Illegal fuel sales double-edged sword in Cameroon

Anadolu Agency | ‘It’s a business that allows me to support my family. I haven’t found a better job elsewhere,’ seller tells Anadolu Agency

In Cameroonian cities, bottles of gasoline sit on the streets and wait to be sold at black market rates.

They are also sold in a high-risk context that is advantageous for dealers but takes revenue from the state.

On the heavily traveled Douala-Dibombari road along the shore, taxi driver Ewane Andrey abandoned his vehicle that was carrying passengers on several occasions to look for fuel at a price he could not find at petrol stations.

At his first stop, he refused to pay $1 per liter because he paid less one week ago.

“There is no fuel. I haven’t sold for a fortnight. This price is not even high compared to the risks and the scarcity of diesel. If you don’t want to buy, go somewhere else,” an angry saleswoman told him.

At the second stop in Bomono, a neighboring commune in Dibombari, he also left passengers waiting while he looked for fuel. He made a third stop and again abandoned his passengers. He borrowed a motorbike and returned 20 minutes later with a 5-liter can of fuel that he found in a village. Facing the anger of his passengers, he explained his difficulties.

Andrey’s situation is common in this central African country. The illegal sale of fuel is on the rise, much to the delight of sellers and drivers.

In New-Bell, a district in Douala, Ali Garba, is a fuel retailer with various locations. He gets his supplies from larger retailers who sell more than 50 liters per day, whereas Garba sells around 20 liters.

He placed a 1-liter bottle of petrol on a table and sat on the other side of the road to observe and wait for customers.

The customers are drivers of vehicles and motorbikes. When they stop in front of his shop, it presents an opportunity for Garba to stand up.

The strategic position he adopts daily allows him to escape the police.

“We are not allowed to sell gasoline or other such hydrocarbons. It’s a totally illegal business. But it’s the best I’ve found in life. So we play hide-and-seek with the police,” he told Anadolu Agency but refused to answer more questions.

High-risk revenue

Clethus Mbanga, a strapping man in the same neighborhood, rushes back and forth with several 5- and 10-liter cans of petrol from a hiding place to a table on the roadside where his two employees, vehicles and motorbikes are waiting.

“We can’t display all the goods on the road. We take them out gradually because police are on the lookout and do not hesitate to come and collect all the goods and transport the sellers to prison,” he told Anadolu Agency.

He is considered the dean of selling illegal petrol by his peers. For years, he has been doing this job, which was inspired by a friend.

“I used to be a thrift shop trader. One day, my friend told me about this business, which he said was lucrative. I hesitated and finally, I was seduced by the advantages he described to me and I decided to start selling. I started by building a network of customers. I delivered goods on demand. It wasn’t done on the roadside like it has been for less than three years here in Douala,” he said.

He said selling petrol is his only source of income. He sells 1 liter for between 500 and 650 Central African (CFAF) francs ($0.78 and $1). He refused to say how much he invests and earns each month but confided that in the beginning, he used to deliver 20 to 40 liters per week and sometimes 100 to 200 liters of fuel per month to a specific clientele.

“It is a business in which you have to invest in small drops. If I invest more than $300 per month and the police catch me and seize all my goods, I will lose out,” he said. “It’s a business that allows me to support my family. I haven’t found a better job elsewhere. I’ve been doing this business for four years and selling on the side of the road for one. It can be satisfying when you are spared the risks.”

The risks are what his competitors across the street also fear. At the slightest suspicious approach, they are ready to flee. They are two young men from the southwest — one of the English-speaking regions plagued by a separatist battle known as the “Anglophone crisis.”

Fleeing the crisis, they settled in the city of Douala where their business allows them to survive, despite the risks.

Previously, the business was done in secret — in garages — but now they no longer hide because there are crises that require the magnanimity of the authorities, according to Mbanga.

Favorable crises

The war between Russia and Ukraine is favorable to the sellers because it has caused a fuel shortage in legal petrol stations.

“Fortunately for us, we have this crisis. Without it, we would be in permanent danger. At the moment the police are sparing us because they know about the shortage of fuel at the service stations. If we were not there, traffic would be paralyzed. Until the whole country is supplied, the authorities let us do our business,” said Mbanga.

Cameroon is supplied by imports because in 2019 and since then, its production tool was damaged by an accident that paralyzed distillation columns that allowed it to refine products from the National Refining Company (Sonara), according to the Cameroonian oil depot company.

The scarcity of foreign currency is another reason for the shortage as well as the Ukrainian crisis which makes imports more expensive.

The Cameroonian government announced on July 11 that the hydrocarbon market will soon be supplied with 62,500 cubic meters of petroleum products, to ease the immediate shortage that emerged in service stations.

Minister of Water and Energy Gaston Eloundou Essomba said quantities will be reinforced in the coming days by “additional volumes of 88,000 cubic meters of Gasoil and 35,000 cubic meters of Super,” assuring that 123,000 cubic meters of hydrocarbons are on the way to the coast.

The illegal selling observed throughout Cameroon is also hampered by shortages and has caused periods without income for traders.

“Apart from the risk of being imprisoned, losing money, freedom, and family, it is also an unstable business because we sometimes go two to three weeks without supplies. We receive petrol from the tanker drivers who, after supplying the legal exploitation sites, sell us the leftovers. So when they don’t have petrol, we don’t have petrol either, otherwise, we find it out of the country,” said Mbanga.

For Mbanga, refueling outside the country means turning to Nigeria. He outlined a supply chain from cartels in Nigeria. He cited the port of Idenau in the southwest region near Nigeria where supplies are sometimes sub-marinated – meaning it is smuggled under the water, the method used by Nigerian cartels to get supplies to sell to clients.

“In the Anglophone regions, namely the northwest and southwest, this illegal trade has always existed. It comes from there. People have always sold diesel on street corners and have always refueled in Nigeria and the national refinery through trafficking networks,” he added.

Even if the trade takes advantage of crises, it is also at the origin of a hydrocarbon crisis that was reported by Essomba, who said it “is likely to disrupt the country’s supply of petroleum products, and is liable to the sanctions provided for by the regulatory provisions in force.”

At the same time, illegal exports deprive the state’s coffers, which subsidize products sold. For all hydrocarbons, the subsidy is estimated at more than $1 billion in 2022, according to the Ministry of Water and Energy.

In 2020, a customs operation resulted in the seizure of CFAF $15 million in goods, according to Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute.

Check Also

Lions indomptables: bataille entre Samuel Eto’o et Yannick Noah

La Nouvelle Tribune | Depuis quelques jours, Yannick Noah est au coeur d’une polémique sur …