0.43 dollars)  on May 27, 2007, two days before he left power. All in vain….

As a matter of fact, increasing ex-pump prices is not the solution. Most of the smuggled products are not bought in the filling stations; they are rather stolen. Hence, “increasing the price a thousand times will not change anything” insisted Kingsley Okafor, an Economist, owner of an accounting firm in Lagos. Meanwhile, a soldier who served in the Niger delta region and who spoke on condition of anonymity reckons that it would be difficult to put an end to the pilfering of fuel in the oil producing region because, according to him, the soldiers are accomplices. He explained that “all the soldiers who were posted to the oil producing region are millionaires today; the boats come during the night to fill up at the rate of  15 or 20 dollars a barrel; the rest is sold on the local market in the filling stations at a low price or to individuals who sell it elsewhere”.

With the unprecedented upsurge in the illegal diversion of oil in the coastal region of Nigeria,        the Lower House of the National Assembly set up two committees on November 3, 2011, to look into this menace in the oil producing region of the Niger Delta. The two committees were charged to identify the thieves, the owners of the boats which transport the crude oil as well as the buyers of the cargoes on the international market. They were also charged to determine the role played by the security forces in this trafficking. According to Daniel Reyenieju, the member of the National assembly who tabled the motion, influential personalities in the country as well as in the Army were accused of being involved in the illicit trafficking. While waiting for the findings of the inquiry, the government of President Goodluck Jonathan has been trying to take certain measures to reduce the menace. On September 8, 2012, the Nigeria government took delivery of two new patrol boats to fight against pirates on the sea. It also plans for aerial patrols to protect the borders between Nigeria and its neighbours.

Negative consequences

Beyond the risks of fire outbreaks, there are also risks of illnesses to which persons involved in the illicit sale of petrol are constantly exposed. Some of those in the trade whom we interviewed acknowledge that they suffer, particularly from respiratory illnesses, hernia, stomach and eyes troubles as well as ordinary illnesses (malaria, tiredness, dizziness, etc.). The excessive use of adulterated fuel is not without consequences on the environment either.  Kodjo Fabrice Ebeh, Executive Director of the NGO ANCE (National Alliance of Consumers and the Environment) of Togo, says there are dreadful environmental and health consequences linked to the chaotic marketing of fuel in Togo, Benin and Nigeria: the release of greenhouse gases, global warming, serious cases of pneumonia and even cancer are to be feared.

Furthermore, since the budget of Benin is mainly fiscal, because it is based on tax levies particularly on imports, this causes a huge loss to the public purse. Worn down by the fight, the government of Benin acknowledged in a communiqué of an extraordinary Cabinet meeting on November 2, 2012 that “In the wake of a relentless unfair competition over a number of years marked by the predominance of the informal market which supplies more than 90% of the oil sector, thus seriously encroaching on the activities of companies in the formal sector, many accredited multinationals have left Benin while Sonacop has been surviving…” and has decided to  “strengthen and revitalize the Committee of Action against the illicit trade in petroleum Products”.

Investigation conducted by:
Brice HOUSSOU (Benin),
Jean-Baptiste ATTISSO (Togo)
and Daouda  ALIYOU (Nigeria)
With the support from PAIR (Programme for African Investigative Reporting )

(September – October 2012)

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