Kourou/Koualou, a small town in a neutral zone between Benin and Burkina Faso, is the center of an illicit cross-border trade in fuel of one million liters per year, an example of a phenomenon that extends along the 6000 kilometers of the Sahel region.
Transported by criminal networks and taxed by terrorist groups, the illegal fuel flows along four main routes that wind through the Sahel, diverting millions of dollars from countries seeking to stabilize a security-challenged region home to 300 million people. people.
“The traffic of fuel it is undermining the rule of law; is fueling corruption”, said François Patuel, head of the Research and Awareness Unit of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “It is also giving rise to other forms of crime. That’s why it has to be stopped.”
Traffickers Respond to Lawsuit
Fuel trafficking is big business in the region. The report of the UN agency, Trafficking in fuel in the Sahel, claims to finance non-state armed groups, terrorist organizations, financial institutions, corrupt law enforcement officials, and groups linked to prominent individuals with interests in fuel retail companies. It is also in great demand among the population.
Facilitating this illicit activity are the low subsidized gas prices in Algeria, Libya and Nigeria. According to the information collected, the service stations in Libya charge eleven cents per liter, while the price at the gas stations in Mali, on the other side of the border, averages 1.94 dollars per liter.
“Just by crossing the border, they make a profit of 90 cents per liter,” Patuel explained. “It’s an easy income for criminal groups.”
He added that the traffickers sell that product to the population, who depends on cheaper fuel to carry out daily activities such as powering generators to produce electricity or filling their gasoline tanks to take their products to market.
“They exploit those needs to sell their criminal products, including smuggled fuel.”, he added.
The report tracks operations in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, where drivers transport millions of liters of contraband fuel each year along heavily traveled routes. The established routes go from Algeria to Mali, from Libya to Niger and Chad, from Nigeria to Burkina Faso via Benin, and from Niger to Mali.
The loss of income for the Sahelian nations is enormoussaid Amado Philip de Andrés, UNODC regional representative for West and Central Africa.
The illicit trade costs Niger nearly $8 million a year in tax revenue, according to the country’s High Authority to Combat Corruption and Related Crimes. Traffickers evade taxes by buying marked fuel for export at reduced costs and diverting deliveries nationally or across borders, the government office said.
Smugglers, however, pay “taxes” to newly formed terrorist groups, including around Kourou/Koualou, where illegal depots stored tanks of contraband fuel while in transit. In addition, Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups operate some of the gold mines in the area and collect taxes on smuggling.
In terms of trafficking in natural resources in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, “local communities are particularly vulnerablesince they live in isolated areas with a limited police presence”, as detailed by the Executive Directorate of the Committee against Terrorism (CTED) of the Security Council in a trend alert report.
Contraband fuel is often confined to the surface of a very deep well of traffic, reflecting a nexus of criminal activity, from drugs to migrantssaid Patuel, citing the example of a 2021 seizure of 17 tons of cannabis resin by Nigerian police involving a well-known fuel dealer who owned gas stations. The suspect allegedly used the proceeds from the drug trade to buy contraband fuel sold at his gas stations.
UNODC also highlights other disturbing new trends showing companies associated with Security Council-sanctioned individuals involved in smuggling fuel from Niger to Mali, as traffickers sell an increasing range of products.
Such speculation has set off alarm bells throughout the UN system, which has continually expressed concern about terrorist groups using the proceeds from trafficking in natural resources to finance their illegal activities. The UN Security Council has urged states to, among other measures, hold perpetrators accountable.
Elimination of corruption
Cracking down on fuel smuggling is a complex undertaking with life-threatening consequences in a region with very high rates of informal employment ranging from 78.2% in Niger to 96.9% in Chad. Damping up illicit fuel flows worries UNODC as it could increase transport and energy prices along with the costs of most commercial goods and services.
The Office suggests that the nations of the Sahel and neighboring countries identify and prosecute cases of fuel smuggling that are directly related to organized crime, armed groups and corruption. To do this, they have the tools contained in international treaties such as the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the United Nations Convention against Corruption.
Limits to illicit flows
While some anti-smuggling efforts have faced violent resistance, including the death of a law enforcement officer, nations continue to stem illicit flows with new and collaborative approachessaid UNODC.
The agency’s latest threat assessment of the phenomenon provided a number of examples, ranging from police-escorted gas convoys in Algeria near the Mali border, to imposed curfews in Benin and raids for stop cross-border armed groups.
For its part, Burkina Faso has meticulously dismantled since 2019 a highly organized fuel trafficking network that smuggled millions of liters over a three-year period with fleets of trucks carrying up to 30,000 liters per trip.
In Kourou/Koualou, Illegal fuel flow has slowed to a trickle after government crackdown, but terror groups continue “taxing the fuel that is still trafficked, as well as other contraband goods,” UNODC warned.
“Criminal groups feed by exploiting the needs of the population,” emphasized the agency’s chief investigator, Patuel. “Combining efforts and having a regional focus will lead to success in the fight against organized crime in the region.”
The UN acts
The UN and its partners are working to eradicate trafficking and create opportunities in the region. These are some of the activities that the Organization assists with:
• The UN launched a $180 million project in 2022 targeting 1.6 million people in the Liptako-Gourma area, on the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, with the aim of improving economic opportunities and livelihoods. The initiative focuses on women, youth and pastoralists and is part of the Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS)
• Within UNISS peace and security initiatives there is a project that helps prevent the spread and increase of violent extremism in cross-border areas between Senegal, Guinea and Mali.
• Stakeholders exchanged initiatives and ideas on preventing violent extremism in West and Central Africa at a meeting held in Dakar from 28 February to 2 March and co-organized by the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS ), Senegal’s Center for Advanced Defense and Security Studies, and the Swiss department of foreign affairs
• The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the G5 Sahel Force signed a new agreement in April to strengthen regional and intra-state cooperation across the spectrum of human mobility as an accelerator for building resilience, development and integrated border governance in the G5 (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger)
• The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) addresses emerging challenges in Côte d’Ivoire and in late May published its first situation report in the country, which continues to be affected by the spread of conflict from the central Sahel crisis