Migingo island: Africa’s smallest war

Migingo island, Lake Victoria – A round rock crammed with corrugated metal shacks rises out of Lake Victoria right at the border between Kenya and Uganda. The deep waters that surround it are rich with fish.

Migingo Island covers less than half a football pitch but more than 500 people, according to the Ugandan policelive in less than 2,000 square metres area.

The rock island, with its poorly constructed huts, a tiny port, some bars, a brothel and an open-air casino, is heavily contested by Kenya and Uganda that both claim ownership.

Migingo was little more than a rock jutting out of the water before the lake started receding in the early 1990s, according to Emmanuel Kisiangani, a senior researcher at the Pretoria office of the Institute for Security Studies. 

Fish catches have hugely diminished over the years in the fishing communities around Lake Victoria because of overfishing and an invasion of water hyacinth plants that blocked transport on the lake and access to ports. But increasingly profitable species such as the Nile perch are still plentiful in the deep waters surrounding Migingo, making the island a valuable and unique fishing hub.

Uganda started to send armed police and marines to Migingo to tax fishermen and offer them protection against pirates in 2004 when the island was still barely inhabited.

The Kenyan fishermen began complaining that they were being harassed by the Ugandan forces for reasons that included illegal fishing in Ugandan waters. In response, the Kenyan government deployed marines to Migingo in a move that nearly brought the two nations to blows.

‘Smallest war’

As human settlement began to swell on the rocky island, Kenya and Uganda decided to create a joint committee to determine the border in 2016, relying on maps dating from the 1920s. However, nothing has come of the committee. In the meantime, the island is co-managed by both countries but tensions occasionally flare up with some local fishermen calling it Africa’s “smallest war”.

“They haven’t decided who owns this island,” says Ugandan fisherman Eddison Ouma. “It’s no-man’s land.”

Thanks to continuing exports to the European Union and soaring demand for Nile perch in Asia, where its swim bladder, also known as fish maws, is considered a delicacy, the large fish has become an even bigger multimillion-dollar export.

Prices of Nile perch have increased by 50 percent in the last five years, according to Kenyan fisherman Kennedy Ochieng, with large good quality fish bringing in excess of $300 a kilogramme in international markets.

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