Sofia village, a shabby outpost on the edge of the Uganda-Kenya border, springs to life at the crack of dawn as the sun glows to light its paths.
It is a busy day here as residents prepare to make the trip across this porous entry point. A haven for smugglers across the divide, Sofia, which is the size of a football stadium, lies partly in Uganda and partly in Kenya. It offers hope for the underprivileged who sustain this illicit trade.
Adjacent to Sofia is Busia border post where legally processed goods are transported.
Trucks carrying goods offload products that are ready to be smuggled. Among the underprivileged are the physically handicapped who eke a living here.
They transport an assortment of goods on behalf of their masters. Inside Kenya, which is barely 100 metres from Sofia, is an area where smuggled goods coming into Uganda are assembled.
From sugar to cooking oil, these men and women rely on wheelchairs, which snake through the narrow streets to deliver their products.
Many of these goods are substandard and expired, posing a health risk to consumers.
In the notoriously-fickle market, goods can either be smuggled to Kenya or Uganda.
For instance, a few months ago, Uganda’s sugar was smuggled to Kenya. Now the demand of smuggled Kenyan sugar to Uganda is higher after its price fell.
A man with a disability, whose identity we cannot disclose, reveals this is his only way to survive and fend for his family
He says that he is ready to abandon smuggling if government offers him a better opportunity.
“If I can get a loan, I will stop immediately or if I get fees for my kids, I am ready to abandon smuggling,” says the smuggler, who has been in the illicit trade for eight years.
Ms Sarah Arinaitwe Mwesigye, the acting commissioner for customs at Uganda Revenue Authority (URA), says smugglers rely on unconventional methods to evade law enforcement. “They [smugglers] have become sophisticated and do not use conventional ways. Maybe someone can bring textiles and they are concealed and may be they will declare other items, which are less costly in terms of revenue or others are outrightly smuggled,” reveals Ms Mwesigye.
She reveals a number of methods URA uses to curb smuggling at the border.
“We have URA staff who are deployed at the port of Mombasa and they work with the Kenya Revenue Authority and we are able to tell what declarations that have been made in advance. We are also using the electronic cargo tracking system and we seal the cargo, which is sensitive in terms of revenue involved, so we are able to monitor its movement from Mombasa port up to the destination, either in the bonded warehouses or at the border,” she adds.
URA also relies on informers deployed at porous borders and inland stations who look out for smugglers.
With the prevalent illicit logging across the country, charcoal is among the most sought-after products from Uganda. In February, Deputy President William Ruto suspended logging for three months, citing acute water shortage caused by destruction of forest cover.
Truckloads that have already gained entry through illegal routes are ready to ferry their products to their destinations inside Kenya.
Some of the charcoal is transported here from far-flung places in northern and western Uganda. In Busia, charcoal prices have more than doubled in just one week, from Shs35,000 to Shs80,000 per sack.
Mr Godfrey Oundo Ongwabe, the national cross-border trade chairperson, says trade in charcoal threatens to wipe out the country’s forests.
“We are trying to discuss with URA to ensure that the National Forestry Authority does not encourage the issuance of licences to traders. Why don’t we safeguard our natural resources? Our counterparts in the EAC community have stringent ordinances to safeguard their natural resources. Our country needs to emulate this,” says Mr Oundo.
He reveals that restrictions have been lifted to allow informal trade thrive as a way of curbing smuggling.
“We have put in place a mechanism called a simplified trade regime where traders go to the point of receipt of the goods and they are invoiced at the border. They come to the trade information desks, which have facilities by relevant authorities such as Comesa, EAC and URA,” says Mr Oundo.
He adds that traders must be educated so as to abandon smuggling and adopt informal cross-border trade.
Both Uganda and Kenya police officers guard the entry points into their respective countries at Sofia. However, they are complicit in the illicit trade.
Those who offer a cash bribe are allowed to proceed with their goods without any form of inspection at the security points erected with barriers. This is practiced by both Ugandan and Kenyan police, which we secretly film. Police spokesperson Emilian Kayima says an officer involved in bribery dents the image of the Force and will be punished.
What police say
“If an individual police officer or civil servant engages in crimes of that nature or abets such a crime, then we hold them to account. It would be unfortunate if such a thing ever happened because our duty is to protect the country and to protect the image by doing what is right,” says Mr Kayima.
It is here that dangerous items, including guns or bomb-making materials, can be carted under the guise of consumable goods.
Mr Kayima reveals that crime soared, especially after Mombasa began clearing Ugandan goods under the single customs territory.
“Since goods began to be cleared at Mombasa port, the routes change now. They were many people at Malaba in Tororo that were having some form of lawful employment, including boda boda riders and those having restaurants.
When this changed, it meant that they are out of employment. Some of them have decided to engage in unlawful means of survival and smuggling is one of them,” he says. He says they often carry out joint operations with Kenyan police to deal with cross-border crime.
“We have been able to deter many crimes. We have been able to arrest some of the suspected criminals. Four motor vehicles have been recovered and we have five people in prison,” he says.
But is this enough to stamp out crime at the border? On October 27, 2017, an Eritrean businessman, Deniel Weldo, was kidnapped by criminals.
Highly placed security sources reveal that he was driven through these security points at Sofia in the boot of his Toyota V8 Land cruiser vehicle.
His captors entered the Kenyan side. He was later shot in the head and stomach and he succumbed to gunshot wounds. His body was burnt with petrol and buried in a shallow grave until it was discovered by Kenyan police at a farm in Busia District. Sofia also serves as a human and drug trafficking route. Here in Busia, crime continues unabated.
The area has been engulfed by fear after a woman was kidnapped on April 16. A few days later, she was found dead, with her body decapitated even after a ransom was paid.
Malaba border point, which is about 40km from Busia, is the second busiest entry point on the Uganda-Kenya border. However, smuggling is much more restricted here because of natural barriers such as River Malaba. But like Busia, insecurity remains a challenge.
Police claim that the bomb jackets used to sow mayhem in July 2010 at Kyadondo Rugby Club and the Ethiopian restaurant in Kabalagala were ferried through Malaba border entry.
As we approach Busia on our way back from Malaba, darkness envelopes the border town in the evening. Lights from motorcyclists illuminate the dark alleys as smugglers call it a day to prepare for dawn.
Extent of smuggling
Drug hub. Statistics from Interpol Uganda place Ugandans as top drug smugglers in 2017. The data also shows that drugs worth Shs5b were intercepted at Entebbe International Airport last year.
Effect. According to Ms Agnes Nabwire, the URA assistant commissioner enforcement, smuggling of cigarettes, especially the Super Match brand from Kenya has been on the increase in the last six months. According to Ms Nabwire, URA has in the last six months lost more than Shs2.56b as a result of cigarette smuggling. In a bid to grow and support the local manufacturers a high tax component on all cigarette imports was imposed. Because of this, most importers have resorted to smuggling.