October 27, 2016 By Patrick Jaiah Kamara
“Are you mad?” The police officer guarding one of the banned fuel stations bellowed at me. I felt rather startled. My face wore a menacing caution. Honestly, I sensed some trouble and decided to play it cool.
“Relax”, I gently coaxed the officer, extending a hand of friendship. “I am a reporter from Concord Times newspaper. I am here on a fact finding mission.” Ignoring the extended hands of friendship, his scolding face became even more contorted. “You are lucky! What can I do for you?,” he asked as he continued to gobble down the bowl of ‘Acheke’ he held in hands.
He stood up and retorted in seemingly violent manner. “I can’t speak to journalist. I am only here to guard the station from thieves. I suggest you talk to my superiors,” (pointing at the toll gate across the street).
Earlier last week, Deputy Minister of Information and Communication, Cornelius Deveaux, together with the Government Spokesperson, Ajibu Jalloh, took some twenty journalists to Gbalamuya, in Kambia district, to ascertain facts on the ground about alleged huge smuggling of fuel to neighbouring Guinea in recent times.
Few weeks ago, the Inspector General of Police, Francis Allieu Munu, revealed to journalists that police had impounded five tankers loaded with 1,625 gallons of fuel heading for neighbouring Guinea.
Smuggling of fuel and other commodities is not a novelty in Sierra Leone. It is not only happening at the border crossing point with neighbouring Guinea, but also at the Liberia border crossing point with Sierra Leone.
According to Deveaux, his ministry took journalists to Gbalamuya on a fact finding mission to ascertain as to how fuel had been clandestinely smuggled into neighbouring Guinea through the said border. He said government was seriously considering removing fuel subsidy.
He said the government considers the payment of fuel subsidy as non-beneficial to majority of citizens of Sierra Leone, adding that the impounding of smuggled consignment, which coincided with call by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to remove fuel subsidy, was quiet in place.
Kambia district, which according to the government is used as a main conduit to smuggle fuel out of Sierra Leone, hosted about 43 pumping stations, although only two are now functional as a result of the police crackdown.
According to Assistant Inspector General of Police, North-West, Foday Umaru Keifala Daboh, all the fuel stations were registered, although police could not disclose the names of the owners. Several arrests were made, but it still remains unclear as to who was behind the smuggling syndicate.
“Smuggling here involves a syndicate. It involves police officers, stakeholders and even custom workers. Most of the smuggled fuel goes through the main checkpoint. So, it is logical that it involves a group rather than an individual,” said one Wurie Sow, a driver who plies the route.
His claim was corroborated by AIG Daboh, who told reporters that some senior citizens were involved in the racket.
He disclosed that there were thirty-five illegal crossing points in Kambia district and that smuggling could only be eradicated with the collective effort of all stakeholders within the district.
“Who actually consumes the fuel that crosses the bridge? It is logical that drivers leaving Freetown for Conakry normally full their tanks in Freetown. So, logically all these nine fuel stations were constructed for smuggling purposes,” he averred.
Asked whether smuggling of fuel could be a possible justification for the government’s proposed removal of subsidy, AIG Daboh said that could not be used as a justification for the removal of subsidy, but advised that government should put serious measures in place to control cross-border trade.
He blamed the Ministry of Trade and Petroleum Unit for being collaborators in the smuggling of fuel, stating that they issue out licenses to petroleum companies.
He disclosed that due to the development in the district, about 250 police and military officers have been transferred from the border checkpoint to other jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, the police crackdown and subsequent closure of 41 pumping stations, one way or the other, affected the movement of drivers, traders and other travelers. Due to artificial scarcity, drivers, especially those plying the Sierra Leone–Guinea route, now find it difficult to access fuel.
“For the past two weeks there has been fuel scarcity in Kambia.They cannot pump more than four litres per vehicle. This has caused a lot of problems for us drivers plying to Pamlap,” said Wurie Sow.
“Fuel is more expensive in Guinea as compared to Sierra Leone. So, we don’t buy fuel in Guinea but we always try to fill our tanks before we leave for Guinea.”
Another driver, Mohamed Suma, told Concord Times that there is scarcity of fuel since the closure of some stations in the district, although denied knowledge of any smuggling. He said, “I ply from here to Makeni and not Guinea, so I can’t tell whether fuel is being smuggled. It should not be the case of the innocent suffering for the wicked. We are pleading to the government to re-open the fuel stations as they are causing huge problems for us.”
Kambia district is one of the smallest districts in the country, with a population of 343,686, as per the 2016 census. The district provides an important trade route to and from the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown to the Guinean capital of Conakry.
Before the police crackdown, the district had about forty-three fuel stations, nineteen of them in Kambia town alone, including five located close to the official Guinea-Sierra Leone cross-point.
Also, three pumping stations were located at Madina and Kukuna towns,where it was also alleged that fuel was being smuggled into Guinea, with smugglers using boats to traffic the product.
Mohamed Kargbo, a native of Kukuna, said boats had been intercepted at sea, but that the owners most times settle with security officers. He alleged that even the owners of fuel stations collaborate with smugglers.
It was observed by this reporter that even when those stations had been closed, there was evidence that people were still selling fuel in hideouts. Most of the stations use what a local journalist, Gibril Gotor, described as ‘snake pipe’ to pump the substance into jerry cans in nearby bushes.
Joseph Kanu, a youth activist in Kambia, noted that smuggling would continue as long as there continue to be disparity in the cost of fuel across the sub-region.
“It would be unwise to impose universal fuel prices across the region overnight, but steadily bringing prices closer together would gradually reduce the level of crime,” he said.
He added that removing subsidies would also provide all Mano River states an opportunity to divert monies paid as subsidies into more worthwhile projects. This, he said, would only be achieved if the general public is convinced about their governments’ good intentions.
It has been widely argued that the removal of subsidy would negatively impact households, either directly or indirectly. Many are of the view that prices of basic commodities would be affected and cost of living made high.
Even though some countries like Nigeria, Guinea and Liberia have removed subsidy on fuel, Sierra Leone could not afford to join that club, especially when the country is cash-strapped and with a relatively lower standard of living. But the government is adamant about removing the fuel subsidy.
Currently, the Ministry of Information and Communication is undertaking nationwide consultation for the possible removal of fuel subsidy. According to Mohamed Bangura, government spends a whooping sum of 90 billion Leones on fuel subsidy per year.
Ghana has re-introduced fuel subsidies as a result of the depreciation of the Cedi against the United States Dollar, rising inflation and the decline in crude oil prices on the international market. Sierra Leone is currently facing a similar situation.
But with a precarious financial position, as evinced in recent times, coupled with the Ebola disease which downgraded the country’s economy, suffocating debts, the government says it is incontrovertible that they should pull the plug on unsustainable petroleum subsidy policy.