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Benin-Niger oil export row flares again

Rodrigue Guezodje in Cotonou, Benin | Kate Hairsine
June 12, 2024

Niger accuses Benin of kidnapping five oil workers, while Benin claims they entered an oil terminal illegally. Tensions in West Africa rise amid an ongoing oil export dispute.

Workers from Niger and China are seen on the construction site of an oil pipeline in the Niger in 2022.
The pipeline to carry oil from Niger to Benin's port is complete, but oil still isn't flowing onward to ChinaImage: Boureima Hama/AFP/Getty Images

Tensions between neighboring West African nations Benin and Niger are escalating amid a deepening dispute over oil exports.

This latest flare in tensions comes as Niger accuses Benin of kidnapping five of its nationals. Benin authorities arrested the Nigerien citizens at its Seme port last week.

Niger's military junta says those arrested were a team from the Nigerien-Chinese oil company Wapco Niger and included the company's deputy managing director and four other executives.

Wapco Niger is a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation, China's state-owned oil company.

According to the junta, the delegation was in Benin to monitor the loading of Niger's crude oil shipments to China.

Landlocked Niger relies on Benin's Seme port to export its crude oil, which flows to Benin through an almost 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) Chinese-built pipeline from its Agadem oilfield.

Benin accuses Niger of spying

For its part, Benin said it arrested the Nigeriens after they illegally entered the port, where the storage tanks for the cross-border pipeline are located. Benin authorities alleged the Nigerien team claimed to be Wapco employees and used fake badges to enter the facility.

Mario Metonou, Benin's special prosecutor, also accused two of those detained of being agents of Niger's junta.

"Investigations are ongoing to ascertain the true motives of the accused amid recurring reports of planned threats to Benin's national security," Metonou said last Thursday.

The incident came just weeks after Benin agreed on May 15 to provisionally let the first shipload of Nigerien oilat the Seme terminal.

But the nations haven't yet agreed on a long-term solution. And the loading of Chinese ships with Niger's oil at Seme port reportedly remains at a standstill after Niger's junta said it would block oil flowing through the pipeline in retaliation for the arrest of its citizens.

"We are no longer going to send our oil through the pipeline until the Beninese decide to honor their commitment and until the Chinese partner gets them to honor their commitment because, apparently, that is the only party they are listening to," Niger's petroleum minister Mahamane Moustapha Barke said following the arrests.

According to African Energy, stopping the oil flow would deprive Benin of oil transit fees worth $31 million (€28.9 million) a year.

Men in blue overalls work at an oil pipeline construction site.
The Niger-Benin crude oil pipeline was funded by ChinaImage: Boureima Hama/AFP/Getty Images

Tense relations since Niger's 2023 coup

Reopening the common border is another stumbling block in relations between the two countries. The tensions go back to the July 2023 coup in Niger, which led the regional bloc ECOWAS to impose strict sanctions on Niger for more than six months.

In March 2024, Niger reopened its border with Nigeria following the lifting of sanctions imposed by ECOWAS. Nigeria shut its border for several months after the military took power and rejected demands to return power to a civilian government. But despite the lifting of sanctions, Niger refuses to open its land border to Benin, which it accuses of harboring French bases on its territory. The Nigerien junta expelled French troops previously stationed in the Sahel nation.

Benin governance expert Francis Euloge Atad said alternative stakeholders need to get involved in mediation efforts to help ease the situation.

The Flip Side: Niger and Benin’s border dispute

"If Niger wants to put an end to the pipeline or divert the pipeline's route in the same way that it is diverting its goods, why this attitude?" he told DW. "How can we live together, especially those on either side of the two borders? These are all unanswered questions that force us to seek mediation, for example, by a religious figure, who should be carefully chosen."

Meanwhile, on the streets of Benin's Cotonou port, near Seme, people told DW they wanted both governments to end the deadlock.

"This crisis mustn't continue. The leaders really need to take action against this as a peaceful and balanced resolution would be beneficial for both countries and their people," one woman told DW.

"I believe it is vital that our leaders, both in Benin and Niger, find peaceful and diplomatic solutions to put an end to these tensions so that the people can live in harmony and focus on development," said another passerby.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.