Fuel trafficking is big business in the region and serves to finance armed groups, terrorist organisations, financial institutions, corrupt law enforcement officials and groups linked to prominent individuals with interests in retail businesses. It is also in high demand among the population

Illicit Fuel Trafficking in the Sahel

PHOTO/UNODC - Graffiti con un transportista de combustible en Porto Novo, Benin
PHOTO/UNODC - Graffiti with a fuel transporter in Porto Novo, Benin

Kourou/Koualou, a small village in a neutral zone between Benin and Burkina Faso, is the centre of an illicit cross-border fuel trade of one million litres per year, an example of a phenomenon that extends across the 6000 kilometres of the Sahel region.  

Transported by criminal networks and taxed by terrorist groups, the illegal fuel flows along four main routes that snake through the Sahel, siphoning millions of dollars from countries seeking to stabilise a security-challenged region home to 300 million people.  

"Fuel trafficking is undermining the rule of law; it is fuelling corruption," said François Patuel, head of the Research and Awareness Unit at 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 tackled.  

Traffickers respond to demand  

Fuel trafficking is big business in the region. The UN agency's report, Fuel Trafficking in the Sahel, says it funds non-state armed groups, terrorist organisations, financial institutions, corrupt law enforcement officials and groups linked to prominent individuals with interests in fuel retail companies. It is also in high demand among the population.  

Factors facilitating this illicit activity are the low subsidised gas prices in Algeria, Libya and Nigeria. According to information gathered, gas stations in Libya charge eleven cents per litre, while the price at gas stations in Mali, across the border, averages $1.94 per litre.

PHOTO/Harouna Ousmane Ibrahim - Motocicletas que transportan combustible de contrabando en Dosso, Niger, cerca de la frontera con Nigeria
PHOTO/Harouna Ousmane Ibrahim - Motorbikes carrying smuggled fuel in Dosso, Niger, near the border with Nigeria

Millions in losses  

"Just by crossing the border, they make a profit of 90 cents per litre," Patuel explained. "It's an easy income for criminal groups.  

He added that traffickers sell this product to the population, who depend on cheaper fuel to carry out everyday activities such as powering generators to produce electricity or filling their gas tanks to take their products to market.  

"They exploit these needs to sell their criminal products, including smuggled fuel," he added 

The report tracks operations in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, where along busy routes, drivers transport millions of litres of smuggled fuel each year. The established routes run 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 revenue for Sahel nations is enormous, said Amado Philip de Andrés, UNODC's regional representative for West and Central Africa.  

The illicit trade costs Niger nearly eight million dollars a year in tax revenue, according to the country's High Authority for Combating Corruption and Related Offences. Traffickers evade taxes by buying fuel marked for export at reduced costs and diverting deliveries domestically or across borders, the government office said.  

Terrorist taxes  

Smugglers, however, pay "taxes" to newly formed terrorist groups, including around Kourou/Koualou, where illegal depots stored tanks of smuggled fuel while in transit. In addition, Al-Qaeda affiliated groups operate some of the gold from mines in the area and collect taxes for smuggling.  

In terms of natural resource trafficking in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, "local communities are particularly vulnerable, as they live in isolated areas with limited police presence", as detailed by the Security Council's Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) in a trend alert report.  

Often, smuggled fuel is circumscribed on the surface of a very deep well of trafficking, reflecting a nexus of criminal activities, from drugs to migrants, Patuel noted, citing the example of a 17-tonne seizure of cannabis resin by Nigerian police in 2021 involving a known fuel trafficker who owned petrol stations. The suspect allegedly used the proceeds of drug trafficking to purchase contraband fuel sold at his petrol stations.

OCHA/Eve Sabbagh - La Agencia de la ONU para los Refugiados (ACNUR) ha lanzado programas de dinero por trabajo que emplean a jóvenes de las comunidades de acogida en Awaradi, Níger, para fabricar ladrillos
OCHA/Eve Sabbagh - The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has launched cash-for-work programmes that employ young people from host communities in Awaradi, Niger, to make bricks

he UNODC also highlights other new and disturbing trends that show companies associated with individuals sanctioned by the Security Council involved in fuel smuggling 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 of natural resource trafficking to fund their illegal activities. The UN Security Council has urged states to, among other measures, hold perpetrators accountable. 

Eliminating corruption  

Tackling fuel smuggling is a complex undertaking with potentially deadly consequences in a region with sky-high rates of informal employment ranging from 78.2 per cent in Niger to 96.9 per cent in Chad. Deterring illicit fuel flows is of concern to the UNODC, as it could increase transport and energy prices along with the costs of most commercial goods and services.  

The Office suggests that Sahelian nations and neighbouring countries identify and prosecute cases of fuel smuggling that are directly linked to organised crime, armed groups and corruption. This can be done with the tools contained in international treaties such as the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and the UN Convention against Corruption.  

Limits to illicit flows  

While some anti-smuggling efforts have been met with violent resistance, including the death of a law enforcement officer, nations continue to stem illicit flows with new and collaborative approaches, the UNODC said.  

The agency's latest threat assessment on the phenomenon provided a number of examples ranging from police escorted gas convoys in Algeria near the border with Mali, to curfews imposed in Benin and raids to stop cross-border armed groups.  

For its part, Burkina Faso has been meticulously dismantling since 2019 a highly organised fuel trafficking network that smuggled millions of litres over a three-year period with fleets of trucks carrying up to 30,000 litres per trip.

PHOTO/PNUD/Aurelia Rusek - La violencia continua, el cambio climático, la desertificación y la tensión por los recursos naturales están empeorando el hambre y la pobreza en Chad
PHOTO/PNUD/Aurelia Rusek - Ongoing violence, climate change, desertification and tension over natural resources are worsening hunger and poverty in Chad

In Kourou/Koualou, the flow of illegal fuel has slowed to a trickle following a government crackdown, but terrorist groups continue to "tax the fuel that is still being trafficked, as well as other smuggled goods," the UNODC warned. 

"Criminal groups feed themselves by exploiting the needs of the population," stressed the agency's chief investigator Patuel. "Combining efforts and having a regional approach will lead to success in combating organised crime in the region."  

UN takes action  

The UN and its partners are working to eradicate trafficking and create opportunities in the region. Here are some of the activities the Organisation is assisting 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). 
  • UNISS peace and security initiatives include a project to help prevent the spread and rise 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-organised by the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Senegal's Centre for Advanced Defence and Security Studies, and Switzerland's 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 on the country, which continues to be affected by the spreading conflict of the central Sahel crisis.