Dispute Over Migingo Escalates


Emmanuel Kisiangani, Senior Researcher, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria Office

On Monday 15 August, the Kenyan government send about 50 administration officers to a small but contested island known as Migingo. The move not only caused panic among Ugandans living on the island but also threatened to spill over into military action between the two East African neighbours that have, in the recent past had warm relations, although not devoid of subtle adverse undercurrents. The 50 officers were, however, blocked from docking on Migingo by Ugandan Police officers and ended up on another neigbouring but uninhabited island called Ugingo.

Migingo is a small island in Lake Victoria measuring about an acre of land and is rocky with little vegetation. It was in fact little more than a rock portruding out of water before the lake started receding in the early 1990s. This explains why there were no settlements on the island until about ten years ago. Today, over 1000 people inhabit Migingo Island with about 80 percent of them being Kenyan. The reason why Kenyans are the majority is partly explained by the fact that Migingo is nearer to the Kenyan hinterland than to either Uganda or Tanzania.

The source of the current dispute can be traced to around 2004, when the government of Uganda posted armed police and marines on the island, besides hosting its national flag. Since then, Kenyan fishermen started complaining of being harassed by Ugandan security officers for reasons that included illegal fishing in Ugandan waters. Towards the end of 2007, Kenya also sent its police force to the island but later withdrew them in what the government said was a measure to avoid triggering war between Kenya and its neighbour, Uganda.  The dispute was exacerbated in early 2009 when Kenyans living on Island were asked to purchase special permits by the Ugandan Government. This sparked a diplomatic row between the two countries that was further excerbated by comments by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni while addressing students of the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in May 2009. Museveni argued that whereas the island was in Kenya, the waters surrounding it were in Uganda and asserted that Luos (a Kenyan community that forms the majority of Migingo Island’s inhabitants) would not be permitted to fish in Ugandan territory. Some of the Kenyan politicians and the media did not take Museveni’s comments and connotation of the language used kindly and urged for a more pungent approach from their government.

The problem reflected the divisive legacy of colonial boundaries in Africa and the lack of instruments to address border disputes on the continent. Amidst concerns then, that the posturing would affect the relations between the two countries, and the East African cooperation initiative, a joint physical demarcation of the border on Lake Victoria was launched on 2 June 2009. The team was supposed to be guided by, among others, the British Order in Council of 1926 that established the current Uganda-Kenya boundary. This Order in Council has the coordinates on where the border should be and are reflected in Kenya’s and Uganda’s constitutions (for a detailed analysis of the island’s coordinates, see Kenya – Uganda Boundary at http://www.law.fsu.edu/library/collection/LimitsinSeas/IBS139.pdf. 

The exercise, however, hit a snag in early July that year with reports that surveyors from two countries had differed on technicalities especially on the mode of erecting new boundary pillars and the perimeters to help in determining scientifically the westernmost points as described in the 1926 Order-In-Council. As a result, the Uganda team returned to Kampala for ‘consultations’. The Kenyan surveyors continued with the process of demarcation and in findings that were not officially announced, found that Migingo island was about 510 metres (1,670 ft.) east of the Kenya-Uganda border.  A finding that seemed to support Kenya’s claims of ownership of the island.

A close look at the dispute, however, reveals that the bone of contention is not about the island per se, rather the declining fish stocks in the lake and the burgeoning international interest especially in the Nile perch species. There are no reliable detailed statics on the fishing industry on Lake Victoria but according to the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization (LVFO), the lake produces a fish catch of over 800,000 tonnes, worth about US $590 million of which US $340 million is generated at the shore and a further US$ 250 million a year earned from exports of Nile perch from the three states of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania that share the Lake’s waters. While the size of Kenya’s fish industry is averaged at 180, 000 metric tonnes annually with about 92 percent of this coming from Lake Victoria, Uganda only exported about 22,731 metric tonnes of fish despite controlling the second largest portion of the lake- 43 percent.  It is this perceived imbalance and the declining fish resources in the lake that inform the root causes of the Migingo dispute.

This dispute is also spiced up with regional ethnic politics, with members of the Luo ethnic community in Kenya, who are largely from the region where the Island is located, particulalrly feeling that Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni is against the ambitions of one of their sons, Raila Odinga, of rising to the presidency in Kenya. This is largely informed by events around the last general elections in Kenya, where it was alleged that President Museveni sent in Kenya troops to support Raila’s opponent, President Mwai Kibaki in the disputed 2007 elections. 

With Uganda also said to be beefing up security on the Island and Kenyans on the island said to have purchased the Kenyan national flag, ready to raise it the moment the Kenyan officers take control, there is urgent need particularly on the side of regional bodies, the East African Community (EAC), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU) to facilitate the completion of the survey process of the border and the establishment, broadly, of mechanisms to address border disputes on the continent.

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