Kristof Titeca

Tycoons and Contraband: Informal Cross-Border Trade in West Nile, North-Western Uganda

Journal of Eastern African Studies


This article presents ethnographic evidence on the activities of the “tycoons” – large-scale cross-border contraband traders in north-western Uganda. It shows how engagement with state officials, but also integration in the broader community are two crucial aspects which explain the functioning of informal cross-border trade or “smuggling” in north-western Uganda. In doing so, it shows how, although there is a high degree of interaction between the “formal” and the “informal”, the informal economy still has a distinct regulatory authority rather than simply merging in the state regulatory framework. Secondly, the regulatory authority governing this trade has a distinct plural character: rather than being either a “weapon of the weak” for marginalised sections of the population or a “weapon of the strong” for political elites, it has a much more ambiguous character, which influences the behaviour of the tycoons: both of these interactions limit the maneuvering space of these traders.