Benin trader Antoine Djanta lost four members of his family at the weekend when an illegal fuel depot near his home exploded into a massive fire that killed 34 people.
Like many others in this border community, he lives off the contraband fuel trade with neighbouring Nigeria, a business that has now brought tragedy to the town.
“What have we done to deserve to lose our loved ones like this?” Djanta said, inconsolable as relatives flocked in small groups to visit the bereaved family.
On Saturday, one of the main illicit gasoline storage warehouses located in Seme-Krake exploded into flames and burned up in just a few minutes.
Twenty-four hours later, all that remains are the depot’s walls and the charred frames of cars and motorcycles that were parked there.
In the surrounding area, many stores have their doors broken down after residents and owners smashed their way in to salvage as much as possible before the flames spread.
Massavo Houngbo, 42, a trader who also makes his living from gasoline trafficking, still can’t believe the damage.
He and his eldest son narrowly escaped death thanks to a transport issue.
“I had dozens of cans there,” he said. “I had completed arrangements for one of my loads which was leaving for Cotonou. But the truck was delayed and I left the premises with my son to return later.”
Ten minutes after his departure, an explosion ripped through the depot, sending an enormous black cloud of fuel smoke into the air.
“We lost a lot in this fire but we cannot mourn the losses. We are alive and that is priceless,” Houngbo said, holding his head in his hands.
According to a report from officials on Saturday, the 34 dead in the flames included two babies.
Twenty more people were injured, some seriously.
An investigation has been opened to determine the circumstances.
Since the 1980s, fuel from Nigeria, one of the leading oil producers in Africa, has been transported illegally to neighbouring Benin where gasoline is resold along the roads by informal sellers.
This contraband gasoline, called “Kpayo” which means “bad quality” in the local Gun language, has become the main source of fuel in Benin and the business supports tens of thousands of people.
Until May, it was almost three times cheaper than that sold in Beninese service stations, because Nigeria had until then subsidised its fuel.
But the trade also comes with risks due to the dangers of storage and transport conditions, as well as frequent fatal fires.
Since 2018, the government has been trying to end trafficking and formalise the sector by encouraging the creation of service stations and training black market traders in other skills.
But the scale of the sector is such that even the end of fuel subsidies in neighbouring Nigeria in May did not halt trafficking.
Business continued even after the end of Nigerian subsidies tripled the price of “Kpayo”, making it more expensive than gasoline sold legally in stations.
“The tragedy that has just occurred reminds us of the urgent need to resolve the kpayo issue,” Beninese Economy Minister Romuald Wadagni told reporters on Saturday evening.
Benin has 54,000 points of sale of contraband gasoline, the minister said.
“We are convinced that giving these people a decent job, they will be able to change activity,” he said.
More than 5,000 people have already benefited from training in textiles to shift from fuel trafficking.
At the border, dealers said they were in shock after the blaze.
“There was too much damage,” said one of them, on condition of anonymity. “The state must help us because right now we have no other job except this one.”