The first East African war could be fought over fish

Sunday May 22 2011

Kenya is crying foul, accusing Uganda of grabbing another of its islands, Ugingo, in Lake Victoria. Two years ago, tempers between Kenya and Uganda nearly boiled over in a dispute over the nearby Migingo Islands.

An inquiry was set up, and when Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga visited Uganda, at a joint press conference at State House in Kampala with President Yoweri Museveni, they announced that Migingo belongs to Kenya, and the dispute had been resolved. Kenyan fishermen say Ugandan authorities are still on the island, and are harassing them.

It is not quite clear what the stakes are in Migingo and Ugingo. True, Lake Victoria’s fish is making a fortune for those who are in the business, but the areas around Migingo and Ugingo account for only a small percentage of the fish caught.

When the war drums were being sounded over Migingo last time, there were reports that oil had been found in a swathe spanning the waters there, and Kampala was moving early to stake a claim to it.

There is no irrefutable proof of that, and Uganda, which struck some rich oil fields inland, has not yet been able to exploit them commercially. It can only be worse if it had to drill oil from Lake Victoria.

However, Uganda’s Security Minister Amama Mbabazi, told Parliament that there were anti-Kampala rebels being recruited in western Kenya, and the security presence in Migingo was partly aimed to prevent infiltration from over the lake!


This time, commentators in Nairobi are saying that Museveni had ordered the Ugingo islands to be occupied, to divert attention from the political crisis at home over the walk-to-work protests.

The unprecedented heavy-handed crackdown on the protests, have drawn sharp criticism in both the regional and international press, and even prompted some comparisons of the Museveni’s regime with that of former military dictator Idi Amin.

Whatever is the real reason for the shenanigans over Migingo and Ugingo, it sends a distressing message about the future of regional integration. Lake Victoria is the only resource that at least three of the East Africa Community countries – Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda – share. And the rows over it predate the ones over Migingo and Ugingo.

In recent years, both Uganda and Tanzania, but especially Tanzania, have arrested Kenyan fisherman for allegedly straying over the borders and fishing “illegally” in their portion of the lake.

Now Lake Victoria is huge. The islands that are being fought over are tiny, and the fisherman who are arrested or harassed for trespassing in other people’s waters are not using trawlers. They are catching a few fish.

The EAC leaders are pushing for monetary union as early as next year. A monetary union is a mega issue, compared with the little fish over which our governments are fighting. You got to be crazy to believe that politicians will fail to agree on the small things, but do so on the big ones.

Secondly, one of these days, a trigger-happy Tanzanian or Ugandan soldier will mow down a large number of fishermen from Kenya. Then things will just go boom. If cool heads don’t prevail, East Africa’s first war could be fought over fish.

East Africa integration is still shallow. It can all go up in smoke very easily.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected]