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Coffee smugglers filter funds away from Uganda

One-third of Uganda's most vital resource -- coffee -- is being drained away by smuggling. Ugandans say it is worse than it was in te days of Idi Amin and has become a sophisticated racket involving international syndicates.

Last year, according to government experts, Uganda lost 50,000 tons of coffee out of a crop of 165,000 tons of smuggling. It is ironic that the coffee industry has just been getting on its feet after the ruin left behind by Amin. It could be worse this year. Coffee is vital to the economy.

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Ugandans are at their wits' end as to how to control the racket, but corruption and theft have gotten so bad among all ranks of officials, police, Army, and customs officers that only a major change in deteriorating public morals can redeem the situation. That creeping decay of moral standards is another part of the heritage Amin left to this unhappy country.

But smuggling, like other forms of crime, has to have a buyer and a seller. The buyers are known to be wealthy syndicates with large sums of money available across the Uganda borders in Kenya, Zaire, and Rwanda. In Kenya the buyers have access to the traditional port of Mombasa, where Uganda's legitimate coffee exports leave Africa for the international markets.

Millions in foreign exchange are being lost to Uganda through coffee smuggling, foreign exchange the country cannot afford to go without. Recently there have been high-level meetings by the ruling military commission to find ways of ending the racket. One trouble is that highly placed ministers and officials are using their positions to move the coffee out.

Many consignments leaving the country in road trucks and transporters are found to have official documents issued by the Uganda coffee marketing board, others have forged papers.

At the Kenya border, agents with large sums of money in the much-sought-after Kenya currency wait to buy the consignments. Customs officers and police, generally poorly paid and open to temptation, look the other way.

Sometimes the Uganda police crack down. The manager of the Bugisu coffee cooperative society was arrested after he had loaded 14 lorries with Bugisu Arabica coffee destined to be taken to Mombasa via the border town of Malaba. The consignment had false documentation.

The consignment was to have been combined at some point with Kenya's own Arabica coffee. That practice has alarmed the Kenya coffee board, which prides itself on the consistent quality of the coffee it offers on international markets.

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Most of Uganda's smuggled coffee goes out by road. But some is smuggled across Lake Victoria (which is shared by the three East AFrican countries, Kenya , Tanzania, and Uganda).

Lake smuggling went on in Amin's days, and he operated an anti-smuggling unit using fast speedboats heavily armed with modern weapons, and sometimes manned by female soldiers. Amin's white lieutenant, "Major" Bob Astles, was at one time in charge of this unit. Now he is languishing in a Kampala jail waiting for trial on many charges.

Smuggling coffee is also a small man's activity. Smugglers who have bought coffee from the farmers carry the bags on handcarts, bicycles, and donkeys at night along the lonely footpaths leading to the border, where they meet small traders from the border town, Busia. It is a long border and cannot be adequately patrolled.

Concern has been roused in Kenya by the smugglers' practice of using small boys to carry messages and warnings of the presence of police. Some have left school to do this job, which earns them a few shillings a week.

Some of those children, who may be as young as nine or 10, were recently brought to court at Busia charged with smuggling or aiding and abetting.

They all preaded guilty. Some got off with minor fines ranging from 5 shillings to 30 shillings (less than $5); others were acquitted because of their age.

There seems no end to the agonies of Uganda, and this draining of its main means of livelihood is hobbling the economy at a time when every shilling is needed for rehabilitation.

Kenya is equally concerned, for it is losing substantial sums in customs dues and port charges. There is evidently a smuggling chain through Kenya which the police are investigating, but so far they have come up against a brick wall. But with coffee prices running at some $3,230 a ton, some big, well-established men are making a great deal of money can afford to pay for their "protection."

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