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Politics of fish in Migingo Island dispute

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Migingo might easily be East Africa’s Bakassi, the only difference being that the stakes are not over huge oil reserves but over fish  in fact declining fish stocks!

Uganda and Kenya are once again clashing over ownership of the rocky islands of Migingo in Lake Victoria for the second time in a period of five months. The latest flare-up came on February 21 when many Kenyan fishermen fled the island following the arrest of Kenyan administration police officers by Ugandan authorities. The Kenyan police officers had gone to the island and allegedly, pulled down the Ugandan flag and hoisted Kenya’s in its place.

Migingo (in fact they are two tiny islands lying side by side separated by a strip of water) over which the two countries have been squabbling for the past two years is only one acre, much of it rocky. Inhabited by fishing communities totaling less than 1,000 people and drawn from across East Africa, the island is located 5.4 nautical miles (10km) off Kenya’s Sori -Bay in Karungu division, Migori district. Kenyans have therefore often taken their closer proximity to the island to imply ownership.

On the other hand, Ugandan authorities say the island falls within the boundaries of its eastern district of Bugiri. Indeed the Google earth map clearly indicates Migingo islands are located within Uganda boundaries. The Google earth coordinates for the island are 2°48’06.82”S and 32°38’45.25”E. Google earth offers maps and satellite images of pinpointed or complex regions.

Interestingly, the Kenyan media has been hysterical, sounding war drums and urging their country to stand up and defend the island from the supposed Ugandan occupation without referring to geographical coordinates or maps. Instead the hysteria has been based on claims by Kenyan fishermen. Â

A few years ago, the two countries had a similar argument over Wayasi island, also in Lake Victoria, which almost ended in a shoot-out. Later it was found that the island was indeed in Ugandan territory and Kenya backed off.

The problem, it seems, is that Kenya has the smallest part of Lake Victoria but its citizens, mostly fishermen, have settled on the islands in Uganda’s territorial waters, thereby mixing occupancy and sovereignty.

Kenya has only six percent of the lake, Uganda 43 percent while Tanzania owns 51 percent.

Many Kenyan leaders, especially those from Nyanza province notably Paul Olando and Migori district commissioner, Julius Mutula, have been quoted in the media as claiming the island historically belongs to Kenya. Yet naturally one would have expected these leaders to back their claims with geological maps (not history).

Last week, Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service director John M’reria made a dramatic claim, telling a meeting to discuss the draft National Records and Management Policy in Nairobi that a 1948 map in their possession showed the small island fell in Kenya’s territory, adding that it was as a result of records at the national archives that Kenya got back the Elemi triangle from Sudan. Both Kenyans and Ugandans wait to see this map.

The final Kenya-Uganda border demarcation was made in 1926 by the British colonialists, with much of present day western Kenya being transferred from Uganda to Kenya. This was the basis of former Ugandan president Idi Amin’s 1977 claim on the western parts of Kenya.

Its all fishy

Parallels could be drawn with the Nigeria-Cameroon conflict over Bakassi Peninsular in which the two countries fought a short war a few years ago. Because many Nigerian fishermen had settled in the area outnumbering Cameroonians, Nigeria mistook occupancy and proximity for ownership. In the end, the International Court of Justice ruled that the island actually belonged to Cameroon. But the real fight was over the rich oil reserves believed to lie in the peninsular.

Migingo might therefore easily be East Africa’s Bakassi, the only difference being that the stakes are not over huge oil reserves but over fish – in fact declining fish stocks!

The fish industry in Uganda and Kenya is currently suffering due to fish scarcity. Last year (2008), Uganda exported a total of 22,731 metric tonnes of fish. But Uganda’s fish export earnings dropped by $5.2m (Shs 10,244bn) to $112.2m (Shs 221,034bn) from $117.4m (Shs 231,278bn) the previous year. This is far less than the US $150bn (Shs 300bn) the industry exports topped in 2005, signifying a continuous downward trend. The country

The size of Kenya’s fish catch is averagely 180,000 metric tones annually but it is

declining. Approximately 92 percent of this fish comes from Lake Victoria, and the rest from the Indian Ocean (4 percent), inland lakes and rivers (3 percent) and aqua-culture (1percent). Eighty per cent of this fish is exported fetching about US $70m per year.

Despite the downward trend in fish catches, there is still greater demand for fish of Lake Victoria, especially Nile perch (Lates niloticus) and ‘dagaa’ (Rastrineobola argentea), in the export market and for domestic consumption. Nile perch is Kenya’s dominant export, accounting for about 90 percent in volume and value of total fish exports. It is also Uganda premier export.

All this shows how Migingo Island is perceived as of great significance to by both countries given that the waters around the island are said to be rich in Nile Perch. In fact for many years, Kenyans and Ugandans have been fishing around this and other eastern Uganda islands like Sigulu, Lolwe, Wayasi, Hama, etc but selling their catch to processing plants at Port Victoria and Kisumu – both in Kenya – thus causing loss of revenue to the Uganda government.

But with dwindling fish stocks in Lake Victoria, Uganda which for many years did not pay attention to Kenya’s fish “theft” has now decided to tighten its controls.

Indeed tension between the two countries over Migingo flared up when Ugandan authorities kicked out about 400 Kenyan fishermen from the island for failure to pay fishing fees. The last stroke was when Uganda’s Fisheries minister, Fred Mukisa, ordered the inhabitants of the island to elect a local council leadership and the Migingo Beach Management Unit which many Kenyan dwellers viewed as acquiescing to Ugandan sovereignty. Uganda requires that all fish caught within Uganda’s territorial waters be sold to processors at either Majanji in Busia or Jinja.

To make their point, Kenyan fishermen refused to pay the fishing fees of Shs 50,000, and annual boat licensing fees of Shs 150,000, an act that prompted the Ugandan authorities to throw them out of the island.

The fall out

The feuding over Migingo between the two East African countries, if not immediately resolved, is likely to toss cold water on the spirit of East African integration. The Common Market Protocol is expected to be ready by the end of March.

But it is going to be a long drawn out issue as both sides continue to stake their claims. Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga reportedly told his Parliament last week that there was no question that the island belongs to Kenya, and went one step further to claim that in fact many other islands were annexed from Kenya during former dictator Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda!

Raila did not explain why Kenya let Amin take the islands, prompting some analysts to say that Kenyan politicians are merely politicking to their fishing constituency.

However Uganda’s minister for East African Affairs, Eriya Kategaya, assured the East African MPs there would be no more skirmishes between the two neighbours over the island.

“I can assure you there is not going to be any flare up” on the Migingo island, Kategaya told the MPs.

President Yoweri Museveni and his Kenyan counterpart, Mwai Kibaki, have held telephone conversations on the matter and agreed to keep the status quo until a joint boundary survey team completes its report.

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