Kenyan fishermen say they suffer in the hands of Ugandan soldiers

Monday August 12 2019

Fishermen from Budalang'i, Busia County in western Kenya, talk about harassment by Ugandan soldiers while fishing in Lake Victoria. They are pleading for the Kenyan government's intervention. PHOTO | GAITANO PESSA | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Rajab Daudi Ongoma had been fishing in Lake Victoria for four decades until two months ago when Uganda security officers brutally halted his only source of livelihood.

The 60-year-old resident of Budalang'i Constituency in Busia County, western Kenya, was in the company of five colleagues in the lake when he was arrested.

Men in military gear seized their boat and towed it to Dolwe Island where the six men endured torture. “They told us the punishment for engaging in illegal fishing in their waters was 100 strokes of the cane. They whipped us and left us hungry in the waters for 12 hours.

"When we complained, they made us eat raw fish after which they beat us again,” the elderly man said.

They were put on a Ugandan boat 24 hours later and taken to Budalang’i with a warning never to be seen in Uganda again “if you value your lives”.

Mr Ongoma is part of the statistics of fishermen who have been brutalised by Ugandan security officials.


They are whipped, made to eat raw fish, their boats seized, and forced to pay hefty fines while some spend weeks or months in filthy police cells.


In an interview with the Nation at Marenga beach in Port Victoria, Budalang'i, Mr Ongoma said the Ugandans keep changing fishing regulations for the sole purpose of fleecing Kenyans.

“There are more than 300 boat engines and thousands of fishing nets on islands manned by Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers,” he said.

Kenyans have also gone through horrifying ordeals on Hama, Lubia, Masuria, Bwonja, Munene and Sigulu islands.

Mr Sylvester Ouro, a fisherman from Sisenye, has been detained by Ugandans twice for using an illegal boat.

According to him, Ugandan officers insist on a 48ft boat, “which [is] very expensive in terms of purchase and maintenance compared to the 28ft canoes most Kenyans own”.

Another requirement is size nine hooks, which are meant to catch big fish. “They arrested me in May and towed my boat to Munene Island where I was made to kneel in the water for about two hours and forced to eat my catch,” Mr Ouro said.

“They hit me in the face, stomach and back when I refused to do as told.”


He added that by being whipped and made to eat raw fish, the officers said they were doing him a favour.

A tough directive is reportedly to have been issued in Mayuge, Namaingo and Sigulu last year when President Yoweri Museveni met the fishing community.

“They left me on the island without food, clothes and a boat. I survived by the grace of God,” Mr Ouro, who is yet to return to the lake, recalled.

Fishermen quizzed said confiscated gear is never taken to Ugandan courts as exhibit. “Most fishermen produce at least Sh50,000 to get back their gear. Some have sold their household items and livestock to raise the amount,” he said.

The UPDF officers routinely cross into Kenya to arrest fishermen. It happens in Sumba Island in Budalang’i and Bumbe beach in Samia.

Mr Ben Wandera from Buduong'i in Funyula recounted how he swam for about five kilometres to escape arrest.

“I jumped into the lake when armed Ugandan officers approached. They seized the boat yet we were near Majanji beach,” he said.


Three of his colleagues were arrested and taken to a detention camp in Uganda. “There were about 10 officers in an ordinary boat and had guns and pangas,” he said.

Fishermen in Busia appeal to Kenyan authorities to protect them from harassment. “There are no police officers at Sumba, Mageta, Ringiti, Remba and Migingo islands,” Mr Ouro said.

Busia County Beach Management Units Network chairman Sylvester Kaywa asked President Uhuru Kenyatta to come to the aid of the more than 26,000 fishermen spread across the 20 beaches.

“Many of the fishermen have been rendered jobless. Kenyans have become hostages in their own country. Fishermen say the government has abandoned them,” Mr Kaywa said.

Kenya allows the use of size 4.5 nets, but anything lower than six in Uganda is illegal.


Kenya also permits the use of canoes that are pointed on both sides, but Uganda only allows single-pointed boats.

Last week, Devolution Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa told Kenyan fishermen that the government is doing everything to end the harassment.

He said President Kenyatta would meet Mr Museveni to discuss the matter.

Last month, Deputy President William Ruto announced plans to set up a marine and fisheries institute in Sisenye.