The one-acre Migingo Island at the centre of dispute between Kenya and Uganda is among three others in close proximity. The tiny Migingo is sandwiched between two other larger islands – on the East and West.
The two larger islands that are barely metres away from the tiny Migingo belong to Kenya and they are not inhabited. These two are not being claimed by the Ugandans. The disputed island is a rocky and rugged piece of land with no vegetation.
Two Kenyans – Mr Dalmas Tembo, 74, and Mr George Kibebe, 75 – claim to have been the first people to settle on the island in 1991. They said they were later joined by 60 members of their Samo Fishing Group who followed after receiving information that the area was rich with Nile Perch.
“But before going there, we wrote to Fisheries Department in Kisumu to check on whether the island was in Kenya or Uganda. The authorities assured us that Migingo belonged to Kenya,” recalls Mr Kibebe, the group’s secretary.
The island was then turned into an outpost for fishermen from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and a thriving commercial centre that has attracted investors.
Due to a lucrative fish industry on the island, various businesses including shops, bars, hotels and guest houses are operated from makeshift dwellings that serve the fishermen who frequent the island.
The island that is home to more than 100 fishing boats is a beehive of activities as the boats bring in their catch for weighing and sale to buyers.
Although the island is literally under the control of the Ugandan marine police complete with their country’s flag and that of their police department, the currency of trade on the island is the Kenya shilling.
All the fish caught on the island also end up on the Kenyan mainland after being bought by fish processing firms. Most supplies to the island come from the Kenyan side because it takes less than two hours from Muhuru Bay to the island while it takes more than eight hours from the Ugandan side.
Mr Kibebe says when they first arrived in Migingo, nobody was staying there. “The place was covered with weeds and infested with birds and snakes,” he adds.
The names of Mr Tembo and Mr Kibebe, who are now living in Nyangwina and Muhuru beaches respectively, are contained in a memorandum the Government presented to the Ugandan authorities to prove that the tiny island belonged to Kenya. According to them, trouble begun in June 2004 when Ugandan marine police who were staying in Remba Island came and pitched tent on the island following reports of good fish harvests.
“By this time, more houses had been built by Samo members. The Ugandans kicked us out and started collecting rents from our houses which cost between Sh1,000 and Sh1,500 per month… we have since lost income from our houses on the island, ” they say.
Most of their catch was being sold to the Muhuru Bay Co-operative Society that later sold the fish to the processors and exporters.
“I believe the Ugandans are intruders. Where were they in 1991 when the island was nothing but a bush? Our Government should deploy armed forces to kick them out forcefully,” said Mr Kibebe.
The current row over the ownership of the tiny Migingo started a month ago when the Kenya Government attempted to deploy security officers on the island, resulting in Ugandans demanding for their immediate removal and reinforcement of their security personnel.
The Nyanza Provincial Commissioner, Mr Paul Olando, insists the island belongs to Kenya and there are records from colonial times to support the position. But the Bugiri District Commissioner in Uganda, Ms Mwanamoiza Chikomeko, says the island belong to Uganda.
In the past five months, the two East African countries have clashed twice over the ownership of the island. Prime Minister Raila Odinga has said three ministers will travel to Uganda this week for talks to resolve the dispute.
He said the Kenyan delegation would include ministers James Orengo (Lands), George Saitoti (Internal Security), Moses Wetang’ula (Foreign Affairs) and other government officials.
The row over the ownership of islands in Lake Victoria started when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin seized some islands claiming they belonged to his country. The others islands were Lolwe, Wayami, Remba and Sigulu.
Mr Odinga said the ownership of the other four islands would also be discussed.