BY FEDERICK DRAMADRI
ARUA: TUESDAY, DECEMBER 28, 2021
The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the richest African countries on account of its mineral deposits but its economy is under performing due to illicit trade in gold.
Some of the mineral smuggling is done via the West Nile sub-region of Uganda where newly proclaimed Arua City is the main black market.
Here, the natives freely cross to either side of the countries, something attributed to the close cultural ties, trade and the porous entry points.
According to security agencies, there are more than 122 illegal entry points in the region stretching from Salia Musala (tri-point of Uganda, DR Congo and South Sudan border) to Dei landing site on Lake Albert, offering a fertile ground for illicit trade.
The Uganda Revenue Authority’s (URA) West Nile regional office’s records show that the commonly smuggled items include cigarettes, fuel, cooking oil and African fabric locally known as ‘kitenge’. It does not list gold among the contraband because officials say they have no trace of it.
But an interaction with a smuggler has confirmed that gold smuggling remains widespread and complex in the region due to its ability to be easily transformed into any product and hidden in small quantities while on transit.
Understanding the illicit gold trade
In 2017, the United Nations Environment Program posted that Democratic Republic of Congo loses between USD$72 million to USD$426 million through illegal trade in wildlife, gold and timber through the eastern neighbors.
It described this as work of a transnational organized criminal network and a reason for the continued conflict in the Eastern DRC.
To understand the transaction I caught up with a gold smuggler, Jackson (not real name), in Arua town who has done the illicit trade for the past 43 years.
Graying Jackson is a lean sized, gentleman in his 70s, driving silver Toyota Premio fitted with a Congolese Number Plate.
At his reclusive home at the Arua Junior Quarters, Jackson reveals that gold smuggling came to prominence following a declaration by the then President of Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo), the late Mobutu Sese Seko to allow his citizens to freely deal in the mining industry.
“When Mobutu said ‘mutu na mutu abongisa aluka aliana ndenge nayee’ in Lingala meaning everybody in Congo should go and look for wealth and develop themselves, because we were already refugees in Congo we all entered into that opportunity. We went to Uele the “biggest” River in Eastern Congo and the mount Nzani where we started the mining activities,” Jackson explained.
Using spades, they scoop the precious metal with other trash such as sand and boulders from the river bed into a metallic basin. The content is sloshed in the basin to remove the unwanted trash, leaving you with the gold.
While in the caves on mount Nzani, the miners use pickaxe or mattock and hammers to pound the mountain side in order to extract the mineral.
Although trade volumes between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have increased by USD 380 million (Sh1.3 trillion) from USD$200 million (Sh702.3 billion) in 2017 to USD$580 million (Sh2 trillion) in 2020 according to the ministry of trade, a huge volume of goods go unnoticed by both countries due to smuggling.
Inside the Gold business
Gold is easily transformable to any product; for example, it can be molded into bangles, necklaces or any jewelry, and can be easily taken across any border by road. Jackson says they often move by road and hence smuggle as much as possible.
“We don’t go through the customs post… but even if you cross through there nobody will check you because gold is not something easily to pinpoint that this person has something in his body. They don’t check like remove your clothes, what? No!” he said of the laxity at the Vurra Customs border post.
“There is a way of keeping it in your body secretly. You can keep it inside the under pant or even at times we keep it inside the jacket or we improvise a hideout on the inside of the car window. If you don’t involve yourself in gold business you will remain asking!!” a jolly Jackson enthused.
But he added that the smuggling is not just a one-way traffic, surprisingly revealing that while fuel smugglers normally carry fuel in jerricans from border trading centers like Ariwara and Ombokolo into Uganda, gold smugglers actually smuggle fuel from Uganda in improvised reservoir tanks that can carry up to 2,000 liters to Nzani mining area where fuel prices are much higher than in Uganda.
The smuggler says that a kilogram of gold is sold at sh15,000,000 (USD$4,273.31) in Arua’s black market far cheaply compared to the USD $57,569.13 (Sh202,116,750) in the United States of America.
Jackson says he travels between Arua and Nzani or Uele two times in a week, meaning that a smuggler who carries at least one kilo of gold on every trip would be selling gold worth sh30m (USD $8,547.51) per week and sh120,000,000 (USD $34,190.06) in a month or sh1.44 billion (USD $410,280.75) in one year without tax.
“The first time I sold my Gold I got shs15, 000,000, I bought my vehicle and that was not all, I continued the business. Eventually I left mining and began buying from miners to sell to middlemen from Kampala,” he said of the lucrative illicit trade.
Who is involved?
A May 2021 report by Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime on illegal trade in Eastern and Southern Africa mentioned Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda as the regional magnets, attracting significant volumes of gold from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
The Bank of Uganda records released in November 2021 show that Uganda’s gold exports grew from USD$230,000 in 2014 to USD$2,249,730,000 in 2021, outmatching the volumes of gold produced by artisanal miners locally.
Jackson corroborates that cross border smuggling is one source of the gold some of it can find its way into the legal trade when registered companies buy from smugglers but a lot of the mineral is sneaked out of the country informally.
He identified the middlemen buying illegal gold in Uganda as Indians, Chinese and others from the Far East.
“It’s automatic that gold dealers know themselves and it’s a secret revealed to you right from DR Congo where you mined or bought the gold from. You just come straight to the individuals or organizations in Arua town so that you don’t loiter around for someone to feel suspicious of you,” he intimated.
“At times the internationals will come to Arua, at times the Congolese will come and sell in Arua, and the Arua ones go to Kampala or Nairobi you don’t jump over the other person in the chain, but the foreigners now mostly come to Arua,” said Jackson.
Kennedy Dramani, the executive director of solidarity for all, a loose social grouping in Arua City, claims that people are driven into smuggling by high taxes levied on genuine trade.
He also alleged that some of the most active smugglers are top government officials and URA staff often with taints of corruption records in the past. However, he provided no evidence or details to this effect.
What happens at the customs
Vurra customs is one of the designated points of entry to Eastern DR Congo where between 45 and 50 trucks pass thorough daily.
Customs officials here confirmed that they have never apprehended any gold smuggler or impounded any amount of gold.
Meanwhile Jackson says the authorities have no interest and knowledge on how smugglers move with gold.
“Gold is not something heavy that somebody can easily detect and even if they tighten the security at the customs. We know a lot of paths in DR Congo. You just march slowly like a villager and a Lugbara, and Ugandan across the border and you find yourself in Arua,’’ Jackson says.
William Cobie, a Congolese truck driver, agrees that even if the surveillance at the customs border post is tightened it will still be easy for seasoned smugglers to move across the borders due to its porosity.
Uganda Revenue Authority speaks out
The URA general manager for West Nile, Godson Mwesigye, says the history of gold smuggling in the region begun way back in 1979 when the residents from West Nile took refuge in Congo following the violent ouster of former President, the late Idi Amin.
“The gold business has stayed over a long period since 1970s. Remember the people from West Nile and on the other side of DRC are of the same tribe. Honestly we have not arrested anyone as far as gold is concerned,” Mwesigye says.
Mwesigye pointed out that the customs border posts in the region lack scanners that would be used to detect minerals.
Mwesigye suggests that clear polices of tax collection be gazzetted by the legislatures to ensure tax compliance and instant award of penalties to defaulters
“We have sent the concerns for policy review to ensure an increased revenue collection,” he said.
He proposed that for Uganda and DRC to earn from gold trade and stop losing huge volumes of revenue to smuggling, the two countries should build a strong joint surveillance system to detect and instantly arrest the illegal dealers.
“Establishing clear and uniform tax policies to avoid big variations will also go a long way in addressing illicit trade,” concluded Mwesigye.