L'argent du carburant (Sub-Saharan Africa)

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L'argent du carburant 🌍
SubSaharanAfrica map.png
Location: Sub-Saharan Africa
Definition: Metaphor designating a small sum of money given to customs officials 
Keywords: Sub-Saharan Africa Euphemism Money Payment Customs Borders Public service Borders Favour
Clusters: Redistribution Substantive ambivalence Sociability of instrumentality Economies of favours
Author: Thomas Cantens
Affiliation: World Customs Organisation, Belgium

By Thomas Cantens, World Customs Organisation, Belgium

In some African Customs administrations, l'argent du carburant or le prix du carburant (literally meaning ‘fuel money’) is a metaphor designating a small sum of money given to officials. The term most likely originates from the pre-paid fuel coupons given to civil servants to cover their transportation costs on official business. L'argent du carburant usually takes the form of something that is represented as personal, immediately and individually consumable. Sub-Saharan Tax and Customs administrations deal with the very raw material of corruption – money – which distinguishes them from spending administrations. Moreover, they are a powerful State apparatus: according to the 2011-2012 Annual Report of the World Customs Organisation, out of 26 African countries that have disclosed their figures, the Customs service collects between 15 per cent and 96 per cent of total tax revenues, with an average of 45 per cent[1]. In comparison, the customs services of OECD countries collect between 0.6 per cent and 52 per cent of tax revenues, with an average of 21 per cent.

Instances of l'argent du carburant may be overtly corrupt in nature: for instance, when a customs official is inspected by colleagues from the internal audit service, the latter may demand the ‘money for the fuel’ (that he has consumed to come to the audited staff) to draw up a favourable report. But more often the term refers to cases in which there is no real material exchange or extortion. Rather, l'argent du carburant serves more as a goodwill gesture to facilitate smooth long-term working relations between the parties. In a customs office, forwarding agents who present declarations regularly give l'argent du carburant after the declaration has been processed by the customs officer, without a fraud having been concealed or the processing sped up. Declarations are allotted to inspectors automatically and at random, so this gift remains ‘personal’. The sums are relatively small compared to the amounts of duties and taxes paid, and are recorded as ‘miscellaneous expenditure’ on invoices the forwarding agents submit to their clients. When asked how much they give, some forwarding agents refer to a very elaborate scale according to the nature of the goods passing through customs – a sign of the institutionalisation of this type of payment.

‘Photograph by Thomas Cantens.’ Source: Author

In principle, service users who do not give l'argent du carburant do not suffer any adverse effects other than a reputation for stinginess. In fieldwork conducted by the author in Cameroon, no respondent stated that a person who had not handed money over had been discriminated against on subsequent occasions. The forwarding agents interviewed were too verbose to fail to mention any penalties they would have incurred had they not offered such payments. L'argent du carburant is thus more of a custom than a source of corruption.

L'argent du carburant is part of a wide range of practices of donations with nothing in return that occur in day-to-day social relationships. When visiting headquarters for a meeting, one customs officer who had obtained a very gainful position (i.e. one which provides plenty of opportunity to earn extra money, both legally through bonuses as a share of fines on detected frauds and sometimes through bribes) gave his mission per diems to a colleague and friend, telling him it was for his ‘fuel’. Another, who no longer works at the port, was given an envelope by a forwarding agent with whom he had ceased to have any relations, for old time’s sake. Fuel money also facilitates relations between subordinates and their bosses, who, deprived of contact with users because of their position, cannot increase their income like their subordinates do. This is referred to as ‘giving account’. Although l'argent du carburant is not a form of bribery (in that it is not given for an immediate result in return), nor should it be considered a ‘gift’, given out of gratitude with no expectation of anything in return. Rather, l'argent du carburant facilitates connections that may be exploited subsequently. Although in practice such connections may never be used, they can be employed if necessary. In the case of relations between a boss and his subordinates, it is similarly not certain that a subordinate will need his boss to cover him in an event of a problem, or that the boss has means to control his subordinates’ real activity. However, the main role of l'argent du carburant may be to ensure what Gluckman called ‘peace in the feud’[2], i.e. the constraint of conflict by custom.

The environment of customs administration is indeed fundamentally combative in nature, due to the conflicting interests of the actors involved. Such competitive interactions take place both between service users and customs officers, and among the officers themselves. Service users aim to pay as little as possible, while officials seek either to maximise revenue to meet monthly targets (and thus advance their career), or to take the highest possible bribe in the light of the risk taken. Customs officers also compete with each other to be appointed to the best positions (Cantens 2012)[3]. L'argent du carburant is one of many unofficial practices that anticipate or resolve the conflicts among officials and between officials and taxpayers, a form of courtesy that finds its legitimacy in the latent conflicts. Other practices exist, such as various kinds of negotiation of the tax pressure on the big taxpayers and on the ‘informal sector’ (Cantens 2013[4]; Cantens et al. 2014[5]).

L'argent du carburant can turn into a major issue when change or innovation – for instance, a technical reform – breaks the equilibriums. In Cameroon in 2008, when a new IT system was installed that allotted declarations at random according to workloads, certain customs officers began to process them as quickly as possible by settling them without fully checking. This meant that the system would allot them more declarations so that they could increase their income though l'argent du carburant. This fast-tracking created informal income inequalities among customs officers working in the same office, resulting in some officials blowing the whistle on this malpractice among their colleagues. The system has now been adjusted to resolve this problem. It could be said that to some extent the system of l'argent du carburant has led to a legal improvement, since the ‘bad’ customs officials do now spend more time on controlling declarations. As with l'argent du carburant, all informal practices related to money generate competition among officials, as well as creating fragile equilibriums. At border offices where the trade traffic is low, a collectivisation of l'argent du carburant has been reported: the figures of the amounts given to each official are recorded in a book and the total amount is shared among officials according to their hierarchical rank on a weekly or monthly basis.

L'argent du carburant challenges some of the common assumptions of policy developers and researchers. On the one hand, it is legally categorised as a ‘corrupt’ practice: most penal codes classify the receipt of money that is not officially explicitly sanctioned as corruption. On the other hand, this kind of practice does not easily fit in with the conceptual framework of policymakers, whose definitions of corruption are often narrower than the law itself. Payments that are not extorted or unofficially exchanged for a service are generally considered from perspectives that can be either pragmatic – the importance of the informal practice is related to its cost for the taxpayers – or symbolic – the conformity of officials’ action to Weber’s ideal-type bureaucracy. L'argent du carburant serves as a reminder that notions of ‘corruption’ and ‘legality’ are at least in part based on what is acceptable in a society and the individual freedom to respect what society considers as acceptable or not.

Providing quantitative estimates for the amounts paid in bribes and carburant is not such a difficult task for ethnographers. Estimates given by respondents – both officials and intermediaries – for typical amounts paid can easily be crosschecked. Such respondents often talk candidly because they are keen to ‘explain’ what corruption is and the extent to which such payments compensate for the weak salaries of civil servants. For example, in Cameroon in the 1990s, officials’ wages were reduced by 75 per cent as part of ‘structural adjustment plans’, which understandably gave rise to a feeling of entitlement to informal payments as a means of fair compensation.

Quantitative measurement of carburant is important for challenging the usual distinction between ‘major’ and ‘petty’ corruption, based on amounts and beneficiaries. This typology has been roundly criticised as an ideological construction by Western societies (Amselle 1992)[6]. The case of customs administrations in sub-Saharan Africa reinforces such criticism: in Cameroon, the total amounts collected under ‘petty’ corruption – including l'argent du carburant – significantly exceeded the amounts reported in the press in ‘major’ corruption cases between 2006-2010. In addition, the ideological distinction between ‘petty’ and ‘major’ corruption may serve the idea that the higher status someone has in society, the higher the amount of bribe should be to consider him as ‘corrupt’.

Another difficulty in defining practices as ‘legitimate’ or ‘corrupt’ is that official procedures are always permeated by unofficial practices. An example of this official-unofficial dynamic arising from l'argent du carburant is the ‘protocol’, a formal but local institutional agreement between the administration and the private sector. Aware that the issuing of documents or the fulfilment of minor administrative action gave rise to intentional bottlenecks and payments of money, customs officials concluded ‘protocols’ with their private sector customers: an agreement defining the sum to be paid according to the action performed or the document provided. The amounts are collected together from forwarding agents or hauliers and divided among customs officers according to a fixed transparent scale. The managers of these enterprises preferred a protocol to a confrontational relationship with the customs officers. Moreover, the managers never actually knew whether their representatives gave the entire sum to the customs officer or kept part for themselves; thus the firms’ relationship with their forwarding agents could also potentially have been upset had they tried to clamp down on informal payments. A ‘protocol’, on the other hand, provides them with transparency.

If a state institution detects an informal threat to its power that it is unable to eliminate, then it will create or co-opt unofficial practices to try and regain some degree of control. The ‘protocol’ is an example of this – given that the customs authority lacks the means to eliminate the practice of l'argent du carburant, it standardises it and regains some degree of control over it in the form of the ‘protocol’. Such State pragmatism is a kind of ‘reason of State’. In this respect, addressing corruption by forcing actors to live up to idealised, abstract rules that are not recognised as legitimate precisely because they are so far removed from everyday practice is not realistic.


  1. IEG (Independent Evaluation Group). 2011. World Bank Country-Level Engagement on Governance and Anticorruption: An Evaluation of the 2007 Strategy and Implementation Plan. IEG, The World Bank Group
  2. Gluckman, M. 1955. ‘The Peace in the Feud’, Past and Present, 8(1): 1-14
  3. Cantens, T. 2012. 'Is it possible to reform a Customs administration? The role of bureaucratic elite in Cameroon', in A. H. Amsden, A. Di Caprio and J. A. Robinson, The Role of Elites in Economic Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 281-306
  4. Cantens, T. 2013. 'Other People's Money and Goods: the Relationship Between Customs Officers and Users in Some Countries of Sub-Saharan Francophone Africa', Sociologus, 63(1- 2): 37-58
  5. Cantens, T., Kaminski, J., Raballand, G. and Tchapa, T. 2014. 'Customs, Brokers, and Informal Sectors: A Cameroon Case Study'. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network
  6. Amselle, J-L. 1992. 'La corruption et le clientélisme au Mali et en Europe de l'Est : quelques points de comparaison', Cahiers d'études africaines: 629-642.