Kenya and Uganda consider themselves as “friendly nations.” But for a long time now, there has a low-profile diplomatic tiff pitting nationals of the two countries, especially over the waters of Lake Victoria.
In Homa Bay County, for instance, fishermen say they have been detained several times by Ugandan police for allegedly fishing in foreign waters.
The row between Kenyan fishermen and Ugandan security officials has triggered accusations against the Jubilee government of laxity in protecting its territory.
Last month, 17 Kenyan fishermen were arrested in Lake Victoria and detained in Ugandan islands by security personnel. The fishermen, who were in six boats, were taken to two different islands.
Nine fishermen were detained on Riabana Island and eight on Kalangala Island, which are both located in the Ugandan side of Lake Victoria.
According to Lake Victoria Beach Management Unit Network chairman Edward Oremo, the fishermen were arrested by armed Ugandan security personnel a few kilometres from Remba Island. They were hounded into one boat.
At the local level, politicians led by Suba North MP Millie Odhiambo and her Suba South counterpart John Mbadi have accused the national government of failing to provide security to fishermen.
“It is sad that the government is watching as Ugandan security officials harass our hard working fishermen,” said Ms Odhiambo.
Mr Mbadi argued that the State might be uninterested in offering security to Lake Victoria fishermen because the region largely supports the opposition.
“The government is ignoring the harassment and arrest of Kenyan fishermen because the region is pro-opposition,” said Mr Mbadi.
Other MPs from the region who have accused the police of laxity in protecting fishermen include Tom Odege (Nyatike) and Gideon Ochanda (Bondo).
The fishermen were released after the issue created political heat. Foreign Affairs CS Amina Mohamed reportedly intervened and placed a call to her counterpart in Uganda.
But Police Inspector-General Joseph Boinnet said fishermen from both sides must respect local laws. “The law is very clear on fishing in the lake. The arrested fishermen must face the law if they are found to have broken it,” he told reporters in Mombasa.
The law might be clear... but the boundaries are not. For years, the two countries have quarrelled over ownership of Migingo, a one-acre island in Lake Victoria.
At one point, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said the water around Migingo belongs to Kampala while the land belongs to Nairobi.
The two sides agreed to form a joint survey team to check the exact position of the island, reputed to have abundant fish.
The findings of the survey were hushed. Locals on the island still complain of harassment by Ugandan police.
In the end, both sides agreed to police the island jointly, but the issue of who owns the island was never resolved.
Still, the boundaries remain hazy. Remba Island, for example, is supposed to be in Kenyan waters, three kilometres from the supposed Ugandan border in the lake.
But fishermen claim they have been arrested here too by Ugandan police.
“They were arrested by security personnel who were armed with rifles. They were held at two different islands,” said Mr Oremo, describing the latest incident.
After alleged torture and extortion, five fishermen who were detained at Riabana were released. Each allegedly parted with Sh11,000. Mr Oremo said friends and relatives contributed money to secure their release.
Migingo Island beach manager John Obunge said the high number of Ugandans on the island could result in chaos. “We also have low stocks of fish,” he said.
The Kenyan security team, led by Nyatike OCPD Dishon Chadaka, said they had held talks with the Ugandans and told them to go back to their country.
In another recent incident, Rural Border Patrol Police detained 19 boats belonging to Ugandan fishermen at Nambo Beach in Bondo Sub-County.
This was after more than 80 Kenyan fishermen were arrested and detained at Sigulu Island in Uganda. They were fined Sh150,000.