A few days ago, Uganda soldiers near Mageta and Hama Islands in Lake Victoria detained three Kenyan police officers in what Daily Nation said “could be the latest controversy surrounding fishing rights in Lake Victoria.”
The officers’ guns were taken away, and they were placed on boats and ferried to Bugiri Mainland Prison in Uganda.
The officers were rounded up “together with Kenyan fishermen found catching fish in Ugandan waters,” the paper reported, adding, “In November last year, the Foreign Ministry had to intervene after 17 fishermen in Homa Bay were arrested and detained in Uganda over illegal fishing”.
These incidents are, however, not about fish. They are about borders first and fish second.
Fishermen on Lake Victoria tend to have a very liberal interpretation of who owns which bit of water and its fish. As a result, they are always running into trouble with law enforcement, especially the types who take a conservative view of borders.
Coincidentally, as the kerfuffle between Uganda and Kenya over fish was taking place, the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa published an eye-opening article on its website about Africa’s borders.
“Africa’s problem is not that it controls borders too rigidly, but that it doesn’t control them enough,” it said, citing a recent report that noted that only a third of Africa’s 83,000 km of land borders were properly demarcated.
It would seem then, African governments enforce authority over borders when there is something to eat involved – fish, oil wells, trade.
But in the case of Uganda, there is something very different about Lake Victoria as shown by the long-running dispute with Kenya over the football-pitch-sized Migingo Island.
President Yoweri Museveni has made the baffling statement that the “island is in Kenya, but the water is in Uganda”!
Many have laughed off it, saying it takes the biscuit for nonsensical statements. It is, until you dive into the Uganda soul.
Uganda has the second largest portion of Lake Victoria, and Tanzania the largest. But it thinks it has the most stake in the lake, although it’s not any better a steward of it.
One reason for this is a strange sense of natural justice. Because Uganda is landlocked, there tends to be a mindset that Kenya and Tanzania already have the Indian Ocean, and they are being greedy in not “leaving Victoria to us.” They therefore tend to believe that they have first dibs to it.
But the main driver of this sentiment is geography. Lake Victoria is on the fringes of both Kenya and Tanzania, but not Uganda. Entebbe, which used to be Uganda’s capital, and is home to State House where Museveni lives, is also the location of the country’s only international airport.
The eastern side of Kampala borders the Lake Victoria shore. The water that the capital city drinks comes from the lake.
Nairobi, on the other hand, is 380 kilometres from Lake Victoria, and Dar es Salaam is a whopping 927 kilometres away. You can be a politician in Nairobi or Dar, and never set eyes on Lake Victoria.
For Ugandans, it is inescapable, and is seen as central to the country’s modern existence in ways it isn’t in Tanzania and Kenya.
The Ugandan elite are therefore more emotionally invested in Lake Nalubaale (to call by its correct name), and for exactly that reason, are less reasonable about it.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of Africapaedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com Twitter @cobbo3