Monday, November 12, 2012

The handicapped smugglers of Benin

The tiny African nation of Benin has poorly secured borders. This makes smuggling goods out Nigeria a major problem for both countries. Nigeria is one of the biggest producers of oil in the continent. They also subside the price of oil so it is about half of the price as it is in Benin. So it is oil and gas that is often smuggled over.

A story from the Guardian this morning tells us that the handicapped of Benin have used the situation to their advantage. They hack their wheelchairs so they can store oil within them or with attached trailers. Because they are disabled, the border agents don't hassle them. The smuggling provides good income for the handicapped in a country where they have little else to do.

Guardian writer Monica Mark describes this practice. 
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.
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.

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