Falling fish stocks raise tension on disputed Lake Victoria island

The Times of London
Migingo Island, Lake Victoria

George Ochieng is hungover. On the slick black rocks down by the water’s edge he stands by a long wooden fishing canoe and allows the morning breeze to clear his head. “This is our place,” he says resolutely. “We are fighting for our place, and for the water that has fish within.”

Migingo Island, a tiny mound of tin-roofed slums rising out of Africa’s largest lake, hardly seems worth fighting for. But the real prize is not the rock; it is the fish in the surrounding waters.

With Kenya and Uganda both claiming Migingo, the dispute has driven a wedge between the East African neighbours, threatening to erupt into open conflict when both countries deployed security forces to the crowded island.

Dwindling fish stocks are the issue. Lake Victoria is under assault from a combination of pollution, over-fishing and receding water levels, blamed on global warming and deforestation. It is harder than ever to catch fish close to the shore.Migingo has, therefore, become a magnet.

More than 500 fishermen live on the one-acre island and trawl for the huge and valuable silver-scaled Nile perch. Even here, though, catches are falling. “We find the fish reducing in number day by day,” said John Obunge, 34, one of those struggling to adapt.

The trouble started in 2004, he said, when Ugandan fishermen living on Migingo appealed to their Government for protection from pirates who would steal their catch and equipment: outboard motors, nets, even boats. Uganda sent armed police, who raised a national flag. Then, say Kenyan fishermen, they started to raise taxes and confiscate catches.

“The Ugandan security forces prey on the Kenyan fishermen,” said Ojukwu Onyonyi, a fish trader in the Kenyan harbour of Sori, a two-hour trip by boat from Migingo. “They arrest us and take our fish. They say we are fishing [illegally] in Uganda.”

A joint border commission was established months ago but has yet to report its findings. However, John Donaldson, who monitors border disputes at the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University, said that ownership of the island is clear, according to a British colonial-era document from 1926.

“Migingo Island is within Kenya — but not by much. You are talking 700 or 800 metres,” he said. “The real issue is not ownership, but border management with regards to fishing rights and provision of security. It’s up to the two states to find a solution.”

Migingo has become a focus of nationalist sentiment. At a recent rugby match, opposing fans chanted that the island was theirs, and this year protesting Kenyans pulled up a section of the railway line that links the landlocked Uganda to the Indian Ocean port at Mombasa.

The row has divided the island. During the day, Kenyans and Ugandans sit in separate groups, stitching holes in their fishing nets or stringing them with floats and weights. As dusk falls, they walk the slippery alleys to separate grimy bars, where they buy beers and plastic sachets of whisky or gin imported from their respective countries.

By night Migingo is a riot of seedy decadence. Alongside the hundreds of men earning money from fishing, there are prostitutes from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. A string of rough-and-ready bars and brothels are scattered among the fishermen’s shacks.

“There are some ladies around, and some drinking joints,” said Mr Ochieng, with a wistful smile and a rub of his red eyes. “You know fishermen: they like women very well, and the women they like fishermen because we have the money!”

But, he said, as a Kenyan he never consorts with ladies from Uganda.