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					Benin's disabled smugglers
Wheelchair users living in poverty use adapted vehicles to cross the border loaded with
cheap Nigerian fuel




A boy bottles smuggled fuel on a street in Cotonou, Benin. Photograph: Reuters/Corbis

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.

Aparliamentary 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. Smuggling provides thousands of informal jobs. Meanwhile three-quarters of the
country's fuel consumption comes from 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.

				
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