Smuggling, corruption and another term for the president

There are hardly any cars pulling in for fuel at Cotonou’s modern filling stations. Most of them are out of petrol, their forecourts are empty and their staff is idle.

But there are thousands of mopeds queuing to fill their tanks with petrol smuggled across the border from Nigeria at bustling stalls along the roadside.

“We get two jerry cans a day. A man brings them to us by scooter from the border,” says Jacques, who runs one such stall with his mother on a busy main street of Benin’s seaside capital.

The contraband petrol, known as “kpayo” arrives in black 50 litre drums. From these, Jacques and his mum pour the golden liquid into litre bottles that once held Scotch whisky and French rum.

They also do a sideline in purple lubrication oil sold from Fanta bottles lined up on a wooden table.

And there is a 20-litre glass jar of petrol on display to supply the occasional car. The petrol is of doubtful quality and purity, but it is 20 percent cheaper than the fuel from official pumps. And right now most of the official pumps are dry.

The air is thick with the heady smell of spilt petrol. One stray spark could easily trigger an explosion that would roast Jacques, his mother and anyone standing within 10 metres of them in a ball of flame.

But this clandestine trade has been going on for more than 20 years, taking advantage of the fact that Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer, still subsidises fuel for sale on the domestic market.

Today, petrol sells at the equivalent of 40 US cents per litre in Nigeria, slightly more at a market on the Benin side of the border at Seme, the main crossing point between the two countries, and 60 cents, an hour further down the road in the capital Cotonou.

Dangerous but profitable

The kpayo trade may be dangerous and illegal, but it keeps thousands of poor Beninois in a profitable business and the authorities openly tolerate it.

Four people were killed in Porto Novo, 35 km east of Cotonou, in August last year, when the police launched a rare crackdown on contraband petrol sellers in the town. The unexpected move provoked riots.

But today the trade is conducted openly and the police do nothing to stop it.

Indeed, a few hundred metres down the road from Jacques’ kpayo stall in Cotonou, a police captain, dressed in his green uniform, was busy filling his car with petrol from another roadside fuel seller.

Many car owners in Cotonou prefer to make a weekly run to fill their tank at Seme on the Nigerian side of the border.

The town is known locally as “Kuwait City” and queues of Beninois cars with empty petrol tanks form there every Saturday.

There has been a lingering fuel shortage in this small West African country for the past two months as the government drags its heels over authorising price increases sought by importers to take account of a rapid rise in world oil prices.

The government has already decreed two price increases during this period, but for the distributors, these did not go far enough.

Why import fuel to sell at a loss?

“The solution is to have transparent pricing,” said Chakirou Tidjani, Secretary General of Benin’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

He protests that licensed private sector distributors cannot be expected to import and sell fuel at a loss at a time when world oil prices are soaring to record highs of over US $50 per barrel.

Tidjani stops short of saying that the petrol distributors have deliberately created the current shortage by starving the market of fresh imports until the government gives them another increase.

And the government has remained silent on the issue.

But on the street, that is what everyone thinks.

Valere, an idle petrol pump attendant at a filling station owned by the privatised petrol retailer Sonacop, summed up the general feeling.

“People say it is an artificial shortage because the oil companies want to put the price up even further,” he said.

Valere had just 400 litres of diesel left to sell, which he was reserving for emergency vehicles, senior government officials and one, or two friends.

He waved away a Health Ministry bus with a finger, but a friend of Valere’s who turned up a few minutes later with a plastic container on the floor of his scooter, was served 20 litres.

“It is for my electricity generator at home,” he said with a broad smile.

The lack of official information about the fuel shortage and the open toleration of petrol smuggling from Nigeria reflects a similar lack of clarity in Benin’s murky world of politics.

A motorcycle taxi plies for trade on the streets of Cotonou

Another term for Kerekou?

There have been persistent reports in the local media this month that President Mathieu Kerekou is trying to bribe members of parliament to amend the constitution so that he can stand for a third five-year term in 2006.

One minister expressed shock and outrage at these reports last week, but the presidency has so far failed to deny them.

At least a dozen newspapers carried reports that two special representatives of Kerekou had offered the 83 members of parliament a total of seven billion CFA francs (US $14 million) in financial inducements to vote through the necessary changes.

Kerekou, who has dominated Benin’s political scene for more than 30 years, has no political party of his own.

Like President Amadou Toumane Toure in nearby Mali, he is supported by a broad range of small political parties, whose leaders rely in turn on his patronage.

This deeply entrenched system makes the reports of financial inducements to the members of parliament particularly credible.

Kerekou, a former army officer who makes few public appearances, has not said openly that he wants to stay in power beyond next year. Neither has he said that he wants to change the constitution so that he can do so.

But few doubt the veracity of these reports.

And the suggestion that Kerekou might resort to bribery on a massive scale to push through changes to the constitution, surprises no one.

US firm pays $2 million bribe

Earlier this year, the Benin government simply refused to comment on revelations by the US Securities and Exchange Commission that Titan, a US defence and communications company, had been fined in the United States for making an illegal contribution of $2 million to Kerekou’s 2001 re-election campaign.

The SEC said Titan had been seeking a four-fold increase in the fees it charged the Benin government for managing a telephone network in the country at the time it made the illegal payment. The company was awarded the huge increase in fees, which it had demanded shortly after the election.

Corruption is rife in Benin. The government announced plans last year to put most of the country’s judges on trial for bribe taking and embezzling state funds.

And the US State Department noted in a human rights report on Benin last year that the country’s judiciary was “inefficient and susceptible to corruption at all levels.”

Although Kerekou does not appear to have enriched himself unduly during his decades in power, many Benin watchers say the rot goes right to the top.

The daily newspaper Le Republicain said in a front-page editorial last week that the presidential palace was “a veritable Augean stable in which most of the president’s collaborators stink to high heaven of corruption and other unorthodox practices.”

From Marxist revolutionary to born again Christian

Statue of former Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov in Place de Bulgarie, Cotonou

Many Beninois believe that Kerekou, nicknamed “The Chameleon” for his seamless transformation from hardline Marxist to born-again-Christian capitalist, would like to hang on to the reins of power if he could.

And so far no serious challengers have appeared on the political scene to threaten his supremacy.

Kerekou first came to power in this former French colony of seven million people in a military coup in 1972.

The president, who was then a young army major, immediately embraced militant Marxism, ordering the population to replace the familiar greeting of “Bonjour” with a clenched fist salute and the phrase “Pret pour la revolution?” (Ready for the revolution?)

But his revolutionary ardour waned following the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and a rising clamour for change at home.

In 1990 Kerekou introduced multi-party politics and he was voted out of power a year later.

However, he staged a comeback through the ballot box in the 1996 presidential election, having dropped his socialist ideology to embrace Christianity and free-market economics. His campaign speeches were littered with biblical references.

A few reminders of Kerekou’s socialist past still remain, such as Bulgaria Square, with its garishly painted statue of the former country’s former communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.

But today most of Kerekou’s early nationalisations have been reversed and Cotonou is a bustling commercial city of more than one million people whose lifeblood is free trade.

The port of Cotonou handles cargo for Nigeria and landlocked Niger and Burkina Faso to the north and the city lies on the busy trucking route between Lagos and Abidjan.

Nigeria is a giant on Benin’s doorstep with a population of 126 million. Lagos, the country’s main commercial hub, which is less than two hours’ drive from Cotonou, has an estimated population of 14 million - double that of Benin itself.

“We are a country whose economy depends on the economies of our neighbours, but we cannot always be a country of transit,” said Tidjani at the Chamber of Commerce.

Much of the trade, especially that with Nigeria, consists of smuggled or even stolen goods and the Nigerian authorities have long accused Benin of giving safe haven to armed robbers who slip across the border.

Things came to a head in August 2003 when Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo closed the frontier for a week in protest after his daughter’s car was stolen at gunpoint only to reappear in the clutches of a second-hand car dealer in Cotonou a few days later.

His outburst of anger, which led Nigeria to impose a permanent ban on the import of second hand goods from Benin and several types of manufactured products, threatened to upset the country’s economy.

It did not affect the domestic position of Kerekou.

Changing the constitution

But political analysts in Cotonou said the president would require skill, persuasion and probably quite a lot of largesse to muster the 75 percent parliamentary majority necessary to change the constitution so that he could remain in power for a further five-year term.

He would require even more effort to achieve the 80 percent majority necessary to avoid a follow-up referendum to rubber-stamp the changes.

Benin’s 1990 constitution would have to be changed in two ways for Kerekou to stay in power.

Firstly, the two-term limit for elected presidents would have to be scrapped. And secondly, a 70-year age limit on presidential candidates would have to be abolished.

Kerekou is now 72.

But tinkering with the constitution to allow incumbent presidents to prolong their grip on power is nothing new in Africa.

Chad and Uganda are currently going through the motions of revising their constitutions so that Presidents Idriss Deby and Yoweri Museveni can perpetuate their rule. And over the years, many other African states have legislated similar changes.

One Cotonou newspaper, L’Aurore, recently linked the current fuel shortages in Benin to Kerekou’s alleged ambition to remain in power.

It pointed out that Sefou Fagbohoun, the main shareholder in Sonacop, Benin’s largest fuel distributor, was also the leader of the African Movement for Democracy and Progress (MADEP), a small political party that has yet to announce its position on constitutional reform.

L’Aurore suggested that the government was holding back on authorising a fresh increase in petrol prices to punish Fagbohoun for his hesitation and was even pressuring him to sell his shareholding in Sonacop, which owns 75 percent of Benin’s fuel storage capacity, to the US oil giant Texaco.