Despite subsidy removal, fuel smuggling continues on Nigeria-Benin Republic border routes

Fuel smuggling across the Nigeria-Benin border corridor continues to thrive despite the Nigerian government removing fuel subsidies.

The bustling illegal trade, often overlooked by security agencies, paints a picture of persistence and complexity within the border regions.

In an investigative report conducted along the border by The Guardian, it was observed that smuggling operations remain robust despite the subsidy removal initiated by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

The move, aimed at curbing smuggling activities, has had limited success, with the illegal trade adapting to reduced scales but continuing unabated.

The stories of individuals involved in this illicit activity offer a glimpse into the intertwined lives of smugglers like Josu and Gandonou.

Josu, a young woman in her 20s, partners with Gandonou, a 35-year-old who depends on petrol smuggling for his family’s livelihood. They traverse the border, manoeuvring through illegal bush paths, epitomizing the resilience of the smuggling network.

President Tinubu’s bold declaration in his inaugural speech on May 29, 2023, signalling the end of fuel subsidies, aimed to tackle revenue deficits and smuggling concerns. However, the reality along the border regions paints a contrasting picture.

Smuggling routes crisscrossing the vast expanse between Seme in Lagos, Kishi in Oyo State, Ipokia in Ogun State, and other areas continue to operate.

The porous nature of the border, dotted with numerous smuggling routes, facilitates the thriving illegal trade, impacting relations between the two countries.

Sharing her experience, Dorcas Hunja said that many of the filling stations within the Seme border do not dispense fuel; as a result, the residents either buy from black market that comes at a higher price or go to Badagry that comes with pain and additional cost, which eventually amount to a higher price too and almost the same cost with the black market price.

She said: “To buy petrol from those selling in gallon and bottles within our neighbourhood in Seme, it is between N800 and N900 currently.

“If you are not willing to buy from them, probably because of the price, the option is to go to Badagry, which comes with security agencies treating you as a smuggler, especially if you carry more than five litres of petrol.

“And when you consider going to buy five litres of fuel in Badagry, yet a return trip fare for Seme-Badagry is between N1000 and N1400.

“With that, whatever gain that is enjoined from buying the petrol at even N600 is eroded by the transport fare. So, many residents in Seme just buy from the black market.”

Despite challenges faced by smugglers like Gandonou, who acknowledged the increased difficulty in sourcing petrol from the other side of the border, operations persist. While quantities smuggled have reduced, they continue to ferry significant volumes of fuel daily.

Investigations revealed that although Nigeria’s daily petrol consumption has dropped by 18 million litres since the subsidy removal, smuggling remains a prevalent issue. The recent tragic explosion in the Seme Podji corridor of the Benin Republic, resulting in casualties, stands as a stark reminder of the dangers associated with this illicit trade.

The Guardian’s inquiries confirmed that smuggled petrol from Nigeria, sold in the black market in Benin Republic, remains competitively priced compared to the official rates in Benin. This pricing disparity fosters a thriving demand for smuggled petrol despite increased costs in Nigeria.

Residents, especially those in border communities like Seme, lament the ramifications of smuggling on their daily lives. With inflated prices and difficulties accessing fuel, their plight reflects the broader impact of the illegal trade on ordinary citizens.

The situation poses a significant challenge to law enforcement agencies, with checkpoints becoming nodes of negotiation between smugglers and complicit officers. The involvement of security personnel, directly or indirectly, contributes to the persistent smuggling activities.

A driver, simply identified as Chukwuemeka, said he does not pick up passengers ferrying petrol because the stoppage time at each of the many checkpoints by security agencies often leads to time wasting.

His words: “If the security agencies’ officials know you don’t move petrol or convey smugglers ferrying fuel, once you get to each checkpoint, the officers or their boys allow you to drive pass without delay, but that is not the case if they know you aid those smuggling petrol regularly.”

Efforts by customs officers to curb smuggling through occasional raids and technological surveillance have not yielded the desired results. Smugglers adapt to enforcement measures, exploiting illegal routes and local collaboration to sustain their operations.

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