15 February 2013

Kenya: Migingo Question - the Life of the 3,000 Inhabitants

Photo: The Star
Kenya, Uganda police clash over Migingo island.

When the country held its first presidential debate on Monday, the question of Migingo Island resurfaced. All of the candidates maintained that the island, which has been at the centre of a diplomatic row with Uganda, is in Kenya.

Migingo, when approached from the Muhuru Bay, looks like a floating buoy in the lake.

The tightly packed corrugated iron sheets structures hosts about 2,000 to 3,000 Kenyans and some Ugandans. The shacks cling to the tiny rocky island like a second skin. Their silvery glistening surface against the afternoon sun competes with the reflection from the blue Lake Victoria waters.

Narrow alleys separate the houses which double up as business premises during the day.

The rent for the tiny shacks is Sh400. The landlords, people who came earlier to the island, got space and transported building materials from the mainland on boats. They say the nomadic lifestyle of fishermen who follow the fish discourages monthly payment of rent.

The inhabitants of the island are mostly Luos from Kenya but there are some Ugandan and Tanzanian fishermen.

So how did the island end up being disputed by Kenya and Uganda? According to Juma Ombori, the chairman of Beach Management Unit which takes care of the fishermen's welfare, people were attracted to the island because of the abundant presence of Nile Perch.

"Since it was remote and far from Kenyan authorities, there was insecurity as fishermen used to lose their stock, nets and boats. Fishermen agreed to pay the Ugandans in form of part of their catch for protection; that was in late 1990s," Ombori says.

Locals say after Ugandans realised there is lots of money to be made in fishing -a kilo of fish costs between Sh400 and Sh600 - they started increasing their presence at the island. This brought the current tension.

The dispute made the two countries agree to station 12 police officers from each country after President Mwai Kibaki met his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni in Kampala as a decision is awaited for its ownership.

Five months ago, Kenya curved out a new administration bloc, Migingo sub-location, and installed sub-chief Julius Odhiambo to cover three islands; disputed Migingo which is inhabited, Kenyan-controlled Ugingo which houses the chief's camp with 11 APs (only 12 officers are allowed at Migingo) and Pyramid which is the biggest but uninhabited due to its steep gradient.

The area is under West Muhuru location, Muhuru division, Nyatike district in Migori County with offices stationed at Migingo and the chief residing in Ugingo. During Odhiambo's installation, Kenyans in the island celebrated as they now have services like vetting for IDs and the central government presence.

Odhiambo says he always meets officers from Uganda to solve problems involving residents from both countries.

The Deputy Police Commissioner in charge of planning, research and development Silas McOpiyo is the highest ranking police officer to ever visit Migingo. He recently led a delegation which included Nyanza deputy PPO Larry Kieng' and Nyatike DC Moses Ivuto to settle a dispute over payment of over Sh1.5 million Kenya Police rent arrears.

McOpiyo, who is the officer in charge of housing, says they will pay the rent arrears soon.The dispute between the two countries revolve around the lucrative fishing rights, mostly for valuable Nile perch.

During the rainy season when there is plenty of fish, traders who sell clothes, food and operate businesses like salons, kinyozi, M-Pesa and hotels make a killing.

With a good haul, a fisherman can get up to Sh30,000. This has attracted traders from as far as Wajir, Mombasa and neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania.

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