The charcoal conspiracy: How UPDF soldiers, traders are exploiting unclear Uganda-South Sudan border for profit

Deep inside Mount Kei Central Forest Reserve, a clandestine charcoal trade thrives in silence. Yet the forest itself tells a tale of devastation: every roar of a chainsaw, every piercing axe blow, echoes through the giant trees succumbing to their death knell.

The former white rhino sanctuary, which spans 348 sq. km. along the Uganda-South Sudan border, has become the epicentre of a charcoal trade. Characterized by porous border points, the remote forest is used to ferry charcoal and timber, including those from endangered shea trees and Afzelia Africana—which are coveted for their dense wood structure.

For years, communities from Uganda and South Sudan have been entangled in a protracted dispute over the contested border region, fueled by unclear boundaries. Numerous consultative meetings have taken place between Uganda and South Sudan to address the longstanding boundary disputes, yet none have borne fruit.

According to some leaders in Uganda, the illegal charcoal trade continues to persist because of the instability in South Sudan, which has significantly hindered progress on border demarcation. Aringa North MP, Godfrey Onzima, who has been part of several committees on the Uganda side, revealed that the demarcation has been delayed by funding challenges and the South Sudanese refugee influx.

“We are still facing money problems. IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) is yet to give more funds to conduct a comprehensive border demarcation in all parts of Uganda. The other issue is the refugees from South Sudan who settled in Uganda now think the land in Uganda belongs to South Sudan just because they found it idle and also because their neighbours in Uganda share the same language with them,” he said in a telephone chat. In their last meeting in Kajo-keji county in South Sudan, Andama also added, “nothing productive came out”.

But amid this border impasse, a lucrative charcoal trade continues to boom.

The charcoal syndicate

Charcoal ready to be transported to South Sudan through a porous border. Photo by John Okot.

During my investigation, I went undercover as a trader seeking to purchase charcoal in bulk. But my covert inquiry revealed a shocking charcoal syndicate: traders frequently transport charcoal and timber through a specific point in Amuruku village, in Kei sub-county, Yumbe district, thanks to the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers who allow them to pass through the porous border.

Information also obtained from leaders in Yumbe district and traders implicates a tangled web of key players running this charcoal business, including the UPDF soldiers, local leaders and officials in Yumbe district forest office.

One UPDF soldier, who we’ll call James (not his real name), divulged that traders exploit the porous borders in the Mount Kei Central Forest reserve to transport charcoal which is later loaded in trucks in the South Sudanese territory.

“We are middlemen; some of us (UPDF soldiers) are directly in this business. For traders, all they need is money and trust to pass through our checkpoints after loading charcoal,” he said. “The boundaries are still unclear, and that is what helps traders move the charcoal. There are also other secret routes”.

The UPDF soldier, however, cautioned new traders, like me, against moving into the South Sudan territory alone, stating that “you need to move and work with someone who has been trading here because you are still new in the business”.

Siraje Ssenkubuge, who has been a charcoal trader for the last five years, revealed that the “porous border points along the way the way have been a blessing in disguise” to them because they are able to transport their charcoal with ease.

The 35-year-old trader added that he has to pay “some small money” to the soldiers at the porous border. On the South Sudan side, he noted, a truck is loaded with charcoal transported in bits using motorcycles from Uganda.

“The intention is to get a seal for your cargo from the Uganda Revenue Authority once you cross back to Uganda using the official border,” he said. “In case they ask us, ‘where did you get that charcoal?’ All we have to say is that it’s from South Sudan”.

URA Spokesperson, Ibrahim Bbosa declined to comment on the matter.

“The fish starts rotting from the head”

This is not the first time that UPDF soldiers and government officials have been implicated in this charcoal business. When President Yoweri Museveni’ issued an executive order banning commercial charcoal production last year with the aim of protecting Uganda’s environment, he stated that there were corrupt links between the charcoal industry and state “security groups and government agencies”. The charcoal industry, he worried at that time, had led to the country’s forest cover declining from 24% in 1990 to just 9% in 2018.

“Apparently, armed people escort this charcoal”, he wrote, adding that “locals now hold the security people in great contempt. In fact, these alleged connections are given as a key justification for the ban,’ he added.

Indeed, since the presidential announcement, the charcoal cartel continues to thrive yet local leaders and law enforcers are failing to combat it.

Some leaders in Yumbe district’s local government are discontent, alleging that some traders are frustrating their efforts to stop the illegal charcoal trade since some traders have established connections with high-ranking army officials who allow them to pass through the district freely with impunity. Many of the charcoal traders, the leaders revealed, often claim to be connected to General Salim Saleh, the brother of President Yoweri Museveni. We could not verify this claim.

“They say the fish rots from the head. Sometimes when you impound somebody’s truck with charcoal, you receive a phone call from Kampala saying ‘Why have you impound my truck? Do you know who I am? ’” says Swaib Andama, who is now the Yumbe District Environment Office. In 2015, Andama was forced to leave his position as the Yumbe District Forest Officer because his “life was under threat”.

“I have been threatened many times on the phone,” he noted. “You are always working in fear because you are pulling ropes with someone with the gun”.

UPDF Spokesperson Brig Gen Felix Kulayigye, however, denied the allegations about UPDF being involved in the trade but noted that they “will be conducting an investigation to arrive at the truth of the matter”.

Border impasse

A make-shift border point in Kei Sub-county used to ferry charcoal illegally. Photo by John Okot.

But the Uganda and South unclear boundary issue still lingers years later. In 2014, Uganda and South Sudan announced a joint initiative, comprising an 18-member committee of representatives from both countries, to find a lasting solution to the border issue.

With initial funding support from the African Union, the d committee was tasked with re-demarcating the 2,224-km boundary line, using the 1920 colonial map as a guide. At that time, the State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Okello Oryem, said in Gulu Municipality (now a city) that the demarcation would end decades of conflict and also boost the border.

However, this process stalled, leaving the two nations in limbo. Over the years, more border clashes have continued to occur. In January this year, for instance, a group of South Sudanese soldiers attacked locals and brazenly planted their national flag in Kerwa sub-county, Yumbe district, asserting claims to the disputed territory. This prompted the Uganda government to establish army bases to intensify surveillance and potential attacks.

Right now “the demarcation committee is holding talks to resolve the issue amicably,” said UPDF’s Brig Gen. Kulayigye, adding that “we (Uganda) can never go to war when negotiations are ongoing”.

But Phanuel Dumo, Commissioner of Kajo keji county in South Sudan, who has been part of the demarcation committee on the South Sudan, side is not convinced.

“Uganda is interested in our land,” he says. “Encroachment on our land has been going on for long because [some people] are interested in our trees and minerals yet we don’t even get revenue from them. This has been witnessed in broad daylight”.

In one scenario recently, Dumo narrated, they apprehended a group of traders, who came to their communities looking for trees for charcoal and interrogated them.

“We found that they came from Uganda and had been sent by someone called Kemis”. For now, Dumo, added, “we need [South Sudan] forces to come to our rescue at the border to prevent a similar occurrence”.

NFA work is paralysed

Towering trees in Kei Central Forest Reserve. Photo by John Okot

Back in Uganda, the National Forestry Authority (NFA), a body responsible conserving for forests, says it is only able to protect some parts of the Mount Kei Central Forest Reserve due to unclear boundaries and instability in South Sudan.

“There are some parts of the forest that I have never been to. How do you go to a place that is [politically] unstable?” asks Milton Nyeko, the NFA Regional Range Manager in charge of West Nile.

Birigo bridge connecting Uganda and South Sudan is also used to ferry charcoal illegally. Photo by John Okot.

“There are many porous borders [in Kei Central Forest Reserve]. Even if you get someone with charcoal it’s hard to arrest them because there are no marks to show which country they are in”.

For now, NFA’s Nyeko says, they are only protecting “some sections of the forest in Uganda,” adding that the remaining parts where the international border is expected to be has been left until a solution is found.

“Fixing the border would help us end this,” he said. “We need clarity to know where our jurisdiction lies”.

On a recent evening, a group of charcoal traders rushed across the Birigo border carrying sacks of charcoal on motorcycles to the South Sudan side. It was threatening to rain on that day and two UPDF soldiers were standing under a grass thatched, a few metres away from the border checkpoint.

“It’s time to work,” said Jamal Manchidi, one of the charcoal traders told me. “You know what to do. So when you have money, you know where to find us”.

Manchidi jumped on his motorcycle and crossed to South Sudan.

This story was done with grant support from The African Institute for Investigative Journalism (AIIJ) in partnership with Defend Defenders.