Uganda’s Illegal Gold Market Is Bustling

Uganda’s Illegal Gold Market Is Bustling
A Congolese miner at Nyabibwe mine, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Aug. 17, 2012 (AP photo by Marc Hofer).

KAMPALA, Uganda—Cars and motorcycle taxis rocket over the uneven pavement, while church sermons blare from loudspeakers. Vendors hawk bananas, cakes and chapatti. Brightly colored shops sell stationery and advertise printing services. But amid all the mundane, quotidian commerce here on Nassar Road in Uganda’s capital city, it is widely rumored that traders can buy false certificates to disguise the provenance of gold that has been smuggled over the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, both of which face international sanctions on their gold trade due to its role in funding their internal conflicts. The false certificates allow the smuggled gold to be refined in Uganda and sold on the international market.

The gold trade here is booming, even as other businesses have been forced to close amid the coronavirus pandemic. The precious metal has overtaken coffee to become Uganda’s most important commodity in recent years, with gold exports totaling $1.7 billion between November 2019 and December 2020—44 percent of its total exports. 

But the East African nation itself is not rich in resources. Much of this gold comes from neighboring countries, spirited across the border by shadowy smuggling networks. Uganda’s central bank estimated in 2019 that only about 10 percent of the gold flowing out of Uganda was actually mined in the country. 

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