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Story Publication logo April 4, 2024

‘Big Men’, an Ugly History, and the Ruthless Congo Basin Timber Smuggling Business


Uganda has for years had large volumes of informal trade with the DRC.


Image courtesy of The Africa Report.

The illicit DRC-Uganda raw wood trade has a difficult past, involving the military, rebels, high-level politicians and unabated trafficking, laid out in the second part of our investigation into the eastern Africa timber industry. 

This is part 2 of a 4-part series

The 950km Uganda-DRC border is dotted with many natural features, from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park gorilla sanctuary and Lake Edward in southwestern Uganda to the Semliki River, Rwenzori Mountains and Lake Albert in midwestern Uganda. Past Lake Albert, the border curls twice into the largely flat terrain of northern Uganda.

The meandering roads along the border are used to smuggle contraband, including timber from the Congo Basin – also known as the lungs of Africa.

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As early as 7pm, motorcycles can be seen on the bumpy marram roads, moving at breakneck speeds, ferrying jerrycans of petrol and boxes of cigarettes into Uganda.

Timber smuggler’s paradise

Raw wood without documentation is smuggled openly in Lia and along 160km around the village. The illegal entry points are not hidden in heavily forested areas but occur in small settlements that are often not far from official borders.

The smugglers are facilitated by people who live in communities on both sides of the border; these people only engage in conversation after being introduced by someone they know. The Africa Report spoke to two ‘facilitators’.

A man who has been part of the timber smuggling scheme through an illegal entry point located 12km south of Lia said that because timber pieces are hard to move across the border, the wood is first dropped close to the border point and then moved into Uganda at night.

About 100km south of Lia, less than 2km from the Padea official border point in the Zombo district, a person who facilitates the movement of Congolese timber – hardwood and softwood – into Uganda told The Africa Report that he connects Ugandan timber buyers with dealers on the DRC side. The dealers prepare the requested timber which is then moved into Uganda during the night on bicycles and motorcycles, depending on the volume.

He explains that softwood, the most smuggled timber – usually eucalyptus and pine – is cheap, quick to find and easy to move across the border. However, some clients want hardwood, such as African mahogany, an endangered species. Those who facilitate smuggling wood across the border ensure it is stored in the agreed place and are paid depending on the volume and distance across the borders.

Ibrahim Bbosa, spokesperson of Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) tells The Africa Report they have “heard information from other [government] agencies that have been able to find consolidation points where people ferry in small bits of timber, consolidate and then initiate trade”.

Checkpoints to roadblocks

From the informal Lia timber park on the border of DRC and other consolidation points, timber is loaded onto closed-body trucks that transport it 450km to Kampala, Uganda’s capital.

This timber will either be without any documents or will have been cleared with fake documents. It will also likely be an overloaded truck with under-declared wood – yet it must pass roadblocks and a weighbridge. Traders fix both problems with cash and saying “it’s for my boss”.

Trucks are allowed to carry a maximum of 30 tonnes, but one trader says they load as much as possible.

Instead of paying an official tax, you line the pockets of the checkpoint operators

Roadblocks – permanent or temporary – are manned by various security agencies such as the army, police, URA law enforcement, the National Forestry Authority and environmental police.

The first permanent roadblock en route to Kampala is monitored by URA staff, environmental police and the army and is some 109km from Arua in the West Nile region. The second is 237km from Arua, while the weighbridge is located 60km from Kampala.

There are also several semi-permanent police checkpoints along the road. An environmental police officer who used to work at a checkpoint said timber trucks arrive with clearance papers obtained from the entry border point. Though he knew stories of trucks that arrive with illegal timber, he declined to talk about how they negotiate their way.

At roadblocks in the DRC, the truck driver must pay an informal ‘tax' that is less than the official timber tax, says Peer Schouten, author of Roadblock Politics: Origin of Violence in Central Africa (2022).

“Instead of paying an official tax, you line the pockets of the checkpoint operators. That way is cheaper because you can get some kind of manufactured informal receipt that you can give to your boss,” says Schouten.

“For people at the roadblock, this is their way of making money. This is a business opportunity for people who have guns or administrative authority,” he adds.

A soldier who worked along the road told The Africa Report that timber is moved in unimaginable ways, including in government trucks or trucks owned by reputable companies. He said if a truckload was questioned, calls came from superiors ordering them to let it go.

Other timber trucks move on by name-checking military generals, the soldier added. A timber trader also said timber can be moved easily through checkpoints by mentioning a connection to senior army officers.

The Uganda government admits that the smuggling trade between the two countries is huge. As of 2022, the Bank of Uganda estimated informal trade to be worth $275m, more than half of the recorded formal trade.

‘Big men’ smugglers

Timber smuggling is fuelled by “big guys” says Abwoli Banana, a professor at Makerere University's School of Forestry, Environmental and Geographical Sciences, who has researched timber for more than three decades.

You need to know a general, a politician and armed groups to do business or you’ll be harassed too much

Banana says timber passes through official borders and checkpoints unquestionably, and is moved throughout the day, not only at night.

“Those guys are strong enough to make sure that timber passes through without any documents,” he says. “If you're a small guy, you cannot move timber.”

Schouten, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, agrees that political connections are needed, especially during transportation, as a lot of money changes hands.

“If you want to be in the timber trade, you need to know a general, a politician and armed groups to do business or you’ll be harassed too much,” says Schouten.

“There is not as much chaos in the Congo as some people point out,” he says, “but you need to know the businessmen in Bunia and Butembo, who are also the political and military elites.”

A former Ugandan National Forestry Authority (NFA) officer who spoke off the record said elite military engaged in the business are above the law.

“High-ranking government and military officials [have] military cars that escort illegal timber to the market,” he said.

“The powerful people, their timber is escorted, it comes clear with no payment, no documents,” he adds.

In July 2023, Daily Monitor, an independent local newspaper, reported on a 2020 incident in which a truck loaded with hardwood timber and contraband cigarettes being driven by two soldiers was confiscated by URA officers and taken to the tax agency's headquarters. The smuggled merchandise had disappeared by the next morning.

'Not my job'

Who should detect or arrest illegal timber traders in transit? No one wants to take responsibility. Uganda’s environmental police and NFA are under the Ministry of Water and Environment.

A URA spokesperson told The Africa Report that the NFA probably have more roadblocks than the URA. However, NFA public relations officer Juliet Mubi said the agency’s responsibility is the protection of Uganda’s forests, not those outside the country's borders.

Bob Kazungu, the acting assistant commissioner for forestry at the Ministry for Water and Environment says the NFA is mandated to arrest anyone dealing in illegal timber even if it's imported.

“There are no guidelines” on timber coming from DRC, says Enock Abaine, commander of Uganda’s environmental police. “We have not been targeting them,” he adds.

The contraband business has an ugly history: it started, picked up and flourished during the 1990s when the Ugandan army occupied parts of eastern DRC during the Great African War. And it has never ceased.

Brutal history

In 1996, Rwanda and Uganda invaded the DRC, backing Laurent Kabila’s rebel movement, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFLC). Within a year, Kabila had marched to Kinshasa, ousting Mobutu Sese Seko. It didn’t take long for Kabila to fall out with his Rwandan and Ugandan backers and he attempted to push them out in 1998.

Rwanda and Uganda soldiers moved to eastern DRC where they supported various rebel movements fighting to overthrow the man they had catapulted to power. From 1998 to 2001 the soldiers and rebels looted DRC resources, including timber.

Even after Uganda soldiers withdrew from Congo in 2002, high-ranking government officials continued smuggling timber. In 2003, Major General Kahinda Otafiire, then the minister of environment, was linked to the sacking of a soldier heading an ad hoc timber monitoring unit after he impounded six trucks ferrying Congolese timber for Otafiire without a permit.

2002 UN investigation shed light on the large-scale looting systematically organised and engineered by high-ranking military officials in the Uganda government. Those named in the UN report include President Yoweri Museveni’s brother General Salim Saleh, currently a senior presidential advisor, Otafiire, currently minister of internal affairs, and Saleh’s wife, among others.

If it wasn’t the outright theft of minerals, forest products like timber or cash crops such as coffee, it was systematic plundering in which fictitious companies were fronted to source natural resources. Some of these companies engaged in nefarious acts like producing counterfeit Congolese francs that they used to purchase minerals and other products they wanted from the DRC.

DARA-Forest case study

The UN investigation panel highlighted the case of a Uganda-Thai company, DARA-Forest, which engaged in ransacking forests in the Ituri and Equatorial provinces for two years. It was estimated that the company was exporting 48,000m³ of timber per year.

Mahogany originating in the DRC is largely available in Kampala

The trees were felled in DRC regions controlled by the Ugandan army and a rebel movement it backed. While some wood was earmarked for the local Ugandan market, other raw materials went to foreign markets.

“Our investigation in Kampala has shown that mahogany originating in the DRC is largely available in the capital, at a lower price than Ugandan mahogany. This price difference is due to the lower cost of acquisition of timber,” the report said.

Import taxes were “generally not paid when soldiers escort those trucks or when orders [were] received from some local commanders or General [James] Kazini.”

Kazini was the commander of Uganda soldiers fighting in the DRC. When Congolese timber reached Kampala, DARA-Forest representatives colluded with Uganda government officials to establish “a scheme to facilitate [its] certification” as timber that had been legally logged from national forests, facilitating its export to international markets.

The DARA-Forest company, headquartered in Uganda, was owned by two Thai citizens and a Ugandan, but the UN report noted “unconfirmed information indicates that members of Museveni’s family were shareholders”.

The Ugandan government countered the UN report with its own commission of inquiry. Never made public, the report dismissed many of the UN’s findings but confirmed links between Ugandan army officials and some companies as well as businessmen who were exploiting Congo’s natural resources. Among those the commission recommended prosecuting was Salim Saleh. It also called for the disciplining of Kazini whose actions “shamed Uganda” on the global stage.

It found that Saleh’s wife had been involved in a “diamond smuggling ring” and was connected to a company that the UN said supplied counterfeit Congolese francs to procure minerals.

Spoils from conflict

The DRC sued Uganda at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the exploitation of its natural resources. After two decades of litigation, the case ended in 2022 with the court ordering Uganda to pay the DRC $325m. The amount includes $60m specifically for resources that were looted.

Professor Banana agrees that smuggling wood has its roots in the war in the eastern DRC. “The guys were fighting [but] most of those guys were bringing timber here,” he says.

Despite the lack of figures, since the Congo war “there has been an increase in presence of Congolese timber on the [Ugandan] market which has continued up to today,” he adds. Due to global scrutiny and the litigation at the ICJ, the overt involvement of high-ranking government officials in the smuggling business is no longer as prevalent.

But smuggling this timber, says Kristof Titeca, a researcher and professor at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, “showed high-level government officials ways to make money.”


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