Resolve Migingo Dispute Now
By Jacobs Odongo
KAMPALA, Uganda- No more than 100 homes made of corrugated iron sheets on both walls and roofs house a population of an estimated 200 people on this soccer-pitch size island. This is the Migingo Island that has risen from the ashes of its literal translation (Migingo is a luo word for ‘abandoned’) to create an impasse between sister states, Uganda and Kenya.
East Africa has three small islands all named Migingo. On Tanzanian side of the border stands one that is triangular shaped. Closer to Kenya is the pyramidal shapes of another Migingo.
Then now-in-the-centre-of-controversy one, lying deep into the Ugandan border, completes the Migingo milieu. It is a docking station for the lucrative fishing point on the lake.
Hitherto unheard of, tensions between Uganda and Kenya suddenly flared as citizens of the two nations dispute the ownership of the tiny island. A fortnight ago, Kenyan youths in Nairobi’s Kibera slum ripped away a section of the Uganda-Kenya Railway as demonstration of anger against Uganda’s occupation of their ‘Mother Earth’.
Cargo to Uganda was blocked for a few days and some Kenyans threatened to flog Ugandan nationals in their mainland if Uganda did not unconditionally withdraw from their island. The youths in Kibera and Kisumu, of course, are now infamous for their hysterical reactions to issues.
Following the disputed December 2007 polls in Kenya, the Kiberans dismantled the railway line to Uganda after it was reported that Ugandan leader, Yoweri Museveni, had congratulated President Mwai Kibaki for his victory. Kenyans were not amused. They ambushed Uganda-bound trucks, causing shortage of fuel and other imports; Uganda was humbled.
What caused the hysteria?
But what would cause squabbles over an island as small as Migingo? And, who owns Migingo? A Ugandan writing in the Independent magazine, said these actions are riding on a wave of rhetoric, demagoguery and hysteria by Kenyan politicians and the media that have over the past several weeks galvanized the country with many calling for war with Uganda to recover the island.
Historically, the island is said to have been abandoned until late 1990s when some fishermen occupied it. In an interview with The New Vision, a Ugandan daily, Joseph Nsubuga, a Ugandan, claims he was the first person to move into the island in 2004. Upon arrival, Nsubuga said, he found an abandoned house, an indication that somebody else had lived on the island long before he did.
Other fishermen soon joined him. However, geographically, the Kenyan main land is nearer than Uganda from Migingo. It takes about two hours by speed boat to travel to the Kenyan mainland and over six hours to the Ugandan mainland. To ease accessibility to the market, the fish is sold in Kenya.
Fishermen on the shores of Migingo Island. Courtesy pic
The New Vision report said initially Ugandans caught fish and docked at Migingo, where Kenyans bought it for sale back home. However, Kenyans slowly started moving into the island and joined the fishing business.
To regulate fishing on Lake Victoria, Ugandan fisheries department established an office on the island and consequently, taxes were introduced. However, the Ugandan authorities, solely believing that the island belongs to them, used the currency disparities and charged Kenyans more than Ugandans. Kenyans protested and others started by-passing Migingo Island authorities and operating straight from the mainland.
Dwindling fish around the island coupled with the biting global economic meltdown is taking toll on the inhabitants. Looks like the economic slump must have also reminded Kenyans of the meaning of Migingo. Migingo must be theirs, or so they concluded. And if it was a Kenyan territory, then was Uganda monopolizing activities on the island? They had to be forced out. The dispute started.
What are our governments doing?
Kenyans have accused their own leaders of politicizing land issues. Bloggers have been calling on Kibaki and Odinga to rise to the occasion and deal with Museveni once and for all. Whatever that means! One can only speculate that some Kenyans, including big shots in government, have been hysterical about the whole Migingo saga that they have been sounding war drums.
Kenyan Deputy Defense Minister, David Musila, was recently quoted in the press as saying Uganda has annexed Kenyan land by hoisting its flag and deploying security in the island, which, to him, is tantamount to territorial aggression. MPs such as Simon Mbugua and Omondi Anyanga have also been quoted in sections of the Kenyan press challenging their president to speak out on the matter.
Speaking, he did, but like a sane leader. Kibaki told the Kenyan parliament that diplomacy would be the first line of response in reaching a compromised solution. He assured the sister citizens that the issue of Migingo Island will be solved diplomatically by May 15 when the survey team finishes its exercise.
The Kenyan leader said he was in constant touch with his Ugandan counterpart over the issue and urged people to show restraint and patience, saying that as a member of the East African Community, we are brothers, who are bound by the EAC Treaty, thus the need to reason with a sober mind instead of emotions. Kibaki also condemned the action in Kibera and singled out the media, civil society and the youth for acting irresponsibly and misusing their freedoms.
In Uganda, the alleged aggressor was not any different in his response to the tension that has been brewing over Migingo. It is prudent for sister nationals to understand that such disputes are not matters for politicians or local people represented by the usually sentimental voice of the media, but a technical matter for surveyors.
At a recent press conference with visiting Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, Museveni said the position of the border is determined by colonial documents such as the 1926 Order of Council and the Anglo-Belgian Treaty. The 1926 British colonial demarcations established the two countries. Museveni said these documents are good reference points that will point to the truth.
Kagame, the chairman of the East African Community, equally downplayed the border dispute, saying it was a simple matter that could be solved bilaterally.
After calls for calm, it is time to resolve the dispute. A team of technical surveyors will mainly rely on the very elaborately written-out British Order in Council of 1926 that established the current Uganda-Kenya boundary complete with coordinates, pillars and natural features, to determine the ownership of Migingo Island.
Migingo Island, the tiny piece of land causing a big problem between good neigbours . Picture through courtesy
On Monday, Uganda lowered its flag that has been flying above the disputed Island to pave way for the demarcation exercise. At the directive of President Museveni, the flag came down at 6:30 p.m. on Monday. Museveni, who is in Arusha for an EAC summit, said the lowering of the flag was done in the spirit of regional co-operation and integration.
A joint technical team from Kenya and Uganda started the demarcation process on Tuesday. Another team traveled to London to collect maps and relevant colonial documents. The Ugandan government has said it will accept the results of the remarking exercise.
What the documents say
Overall, the Kenya-Uganda boundary extends for approximately 580 miles (933 kilometers), and the Lake Victoria segment is approximately 86 miles (138 kilometers).
The Uganda-Kenya Lake Victoria boundary starts in the middle point of the mouth of River Sio near Majanji, and runs in a straight line up to the northern most point of Sumba Island. It then follows the western shore of the island up to its southern most point and goes from there in a straight line to the northern most part of the next island, Mageta.
It goes through the same straight course to Ilemba (or Remba) Island straight to the next Kiringiti (or Ringiti) Island and straight to Pyramid Island and then straight to the Tanzania, Uganda Kenya tri-point at 1˚ south and 33˚ 56´ east.
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