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The History of Smuggling in Uganda’s West Nile Region

The term smuggling often brings strongly negative connotations and is often associated with criminality and violence. However, smugglers aren’t always associated with these negative connotations by the communities in which they are embedded. The West Nile region in Uganda illustrates this dynamic. This area is located in northwestern Uganda and borders the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. When colonialists introduced the borders demarcating Uganda, Zaire/Congo and Sudan, this divided ethnic groups but didn’t stop the interaction between them. Continued untaxed trade – or smuggling – was considered legitimate.  However, this doesn’t mean all smuggling is romanticised. Smuggling in goods such as drugs or weapons is looked at very differently and doesn’t have the same legitimacy and popular support. Data from the Bank of Uganda and Uganda Bureau of Statistics shows that in 2018, Ugandan informal exports – or smuggled products – were worth US$546.6 million. For their part, smuggled imports were worth US$60 million. But these numbers are an underestimation as they are based on data from official border posts, which excludes goods smuggled through many unofficial smuggling routes. Moreover, the data shows that for the DRC – which in 2018 accounted for almost half of Uganda’s informal trade value – informal export and import figures are almost always higher than the formal ones.