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TRADE-CAMEROON: Borders – Where Two Economies Meet

Tamfu Hanson

GAROUA, Cameroon, Nov 13 2008 (IPS) - No one pays full price for petrol in northern Cameroon, not when there's cheaper Nigerian contraband available. In Garoua town for example, there are about 4,000 commercial motorcycles which all depend on "zoa zoa" or "federale" as this highly cherished liquid is generally referred to.

Smuggled fuel --"From top to bottom, all of us are living on it." Credit:  Tamfu Hanson/IPS

Smuggled fuel --"From top to bottom, all of us are living on it." Credit: Tamfu Hanson/IPS

"We cannot pay 600 CFA francs (about $1.40) for fuel at filling stations. We prefer 'zoa zoa' at 400 CF in order to make profit," confirms Ousmanou Saidou, a motorcycle rider. Very few individuals can afford the official prices at the filling stations. It's only the well-to-do who fear risking damage to their car engines by using federale.

Official fuel from Cameroon's national oil refinery is far more expensive than Nigerian fuel smuggled in across the border. Most of Cameroon's own oil output from offshore wells is immediately exported, meaning the state oil company has to refine expensive imported stock.

Petroleum products in Nigeria remain heavily subsidised, where the price of petrol is a volatile topic, perhaps the one government action guaranteed to provoke widespread strikes.

Borders – where economies meet and greet

Cameroon shares a 1,700 kilometre border with Nigeria. Nigerian militants in the oil-rich Delta region, criminals and corrupt government officials are all finding a lucrative trade in oil illegally siphoned from the oil infrastructure.

A thriving black market is found in neighbouring countries, among them Cameroon – believed to be second only to Benin as a destination for bunkered fuel from Nigeria.

Trafficking in fuel is a well-organised network involving thousands of smugglers who transport petrol, diesel, kerosene and paraffin across this frontier, often adulterating it along the way in order to make higher profits.

Numerous bush paths and entry roads render the transactions easier; but in any case so-called forces of Law and Order are not there for order, but to share in the booty. Smugglers risk their lives in pursuit of profits. In December 2007, a truck-load of fuel caught fire at the far northern town of Kousseri. All the four occupants were burnt to ash as the roadside villagers watched helpless.

You chop, I chop

The uncountable security checkpoints on both sides of the divide only serve as a cover-up. One smuggler – who for obvious reasons declined to give his name – told IPS that he offers bribes at every checkpoint.

"You must 'settle' or bribe them, else they seize your fuel and sell it," he said, adding that they have devised all kinds of tactics to escape being tracked by the security chain, lest bribes drain their trip of profit in the end.

"But it is a chop I chop business," a nearby custom official was over-heard saying. The numerous security control points reveal the true story. A junior police officer confided that he works for his boss on the supply chain. He said everybody is involved.

"From top to bottom, all of us are living on it," he declared, adding that he is building his third house, despite having been in police service only for six years. How else would one explain the fact that retailers are visible after every 500 metres, while custom officials claim they are fighting to stop the trade.

"Once the fuel is on the street, you cannot seize or stop them from selling it," claims Customs Field Operations Officer Toudjani Abouya, adding that officers risk being burnt if they should venture to seize fuel on the streets.

But another smuggler who begged to remain anonymous told IPS that many security officials are also involved in the smuggling."Some of us are working for them," he intimated.

For thousands of youths, trafficking is the only escape from the generalised unemployment."I have been in the business for over fifteen years. Today I am married to two wives with six children and living in my own house, thanks to it," explains Sule Amadou, a 37-year-old university graduate.

Top administrative officials have made sporadic efforts in the past to stop the trade to no avail.At one Point, the attempt met with violent resistance from the youths, who threatened to go a rampage.

According to Simon Etsil, the legal and financial advisor to the governor of Cameroon's North Province, with the Cameroon/Nigerian dispute over the Bakassi Peninsula now virtually laid to rest, there are plans under way to normalise and legalise trade links between the two countries.

It's too soon to say how this will affect petrol smuggling, but this well-entrenched trade will not easily be wished away.

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