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Kenya shifts position on Migingo

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Three weeks after Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa wrote to his Kenyan counterpart, Moses Wetangula, seeking a meeting over the latest hurdle in the ownership dispute over Migingo Island, a solution remains elusive.

In fact, according to Fred Opolot, the executive director of Uganda Media Centre and government spokesperson on the Migingo Island saga, the issue under contention appears to be shifting on the Kenyan side.

We suspect the Kenyans think that when the island is found to be Uganda’s territory we may deny them fishing in our waters, he told The Independent in an interview, The issue under contention is the water resources not the rock but they are realising that when the border is settled eventually Uganda may decide to enforce supervision of the fish in the water. And thats the resource the Kenyans especially along Kisumu have benefited from for years. I think it is now sinking on them that while they are dependent on this water resource, distinguishing whether the rock is actually in Kenya or Uganda might make their livelihood difficult.

Although only 6% of Lake Victoria is Kenyan territory while Uganda has about 45%, Kenya has a number of fish exporting factories in the Migingo Island area while Uganda has none.

An article in the Kenyan Saturday Nation newspaper of August 8; Why Migingo survey stalled” has added to the controversy.

Using maps purporting to show that Migingo Island is on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria, the article has fuelled tensions that erupted when a joint Ugandan and Kenyan survey team stopped work abruptly in mid-July with each side claiming the one-acre rock island. Bukooli South MP, Patrick Ochieng, in whose Bugiri District constituency the disputed island lies, says the Kenyans are stalling because they do not want to accept the truth.

He says the disputed island is one of three islands collectively called Migingo islands and that two of the islands which are in the most westerly part of the Pyramid island fall in Uganda while the third, Pyramid Island is in Kenya.

The two islands on the Ugandan side are Elephant, which looks like one and the smaller island, which is the disputed Migingo.  The Saturday Nation article, however, named the islands differently, calling the Elephant Island that almost looks like a rectangle, Pyramid and baptizing the real Pyramid Island as Ujingo –a name that Ochieng says does not exist.

Ochieng says Pyramid is given its name because of its look and its coordinates.

Ochieng says after the colonialists had marked and distributed the islands they went ahead to put it on paper. Later Uganda and Kenya went ahead to paste this in their constitutions. “Whoever brings anything beyond that will be causing an issue that is unconstitutional to both Uganda and Kenya and therefore must be resisted and be brought back to order,” he says.

The MP said colonialists in their wisdom used the Pyramid Island which is the tallest island as a marking point for the border between Uganda and Kenya.

“The reason why the island is called Pyramid is because when you look at it from all sides the island looks like a triangle and thus its name, Pyramid,” he says, “So it was not merely naming. This name is British and there is no question about that. So neither the Ugandans nor Kenyans named the island.”

 Ochieng says strategically this island falls in Kenya and there is no question about it. According to the 1926 Order in Council, the most westerly point of the Pyramid Island is Ugandan territory and this makes the remaining two islands Ugandan.

Disagreements among members of the Joint Survey Team surveyors appointed to re-map the area under the so-called Nairobi Communiqué suggest it is not as clear as that. Appointed to produce its report within two month, that’s July, the team has neither delivered a harmonised report nor worked fast enough to finish the survey.

Instead technical disagreements have erupted. Lands Minister Omara Atubo explained to the Ugandan parliament that the Ugandan survey team suspended their work because the Kenyans would not allow the Ugandans place markers indicating the areas surveyed.

As area MP, Ochieng thinks that the disagreement between the survey team makes it look like “they are running away from the truth because we are not distributing those islands, those islands were marked and distributed long time ago before I was even born. It was not even an East African who distributed the islands. It was a Mzungu. What the survey team has to do is verifying and tell those who don’t know where the islands belong.”

Opolot says the Kenyan survey team has diverted from the stipulations of the Nairobi Joint Communiqué and points at disagreement over rock outcrops along the disputed Migingo Island.

In the communiqué it was agreed to survey and mark uncontested sections of the boundary starting from the mouth of river Sio southwards up to Ilemba island. From this island they would survey along two lines informed by the position of Uganda and Kenya on the Pyramid Island. But the Kenyan team is said to have contested the idea of putting markers in the survey of Ilemba and Pyramid Islands. Opolot says it is commonsense to put some markers in areas surveyed. MP Ochieng agrees.

Opolot says the Ugandan team of surveyors will not return to work until their Kenyan opposites return to work.

“It is pointless for them to head to the field while their counterparts are in Nairobi,” he says, adding that the government is conscious of the expenses involved in the demarcation exercise. The two government are carrying out the survey at a cost of US$ 2 million which is shared equally (the exercise is budgeted to cost the Ugandan tax payer about Shs 2 billion).

Under the Nairobi Joint Communiqué, unresolved disagreements between the team shall require contracting an independent expert to carry on the exercise. Based on this, analysts speculate that the Migingo Island case could be referred to the International Court of Justice   in The Hague. But Opolot remains confident that it will be resolved amicably because the two countries are talking.

The two countries foreign minister reportedly held talks on the sidelines of the Summit on the Great Lakes Region in Lusaka, Zambia. Earlier, on May 11, Uganda’s internal affairs minister Kirunda Kivejinja, and Kenya’s minister for foreign affairs, Moses Wetang’ula had met in Nairobi in which a communiqué that established the joint survey was established. Three other meetings over the same issue had taken place in Kampala between a delegation of Kenyan foreign affairs officials, and Lusaka between presidents Museveni and Kibaki, and in Tanzania that led to the Arusha Communiqué.

But with the failure of four high level meetings to resolve the Migingo dispute, skepticism surrounds the expected meeting between Kutesa and Wetang’ula.

Meanwhile, Opolot said the island remains under the control of the Uganda Police as agreed in the communiqué. “It is business as usual,” he said.

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