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Lake Victoria’s Migingo Island: A Test for Peacebuilding in East Africa

Fredrick Ogenga

Migingo, an island roughly the size of a football pitch on Lake Victoria, has been a site of contention between Kenya and Uganda, due to the large fish population found in the surrounding freshwaters. As populations increase, environmental degradation and pollution put pressure on the flora and fauna in the lake basin, creating a natural resource conflict time bomb. East African countries, especially Kenya and Uganda, are witnessing diminishing returns in fish and related products, leading to rising competition for the increasingly scarce natural resources.

Migingo has received negative headlines, often described as a "tiny piece of rock," by Daily Nation, and "Africa's Smallest War" by Aljazeera. The fact that it has led to a protracted dispute between two neighboring East African nations — Kenya and Uganda — over its sovereign control, is something many have yet to understand. Both Kenya and Uganda claim the island is within their territorial waters and are even willing to use international jurisprudence, such as the International Criminal Court, to prove their point.

With the dispute of ownership raging on, Migingo Island provides a perfect laboratory for testing locally owned multilateral mechanisms for peacebuilding, especially as African stakeholders seek to explore "the next generation of peacebuilding" on the continent. In this context, the failure to solve the Migingo dispute shows how "borderlands" or "border-waters" are sites of innovation regarding transnational community-organized approaches to peacebuilding.

Survival strategies by Kenyans and Ugandans in Migingo are disconnected from the highly securitized approaches conceived in Nairobi and Kampala. At the borderland and border-waters, the two national governments are often viewed as spoilers of the harmonious co-existence lived by ordinary fishermen from both Kenya and Uganda on this "tiny piece of rock."

Several efforts have been made by the two states to resolve the Migingo stalemate, which has the potential of escalating into a full-blown conflict between Kenya and Uganda. In 2009, for example, Kenya and Uganda had launched a survey plan to determine the actual ownership of the island and to heal the festering diplomatic wounds. Both states can learn from the local communities, who interact and create resilient mechanisms for mutual co-existence. This is important because even after determining and demarcating 'colonial boundaries,' the fish of Lake Victoria know no boundaries.

Local Ownership of Interventions

Local ownership is useful given that deals regarding peace in Migingo have been securitized and have not involved the fishing communities. For example, Ugandan security personnel would be allowed to travel to Kenya for food and medical supplies, and Kenyan fishermen to sail freely on Ugandan waters. Agreements on joint management of the island have paved the way for the formation of a joint police task force that would patrol the disputed island and the shared border.

Such moves are seen as bids to end hostilities at the islet and assuage the diplomatic suspicion that had persisted between the two neighbors. Unfortunately, these measures remained elitists since decisions are made by state actors in Nairobi and Kampala, securitized, and lacked local community-based ownership and participation from fishing communities from both countries.

It is therefore important that in addition to bilateral diplomatic, legal, and security mechanisms between Kenya and Uganda over Migingo Island, other proactive measures should be appraised. One notable measure is cage fishing in Lake Victoria, which provides a lucrative alternative source of fish and employment for many families. Cage fishing, therefore, has the potential of reducing competition for fish and, in turn, conflict. Cage fishing is a modern method used to farm fish by enclosing the fish in a cage or basket which allows the natural lake water to pass freely through the cage, presenting the fish with a natural habitat albeit with restricted movement.

More resources should be channeled towards this approach to fish farming to ease the pressure off the competition for diminishing fish population in the Lake and at the same time add value, increase productivity and boost fish trade.

If the Migingo Island dispute, viewed largely as a threat to regional peace and security, is not solved through interventions that respect local peacebuilding mechanisms, it will raise issues of international law regarding respect for, and protection of, territorial integrity vis-à-vis questions of regional integration through Regional Economic Communities and consequently the African Union's vision of a united continent as captured in Agenda 2063 (peaceful prosperous and united continent). If Africans continue to fight for resources in "Africa's Smallest War" in this "tiny piece of rock" in a region that is supposed to be united through (EAC) then the idea of African Unity remains farfetched.

According to Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, and reiterated in Article III paragraph 3 of the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) — the African Union's predecessor — and in the AU's idea of peacebuilding, Uganda's activities may be interpreted as acts of aggression. Such acts may be then repulsed by Kenya through the use of force based on the principle of self-defense, per Article 51 of the UN Charter. Yet this would undermine the vision of the East African Community, where local ownership, multilateralism, de-securitization of borderlands, regional integration, and free trade remain core elements for creating chains of resilience in the event of conflicts.

Resilience is a necessary condition for post-conflict reconstruction if the next generation of peacebuilding in Africa is to be realized. It is in this spirit that the AU replaced and expanded the OAU experience where "the state was elitist, factionalist, tribalist, militaristic, and autocratic, implicated more in oppressing and brutalizing its people than offering social and economic development or ensuring security or building peace." For the AU, this remains a work in progress and for East Africans, it raises questions of environmental protection through shared responsibilities in order to maximize the dividends from the blue economy and East Africa's common market.

Dr. Fredrick Ogenga is an Associate Professor of Communication and Media Studies and the Founding Director for the Center for Media, Democracy, Peace and Security at Rongo University in Kenya. Dr. Ogenga is also the President of The Peacemaker Corps Foundation, Kenya, a former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding scholar, and alumni of the Africa Peacebuilding Network.

About the Author

Fredrick Ogenga

Fredrick Ogenga

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Associate Professor of Media and Security Studies, Rongo University and Founding Director, Center for Media, Democracy, Peace & Security (CMDPS).
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