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How pirate menace gave birth to Migingo island ownership row

Saturday September 29 2018
MIGPIC

Migingo island. The strategic location of the island provided a good surveillance base for the Ugandans. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By ELISHA OTIENO

About 15 years ago, the Ugandan government deployed its security forces to guard the disputed Migingo island in Lake Victoria.

The intention then was to check on the armed pirates who were terrorising fishermen in the lake.

The strategic location of the island provided a good surveillance base for the Ugandans.

And indeed by 2004, they had cleared the lake of pirates to the relief of fishermen from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Then human settlement on the rocky island began to swell as fishing activities flourished.

GENESIS

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The one-acre rock was filled to capacity immediately and the Ugandans started taxing the fishermen “for providing them with security”.

“This is when the ownership dispute kicked in. Fishermen began complaining about exploitation by the neighbours although quietly they appreciated the role played by the Ugandans in restoring security in the lake which was worse then,” Mr John Abila, 84, a retired fisherman, said.

“Traders then established shops on the island that served the islanders with consumables with most supplies coming from the Kenyan mainland beaches which are nearer,” he added.

It was in 2005 that Kenyan media began giving the dispute acres of space in the newspapers and airtime after both Nairobi and Kampala started developing massive interest in the island.

A boat ride from Muhuru beach on the Kenyan side to Migingo takes two hours but from Migingo to Bugiri in Uganda takes eight hours. And this is part of the reasons Kenyans believe the fish rich island is actually theirs.

NILE PERCH

Sometimes during conflicts between the fishermen and the Ugandans, Kenyans cut-off supplies to the island as a way of protesting excesses by the Ugandans and in most occasions the strategy has worked.

The fact that deep waters around Migingo are rich in Nile Perch is not in doubt.

Fish processors in Kisumu and Nairobi have planted their buying agents on the island who deliver fish to the waiting trucks on the mainland beaches.

“Most of the waters near Kenyan beaches are breeding grounds of Nile Perch species,” a fisheries official - who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the Migingo row - said.

Daily fishing landings on Migingo are estimated to be worth about Sh1 million, being brought in by over 200 boats operating in the waters around the island.

Boat owners in Migingo are living large in Migori and Kisumu, with most of them driving top-of-the range cars.

MODERN BOAT

Around 2010, reports emerged of senior government officials in Uganda who were also involved in the fishing activities on the island through their proxies.

This writer was embedded to the joint survey team that camped on the lake for about one month, seeking to establish the country in which Migingo belongs.

The team, which brought together senior survey experts from both Kenya and Uganda, was formed during the reign of President Kibaki and was funded by the two countries to the tune of Sh140 million.

The money catered for the cost of hiring an ultra-modern boat from Tanzania - which had self-contained rooms, computers and internet connections, accommodation, meals and allowances for the team.

The group relied on colonial maps, GPRS location of Migingo, did actual measurements on the water and arrived at a decision that the island was indeed in Kenya.

But as the report was getting ready to be released officially, the Ugandan experts pulled out of the team to the utter shock of their Kenyan counterparts, and went back to Kampala.

But as they were boarding their vehicles in Migori Town, some confided that they did not want to be part of the announcement for fear of reprisals from Kampala.

SOLDIERS

And the report has not been released by the two governments up to date.

The report, as was seen by this writer, indicated that even though the island was in Kenya, the neighbouring waters were on the Ugandan side.

President Yoweri Museveni later alluded to this when he made his remarks sometime back when he spoke about Migingo, an argument that was however dismissed by the Kenyan leaders in the National Assembly.

In February last year, the Ugandan leader deployed Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) to take charge of fishing activities in the landlocked country.

He said the officers would join forces with technocrats in the Fisheries ministry to combat illegal fishing activities on lakes.

According to the government-owned New Vision newspaper then, the move came at a time when the fish catch from various water bodies had fallen to the lowest levels.

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