Meet Benin’s petrol smugglers who sell contraband fuel to consumers unable to afford the cost of high-priced legal fuel. These West African criminals bring illegal petrol in from neighbouring oil-rich Nigeria and are loved because of the contribution they make to long-suffering locals. This second instalment on Africa’s Robin Hoods looks at how dependent Benin is on these benevolent bandits. By Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR).
Joseph Midodjiho, a.k.a. Oloyé, may not have much formal schooling, but he is the president of the petroleum business association in Benin. He is the owner and benefactor of the Porto Novo lagoon harbour area (the centre of which is now called Oloyé Tokpa or Oloyé Pier) and a renowned petrol smuggler. “He feeds millions,” says local petrol dealer Kinsegbedji Houssou Gbalé. “It is thanks to Oloyé that our businesses are booming.” A polygamist and father of several children, Oloye walks around relaxed, commanding respect wherever he goes. He radiates energy, joie de vivre and loves to joke and tease.
The five boats that arrive every night at “Oloyé Pier”, each carrying between 400 and 500 cans of adulterated petrol, are all his. And they are all awaited by eager youths and adults, looking to help unload. It is dirty and unhealthy work. The odour of petrol is so sharp that it is difficult to breathe. But the joy among the workers is tangible. “I earn 10 US cents a can, sometimes up to $6 in one night,” laughs Justin Godonou, a semi-skilled electrician who left school in Grade 3. Charlotte Medji, who lives nearby, is also happy. “I can feed my family with that. When my children come and help, we make even more.”
The unloading of the boats, even though it seems chaotic with everybody trying to carry as many cans as quickly as they can, is highly organised. Agents hover around, closely monitoring the actions of the workers, jotting down the number of cans carried. In front of the nearby storage shop door, other agents count the number of cans to a worker. In less than 45 minutes, 450 cans are unloaded and safely stored. It is almost time for the next boat to arrive.
The boats come from five different Beninese villages on the border with Nigeria: Atchéko, Djoffin, Djavi, Ménontin and Sado. They all unload here at Oloyé Pier. Oloyé employs more than 600 people in the petroleum sector alone. He also owns a loan scheme, the Caisse Mutuelle de Credit pour le Changement, that helps women with credit to start businesses such as bread stalls. According to its director, Eliane Toukon, 1,300 women have accessed these loans to date. A resident of Porto Novo’s Louho township, Victor Adounsiba, tells us his wife is one of them. Previously without income, she now sells food at the primary school in their area, he says. “Oloyé really helps the poor, so that they do not have to beg and be parasites.”
The bread stalls many have started with Oloyé’s loans are supplied by Oloyé’s own bakery in his native town Adjarra, a few kilometres from Porto Novo. Besides bread, Oloyé also supplies transport to Adjarra. His cars and minibuses, nicknamed “Adjarra transport”, operate from a large car park in mid-town and service Porto Novo, Cotonou and other localities in the southern regions of the country. In addition, hundreds of young men now use motorbikes provided by Oloyé to ferry passengers around. Like the women entrepreneurs, the so-called “zemidjan” motorbikers pay Oloyé back in instalments from their earnings.
Says local petrol vendor Houssou Gbalé: “Oloyé really helps. Even if they can’t pay their credit back fully, Oloyé understands.” Oloyé has also had classrooms constructed for schools and sports tournaments organised for the benefit of students in Adjarra. It is estimated that Oloye provides employment for 600 people directly, and indirectly to several thousand others.
The secretary general of the Association des Importateurs Transportateurs et Revendeurs des Produits Petroliers (AITRPP), Theophile Adjovi, has nothing but praise for his boss Oloyé’s efforts to “help the destitute”. Like the vast majority of people in the region he supports the pro-government Force Cauris pour un Bénin Emergent, of which Oloyé is a leader and benefactor.
Despite this glowing picture, Oloyé is, well, a criminal. The sale of smuggled adulterated petrol or “kpayo” (dirty petrol) is illegal in Benin. Smugglers fight among themselves and with the authorities, for example, and the business has resulted in deaths. The petrol is dirty because it has not passed through petrol station filters, and it pollutes the country’s towns, particularly central Cotonou.
The Benin department of environment says that in the capital, Cotonou, alone 83 tonnes of carbon dioxide and 36 tonnes of volatile hydrocarbons are being spewed out every day, 59% of these generated by motorcycles. The yearly cost of respiratory infections in the city was estimated at $1.3 million and that of lead poisoning at $42 million.
Photo: Petrol on sale on the road side in Cotonou, Benin.
Even the AITRPP and its leadership, Adjovi and Oloyé primary among them, have declared their support for the Beninese government’s campaign against “dirty petrol” smuggling. They, and many other affiliated traders, have promised to stow away their boats, cans, hosepipes, bottles and other accessories, and to switch all their business activities to legal ones.
Says Oloyé himself: “We have made concrete proposals to the government-appointed joint committee on this matter. We are jointly studying the feasibility of low-interest loans [to people engaged in the dirty petrol business] for the purpose of starting [legal] roadside petrol stations. We would like licences to sell petroleum legally. We are working towards streamlining and re-organising the petroleum sector.”
It is questionable though that the government will win the fight against petrol smugglers. Claude Allagbé, director of internal trade promotion in the department of trade, admits this is going to be a formidable task. A study by his department established that the informal sector accounts for 70% to 80% of all fuel imports, of more than 300 million litres a year, into the country. Allagbé said the government had chosen to work with the informal sector to regularise it instead of merely confronting it because the sector “had raised relevant points”.
The points raised by the smugglers boiled down mainly to the government’s failure to provide for Benin’s fuel needs. Firstly, the formal sector does not have enough distribution points. Secondly, the price of legal fuel is too high for most consumers and, thirdly, if massive unemployment in the sector is to be averted, informal traders should be incorporated into the formal sector.
The government was working towards implementing all these measures, Allagbé said. But he also admitted that there would “always be room for an informal sector” as long as prices are low in Nigeria and as long as there is really a significant difference between petrol station prices and informal prices. In addition, Allagbé argued that Benin could only lead a successful fight against petrol smugglers if there was cooperation from the Nigerian government.
But Nigerian state structures, like the Beninese, also seem to be either unwilling or unable to clamp down on the smugglers. The Benin trade department director denied, however, that petrol smuggling was promoting development of the country. “We understand that it allows a number of people to earn a living, at least in terms of their day-to-day lives, but what they earn is really a pittance. It is the large-scale importers who are benefiting.”
That in itself poses another problem for the government because the large-scale importers are politicians, government and military officials who use third parties as their fronts. Allagbé acknowledged that he was aware of this. “At a meeting organised by the department of interior where smugglers were present, some pointed out members of state as being involved in the trafficking,” he said, adding that it was not “really important” who was involved. But a Fair grant investigation by Beninese journalist Kokouvi Eklou showed that petrol smugglers are among the main benefactors of the governing party; meaning that the very syndicate the government says it is fighting enjoys cosy relations with key figures in the same government.
And, it could be asked, who would want to slaughter the goose that lays the golden eggs? In 2004 (the latest figures available), the informal sector handled 245 million litres of fuel, earning a profit of $23 million. This could fund the entire government education sector in Benin. DM
“Pirates, Smugglers and Corrupt Tycoons – Social Bandits in Africa” is a transnational investigation undertaken by Fair, a professional association of investigative journalists in Africa which aims to build investigative journalism throughout the continent. Find out more about FAIR, or download the report “Pirates, Smugglers and Corrupt Tycoons – Social Bandits in Africa” at FAIR.
Main photo: A motorcyclist fills up at a roadside petrol station in Cotonou, Benin.
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