Kenya, Uganda in tussle over Migingo island

Saturday November 22 2008
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A fisherman on Lake Victoria. Photo/FILE

Barely an acre in size, the rocky Migingo Island in Lake Victoria is at the centre of a regional row pitting Kenya against Uganda.

While Kenya maintains that the small island belongs to it, the Ugandan flag has been flying on its territory for some time now.

The simmering dispute over the island burst into the open with the eviction of some 400 Kenyan fishermen from the island, for apparently refusing to part with a Ksh50,000 ($649) “annual operation fee” that was being demanded by Ugandan authorities.

Before the dust could settle, the Ugandan authorities struck again, as 15 fishermen from the neighbouring Muhuru and Karungu beaches were arrested by the country’s marine police.

They were later freed upon the intervention of a high-powered Kenya delegation that travelled to Uganda.

A flurry of diplomatic activity has been going on between the two countries in a bid to resolve the dispute. Kenya has even formed an inter-ministerial team to champion the reclamation of the island from Uganda.


Kenyan Fisheries Development Minister Dr Paul Otuoma his ministry is jointly addressing the issue with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, East African Community and Internal Security and Provincial Administration.

He says that although it is clear that the island belongs to Kenya, an amicable solution is called for, “in the spirit of the East African Community.”

Nyanza Provincial Commissioner Paul Olando said official records, maps and information from informed sources have confirmed that the island belongs to Kenya.

“It is on the Kenyan side of the international boundary of the lake but we are handling the matter peacefully and amicably in accordance with protocol,” he added.

Environmental activist Okoth Mireri of the Friends of Lake Victoria lobby group, who grew up in the area, concurs that the island is indeed on Kenyan soil.

“For as long as I can remember, it was a Kenyan island,” he said.

Mr Olando says that he had visited the island to assess the situation and had briefed the Permanent Secretary in charge of Internal Security.

“The island is heavily populated with unhygienic living conditions,” he added.

It boasts a myriad makeshift mabati structures operating as shops, hotels, bars and lodgings.

Dr Otuoma said it was possible that the conflict was not territorial, but a scramble for resources.

Mr Mireri also felt that the dwindling Nile perch stocks in the lake could be the reason behind the conflict.

Mr Mireri traced the genesis of the conflict over the island to settlement of fishermen on islands in Lake Victoria.

In the past, he said, the island was most bush, without human settlement, but this has gradually changed.

“Settlement on the islands is responsible for the emergence of the debate over the ownership of Migingo,” he added.

However, Mr Mireri said the conflict over the island is misplaced.

He said that, rather than squabbling over who owns which island, the riparian countries should instead focus on improving water resource management for their mutual benefit. The fish in the lake, he argued, knows no boundaries.

Conflicts over fishing grounds have continued to rage around the lake with regular incidents of Kenyan fishermen being arrested by Ugandan and Tanzanian authorities ostensibly for trespassing.

Dr Otuoma said the government is developing a set of guidelines to guide the exploitation of such resources.

The regulations, he added, are contained in the fisheries policy that is currently at Cabinet sub-committee stage.

“We have developed ways of managing shared resources to avoid conflicts in future,” he said.

The policy, Dr Otuoma said, would also gazette fish landing sites, with the help of beach management units to aid management and provision of infrastructure.

He said his ministry will co-operate with countries with which it shares water bodies through organisations such as the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation (LVFO).

At a recent conference in Kampala, Uganda, the LVFO Council of Ministers resolved to support the initiatives that are working towards addressing the root cause of such trans-boundary conflicts.

In a joint communiqué issued at the end of the conference, and signed by ministers responsible for fisheries in the three East African countries, the council called for the creation of a mechanism to resolve fishing conflicts.

It also wants mechanisms to be developed for exploitation and management of the shared resource, including limitation of access and use of user rights.

Dr Otuoma says that scientific evidence has shown that all portions of a water body were important for the lake’s ecology.

“We have gazette 93 breeding sites on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria,” the minister says.

In Mr Mireri’s opinion, the question of conflicts over fishing grounds would be solved once and for all if the East African Community stepped in.

“The community should look at Lake Victoria as a shared resource and not as a portion of the countries that share it,” he says.

Surveyors from the two countries are expected to help in determining who owns the island.

Meanwhile, a joint beach management unit with representation from both countries has been established at Migingo Island, to address among other issues, setting agreeable levies.