Wheelchair users living in poverty use adapted vehicles to cross the border loaded with cheap Nigerian fuel.
A childhood polio survivor, Isaac chose one of the few careers available to wheelchair users in Benin: smuggling.
When night falls, a host of ingenious home-made vehicles emerge on the sandy roads that connect this little lick of land with its giant oil-producing neighbour, Nigeria. From rusting trays on wheels to wagons cobbled together from spare parts, each is designed to lug as much fuel as possible.
Among the improbable vehicles are modified scooters designed to be driven by disabled people – and hide four 50-litre jerrycans at the same time. They provide a financial lifeline for thousands in a country where disabled people face social exclusion as well as one of the world’s highest rates of poverty.
“Because of our handicapped condition, the border agencies don’t bother us. Nobody asks us any questions, and we can cross the borders easily,” said Isaac one recent evening as a friend helped him on to his Vespa near the frontier.
Tiny west African neighbours Benin and Togo have long been havens for smugglers, who slip easily through poorly policed frontiers and shorelines. Cocoa, frozen poultry and second-hand clothes are the main trafficked goods, border agencies say. But the trail is dominated by a network of illicit fuel traders. They fill up on cheap, subsidised Nigerian fuel before returning to sell it at a rate that undercuts official prices in Benin’s filling stations.
“So many do it that recently the customs officers have started asking even [disabled people] for a cut of our profits,” Isaac said as an uninterested border guard waved him through the first checkpoint.
Smuggling is rife across Africa, a continent of porous borders and import tariffs that are punitive for anyone trying to do things by the proper channels. In the Congo basin, many disabled people, who are exempt from ferry fares, smuggle goods across the waters dividing the nations’ riverine capitals.
Most nights of the week, Isaac will make a two-hour round trip to a Nigerian border town, jostle his way to the front of large crowds at fuel stations and return with enough fuel to fill up four 4x4s. Three nightly trips brings in around $75 profit.
Periodic measures to tighten Benin’s borders would have little impact as long as Nigerian gasoline remained cheaper, said Claude Allagbe, director of Benin’s trade and commerce department. In Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer, successive governments have for decades bent to populist demands and kept fuel prices the lowest in the region through heavy subsidies.
A parliamentary inquiry in April found that Nigeria was subsidising nearly double the amount of fuel it consumed, with much of the excess simply smuggled abroad.
That also encourages big-time players to run far bigger risks. On a clear moonlit night, Isaiah and four other runners loaded a canoe with goods to exchange with a Russian oil tanker moored off the coast. A text message listing the items wanted in exchange for a tonne of fuel included “4 pk heineken, soap, 2 pack malboro cigiret, and a notebook”.
Muddy streets in the neighbourhood, home to fishermen and smugglers, turn off to warehouses where stacks of 250-litre drums give off a permanent stench of gasoline. Burnt walls testify to the dangers of the flimsy stores. The biggest exchanges – including “female companions” – bring in enough tonnes of fuel to supply local stations, Isaiah said.
The elaborate smuggling network is a crucial prop of the economy. “Benin loses 40bn CFA francs [£50m] annually in revenue that could be gained through taxing legally imported fuel. But the reality is we face a conundrum in disbanding smugglers,” Allagbe said. Some of the retailing can be fairly primitive – roadside wooden tables bowing under stacks of jars filled with honey-coloured oil.
“I don’t know why [the authorities] want us to stop doing this. We’re really well organised. Everybody survives off us, even big businesses. If anything, they should be integrating us,” said Rodrigue, the owner of three tabletop “fuel stations” in the interior town of Ouidah.
Yards away from a genuine station, he used a huge funnel to fill up a car sagging under the weight of its occupants and market produce.
via Monica Mark – The Guardian