At a busy crossroads in the Benin capital just over a week ago, four people turned into human torches and shops and traffic lights were scorched in the latest of a string of accidents blamed on contraband petrol.
For the past eight months, this tiny West African nation has been severely short of petrol products due to soaring world prices and hitches in domestic supply. But with Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer, as its neighbour, cheaper petrol is flowing easily if illegally across the border, easing shortages but in some cases causing a flood of grief.
One of the worst such incidents took place during the morning rush hour on 1 December in the heart of the capital, Cotonou, not far from the busy central Dantokpa market.
Street hawkers were going about their business and a blind beggar was wishing passers-by and drivers a good day as he asked for a coin. The last drops of rain from a flash morning shower were evaporating in the sun.
As the traffic light turned red a petrol smuggler from the border town of Porto-Novo drew up on a motorbike, hauling several 50-litre cans of contraband petrol, locally known as “Kpayo petrol,” which he planned to deliver to the nearby market. But a motorbike taxi - called a Zemidjan - came skidding to a stop, bumping into the plastic cans. They burst open easily as they are fragile due to repeated heating to expand their capacity.
The petrol leaked onto the spark plug, igniting a ball of fire that burnt alive the blind man and the smuggler. The Zemidjan driver and a young girl selling paper handkerchiefs on the street died on the way to hospital, while a passer-by and a Nigerian hawking cell phone accessories suffered third-degree burns after bystanders poured engine oil over them to douse the flames.
The traffic lights too were scorched and several nearby stalls gutted.
Last Sunday, Muslim evening prayers were interrupted in northern Parakou by a chorus of screams after an explosion in the town’s biggest depot of smuggled petrol. Seven people were injured when a dozen 100-litre cans exploded, according to a doctor at the local hospital.
And not long ago an entire family perished in the suburbs of Cotonou when a smuggler on a motorbike came into collision with another vehicle, causing one of his cans of petrol to roll onto the hood of the car behind.
No jobs and no petrol at the pump
When asked whether selling the contraband fuel was worth the risks, smugglers invariably say they have little choice.
“As long as I’m alive I’ll carry out this trade,” said Jacob Toudounou in Benin. “This is my way of earning a living.”
In Porto-Novo, which is the hub of the illegal trade, 50-year-old Cyrille Saïzonou blamed the authorities for the smuggling.
“The government is irresponsible and won’t find jobs for people who can work,” he said. “I have two children with diplomas who are jobless and whom I have to feed.”
His supplier in illegal petrol said a government commission working to eliminate the smuggling, CONAMIP, had tried but failed to put a stop to the business.
That is hardly surprising given the lack of normal petrol supplies.
Despite a cut in prices on 1 December, the country’s main petrol company SONACOP continues to face supply problems.
The result is that SONACOP petrol stations, which account for 90 percent of Benin’s filling pumps, are unable to provide a single drop of fuel. Nowadays at stations across the country filling attendants spend the day sleeping on benches or loitering in the office in the hope of fresh provisions, and motorists very rarely stop and ask.
Forced to resort to smuggled petrol
“I don’t rightly know what is going on,” said a SONACOP station manager, Georges Okoumassou, in Cotonou.
SONACOP’s Managing Director Ahmed Kotoko blamed “this deplorable situation on the fact that the state has not paid out subsidies due to petrol importing firms.”
But Dieudonne Lokossou, the Secretary General of the SONACOP Transport Union, representing tanker-truck drivers, said poor management after the company was privatised in the late 1990s was also to blame.
"It had 40 billion CFA francs (US $72 million) profit in 1999 when it was ceded to the CPI group headed by Sefou Fagbohoun,” he said. “Today in 2005 it is more than 12 billion [francs] in debt.”
So even the few buyers who used to fill up at petrol station pumps though paying an extra 30 percent, are turning to the smugglers. “I don’t have a choice any longer,” said company manager Samson Gouthon.
Some buyers respectful of the law are ready to travel to the Nigerian border to fill up at petrol stations there, but others buy the black market oil under the very noses of the customs officers and border police supposed to be stamping out smuggling.
And even members of government have been forced to use the contraband fuel. Last April, Interior Minister Seidou Mama Sika had to resort to smuggled petrol to get home after his vehicle ran empty and he spent three fruitless hours trying to fill up in petrol stations in Porto-Novo.
Even before the current crisis, said the country’s National Statistics Institute, the informal sector accounted for 70 percent of petrol consumption in Benin.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions