In Benin, a country in the Gulf of Guinea bordering Nigeria, there exists a vast network for the illegal trafficking of petrol.

Benin does not have enough petrol stations to cover its population but it also cannot compete with Nigerian petrol prices. From this situation, there has emerged a lucrative business opportunity. A few decades ago, Beninese traffickers started to buy petrol in Nigeria, where it is much cheaper because Nigeria is the leading producer of petrol in Africa. After (illegally) bringing it to Benin, they began to sell it in roadside stalls around the country, at a lower price than can be found in the licensed petrol stations. The official petrol stations are property of the State and their selling prices are often double the price offered by the little trafficker down the road.

So, business has boomed. Over the last few decades, the trafficking bosses have obtained a lot of power in Benin. Politicians have surrendered to them and the police turn a blind eye in exchange for a few CFA (the Beninese currency). Many women, people with disabilities, university students and even children depend on this activity.

Unfortunately, all of them are exposed to the harmful gases that petrol emits and to the danger of explosions that can be caused by small accidents that happen while transporting the petrol. These have caused hundreds of deaths in recent years. The streets of Porto Novo, the capital of Benin, are filled with traffickers who transport drums of petrol by motorbike. They are commonly known as “human bombs,” because they have accidents so often in which the petrol they are transporting explodes.

The traffickers’ route begins in Nigeria, where Beninese traffickers fill their tanks at the Nigerian petrol stations. Along the border, which spans almost 800 kilometres, there are thousands of roads which traffickers can use to transport the petrol into Benin. Petrol is also transported on the large Nokoué Lake and on small rivers connecting Nigeria with Benin. There are also clandestine sea routes in the Gulf of Guinea.

Now, despite some efforts at secrecy, many of the traffickers also pass through police checkpoints during their trips to Nigeria. However, most of the authorities let them go if they have the money to pay them off.

Once in Benin, the traffickers distribute the petrol amongst their boss’ customers throughout the country. It is an extremely organized business within the Association des Importateurs Transportateurs et des Produits Revendeurs Petroliers (AITRPP)—a legally registered association.

Joseph Midodjoho, popularly known as Oloyé, is the president of AITRPP and is actively involved in politics. Under him, there are representatives for the twelve departments of Benin who control seventy-seven regions. On the bottom level, there are presidents of the districts, neighborhoods and towns and the streetstall sellers.

The stalls are extended along the streets and roads. Everyone has a friend or relative who works in this illegal business, as they are better paid than official workers. Indeed, in Benin, since there is a high level of unemployment, the trafficking business is integrally woven into the local economies.

In total, this business generates billions of CFA each year for the Beninese traffickers—none of which goes to the government. If the government tried to block this activity, there would be a danger of popular revolution. Thus, in today’s moment, both the people and the stability of Benin are completely dependent on an activity which remains strictly off the books.

—Javier Corso