A half acre rocky piece of island full of metal shacks – bars, brothels and ridiculously expensive lodgings, about the size of half a football pitch has recently captured media attention.
Going by the public mood in Kenya, Migingo Island, the otherwise nondescript island in the middle of Lake Victoria is enough reason to for Kenya to confront ‘violent aggression’ from its East African neighbour.
In the recent past youths in a Nairobi slum, have uprooted rails that link Uganda to the sea. They have also threatened to block the two important Kenya-Uganda border points, Malaba and Busia which also serve Rwanda, Burundi and the DR Congo.
The Island’s history
Migingo Island is near the confluence of borders of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania in Lake Victoria. Uganda’s territory occupies 43% of Lake Victoria, Kenya 6% and Tanzania 51%.
According to online encyclopedia Wikipedia, two Kenyan fishermen, Dalmas Tembo and George Kibebe, claim to have been the first inhabitants on the island in 1991, when the island was covered with weeds and infested with birds and snakes.
Joseph Nsubuga, a Ugandan fisherman says he settled on Migingo in 2004, finding on the island only an abandoned house.
Colonial maps which define the boundaries of British territories of Kenya Colony and Protectorate exclusively published in The Standard, a Kenyan newspaper reveal that Migingo belongs to Kenya.
The island hosts fishermen in search for tilapia and the Nile perch. On the other hand, according the Independent, a Ugandan weekly, Migingo islands are located within Uganda boundaries going by a Google Earth map.
Pirates and a fish bonanza
The trouble on this vegetation-less rocky dome rising above the waters has nothing to do with the rocks themselves but nearby fishing grounds which are said to be rich in stocks of the Nile Perch, despite the dwindling stocks elsewhere.
As a result, fishermen take advantage of the rocky shores of the island which act as good docking areas for their boats.
The fish bonanza began five years ago when fishermen flocked the island to tap the rich resources. But as Daniel Howden of the Independent UK writes, pirates, some with assault rifles, appeared from as far afield as Tanzania, stealing engines, fish and any cash they found.
The fishermen appealed to their respective governments for help. Uganda sent its maritime police to check the wanton theft and piracy while Kenya gave the matter a blind eye.
Thus Uganda effectively took over territory more out of necessity and the apparent disinterest by Kenya to reign in on the errant situation.
Uganda Government Spokesman Fred Opolot admits that Kampala deployed its forces “to occupy Migingo to fight piracy” in 2004.
The Uganda authorities later slapped taxes, fines, regulations, permits etc. Daniel Howden continues that boats have been landing more than 100kg of fish a day, earning up to £200.
Migingo Island’s population varies from 500 to 1,000, mainly Kenyans, some Ugandans and very few Tanzanians.
In February this year, Ugandan authorities demanded that Kenyan fishermen pay for fishing permits or be denied access, making good on the promise.
This caused outrage among the Kenyan fishermen and residents. Kenyans questioned why the Ugandan government was taking control of Kenyan territory.
Early in March, a Kenyan delegation led by Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetang’ula met their Ugandan counterparts in Kampala and resolved to undertake a joint comprehensive survey using boundaries set by Kenya Colony and Protectorate (Boundaries) Order in Council, 1926.
A Ugandan Government press release then stated that Uganda would continue to administer the island until the survey findings are published. Also it was resolved that Uganda removes its 48 troops from the island.
Matters escalated however when it is alleged that Uganda replaced the police force on the island with troops dressed as civilians, and planted a Uganda flag prominently, infuriating the Kenyans who read aggression and annexation of Kenyan territory in Uganda’s acts.
This prompted another meeting by two sets of government officials on the island in late March. It almost turned rowdy when a Ugandan official accused Kenya’s Lands minister James Orengo of inciting the public and calling Ugandan ministers hyenas.
The Kenyans also insisted that the Uganda flag be brought down while the Ugandan team maintained that the flag was not part of the initial Kampala agreement.
War? Not plausible
The cool headedness with which the two governments have treated the matter at higher levels largely conflicts with the mood in the Kenyan public, the media and sections of the political establishment who have consistently urged Kenya to defend Kenya’s territorial integrity.
The soft stance with which the two presidents have handled the matter has been viewed as a weakness especially on President Kibaki’s side, yet in essence the leaders have tried to act responsibly.
A war between Kenya and Uganda over Migingo is almost implausible. Uganda is Kenya’s main bilateral trading partner.
The Uganda railway from Mom basa to Kampala is important not only to Uganda but to the Great Lakes Region as a cheaper alternative to the northern corridor.
How would Rwanda fare?
Even though unlikely, an armed altercation over Migingo would hurt Rwanda’s sea route of choice, the Mombasa– Kigali route.
Importers would lose time and money in unnecessary delays at the port with the fear of looters as it happened in January 2008 during Kenya’s presidential elections.
They could also opt for the longer, more taxing Dar-Kigali route where Rwanda truckers experience double taxation. Basic imported commodities like fuel and rice would have serious shortages which would negatively affect their prices in Rwanda.
It is no surprise that the current chairman of the East African Community, President Paul Kagame recently went to Uganda to discuss the issue among others.
African Border conflicts
In 1998, Eritrea invaded Ethiopia over a barren Badme plain even though the two countries were the best of friends.
Ethiopia depended on Eritrea’s ports while the latter depended on the former for most of its international trade. More than a decade later, the situation is still tense between the rivals.
Also in 2008, a long standing feud between Cameroon and Nigeria over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula with deep fishing grounds was solved by the International Court of Justice in favour of Cameroon, a another peaceful option for Migingo in case the current survey is inconclusive.
Closer to home, the serene Idjwi Island, in the second largest inland lake in Africa, Lake Kivu, is almost equidistant between the DRC and Rwanda. Like in Lake Victoria, new fish species were introduced in the mid-twentieth century which could affect fish eco-balance and cause conflicts between fishermen in future.
Also, since methane gas exploration is crucial on Lake Kivu, the lake is a potential flashpoint between the two countries, hence proper border demarcation before any conflict would avoid a repeat of a Migingo-like circus.
The survey team on Migingo is expected to submit its report by mid May.