Essence du Bénin

In Benin there is a vast network of illegal gasoline trafficking coming from Nigeria. This former French colony, located between Togo and Nigeria, cannot compete with the oil prices of its neighboring country and does not have enough gas stations to cover the fuel needs of its population. Out of this specific shortcoming a very lucrative business opportunity arose. In the 1970s, Beninese traffickers began buying gasoline from Africa's leading oil producer, the neighboring country of Nigeria, and illegally transporting it into their own territory. Currently the illegal sale of gasoline at street stalls, sold at a lower price than at service stations, fully supplies the country's population.

During the last decades, the gasoline barons have become very popular in Benin: Politicians are appointed and overthrown based on their interests and the authorities are permissive, corrupt and fearful. Women, the disabled, college students and even children rely on and have become useful players in this activity.

The ones dedicated to the trafficking of gasoline assume many risks, such as the exposure to harmful gasses emitted by gasoline or the danger of explosions caused by motorcycle accidents. These are often produced during the transportation of the highly flammable substance and have claimed hundreds of lives in recent years. These people are popularly known as "human bombs" and are the ones responsible for transporting dozens of liters of gasoline by road.

The gasoline trafficking route begins in Nigeria, where Beninese traffickers fill their tanks and jerry cans at Nigerian gas stations. Along the border, of some 800 kilometers on the Nigerian side, there are thousands of roads that truckers use to bring gasoline to Benin. The fuel also passes through the great Lake Nokoué, through the small rivers that connect Nigeria with Benin and also through clandestine sea routes in the Gulf of Guinea. The authorities opt for a policy of non-intervention in exchange for small bribes, with amounts that are previously agreed upon with the big traffic barons.

This business generates billions of CFA francs (the Beninese currency) for the traffickers every year, money that does not reach the state coffers since they do not collect taxes from it. The Government stands with its back against the wall: an attempt to block this activity would most probably result in a popular revolt, in addition to the immediate lack of fuel supply throughout the entire country. The stability of Benin today is largely dependent on this activity and on the people who control it.

  Cotonou (Bénin), 2015 © OAK STORIES
Cotonou (Bénin), 2015 © OAK STORIES

In the summer of 2015, a team selected by OAK traveled to the city of Cotonou, in the south of the country, to investigate the activity of the traffickers distributing gasoline throughout Benin. During this process they discovered a very well organized business that depends on the Association of Importers, Transporters and Resellers of Petroleum Products (AITRPP), which despite its illegal nature is officially registered. Joseph Midodjoho, popularly known as Oloyè, is the president of the AITRPP and is also active in politics. The twelve heads of department who in turn control the seventy-seven regions of the country report to him. At the lower levels of this hierarchy are the different presidents of the districts, neighborhoods and towns, and lastly the street stall’s vendors.

Our storytellers achieved privileged access to some of the least accessible enclaves on the route, such as the Ifagne riverbank. This place is a strategic point, located at only 5 minutes from the Nigerian side when navigating the river. In this place traffickers unload hundreds of jerrycans of gasoline that will be shipped and distributed across the border. The project includes a detailed follow-up of the scenarios and characters that intervene on the route, as well as interviews with the different actors who could best explain this reality: human rights defenders, local journalists, courriers, and traffic leaders.

The “Essence du Bénin” project is made up of a documentary piece, several journalistic texts and a photographic series. The reportage has been published in different national and international media, including two multimedia pieces made for the magazine 5W and the Planeta Futuro section of the newspaper El País. The story also appeared in TIME magazine and GEO magazine.

The documentary film was produced in association with the Catalan Corporation of Audiovisual Media, and was broadcast for the first time in May 2016 on the program “30 minuts” on the regional channel TV3. On the occasion of its television premiere, OAK organized a photographic exhibition in Barcelona with more than thirty images of the project. In recent years, the exhibition has been shown at festivals and photography centers such as the Balkan Photo Festival (Bosnia) or Fineart Igualada (Spain).

Essence du Bénin
Essence du Bénin

Javier Corso

Javier Corso is a photographer based in Barcelona, founder and director at OAK STORIES (documentary agency and production company), and National Geographic Explorer.
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