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Migingo Island: A Disputed Rock

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Kenya and Uganda have been squabbling over a small, rocky island for years. In the 1990s, fishermen began building corrugated iron dwellings on Migingo Island in Africa’s Lake Victoria. This saved them hours-long, daily boat rides, burning precious fuel, to the coastlines of Kenya and Uganda. But, the value of the rich fishing grounds nearby has prompted a territorial quarrel.

Overcrowded Migingo.

Overcrowded Migingo.

Migingo Island: The Facts

To provide perspective on the international bickering over a tiny speck of land it helps to know a little bit about the place.

  • The island covers just 2,000 square metres (22,000 square feet), that’s less than half an acre. That’s about one-and-a-half times a National Hockey League ice surface, about half the size of Bill Gates’s home, or about one third the size of the White House.
  • The actual population can only be guessed at. According to a 2009 Kenyan census it was 131, but the most often quoted number is 500 of which about 80 percent are Kenyan and 20 percent Ugandan.
  • Migingo is far and away the most densely populated island in the world at 208,000 per square kilometre. That’s three times the density of Hong Kong.
  • It is sometimes called “The Metal Clad Island” because almost all the dwellings on it are built out of corrugated iron.
  • While everybody is crammed cheek-by-jowl onto the tiny rocky islet of Mingingo, another, bigger and uninhabited island sits only 200 metres away. The reason nobody lives there is that pirates are active in the area, so people huddle together on the tiny rock where there is some semblance of police protection.
  • The island has four bars, a hair salon, a pharmacy, an outdoor casino, and several brothels. But these establishments are nothing like you might imagine from the names, although the writer cannot speak to the authenticity of the brothels, having never been inside one.

The Nile Perch

Migingo Island would be of no consequence to anyone were it not for the presence of a nearby, rich fishing ground. The most sought after species is the Nile perch, a huge fish that can grow to be six feet long and weigh in at up to 500 pounds. The fish are worth tens of millions of dollars when exported to Asia and Europe. Of course, the fishermen get only a tiny percentage of the money.

Nile perch; but you should have seen the one that got away.

Nile perch; but you should have seen the one that got away.

Lake Victoria fishermen over-fished areas closest to the land so they had to go out to deeper waters. Kenya claims that it was two Kenyan fishermen who first settled on Migingo Island in 1991. No, no, says Uganda it was our Joseph Nsubuga who arrived on the island in 2004 to find it uninhabited. He was followed by Ugandan police who set up a guard post and hoisted their national flag.

It was time to consult the map makers who drew lines across Africa in colonial times. The best available evidence came from a British Order in Council of 1926 that says Migingo Island lies 500 metres to the east of the border between Uganda and Kenya. That means it belongs to Kenya.

But, Uganda claimed Kenyan fishermen were hauling in their catches on the Ugandan side of the boundary and its police began harassing them and demanding licence fees.

Fishing boats sit idle in Uganda because the inshore area has been over-fished.

Fishing boats sit idle in Uganda because the inshore area has been over-fished.

Africa’s Smallest War

Word got back to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, that some muscle was needed to protect its fishermen. A small detachment of Kenyan police was dispatched to the island and the flag was raised. A day later, a heavily armed group of Ugandan marines arrived and the Ugandan flag was raised.

For a few days, opposing flags were raised and pulled down.

Daniel Howden of The Independent reported on the “conflict fought in advances of three soldiers, a dozen policemen, or eight marines. Any more than that and they would not fit.”

But, the confrontation carried with it the potential to escalate into a real shooting war between the two countries. To avoid bloodshed, a committee was struck to decide the matter, which, of course, is where troublesome issues are sent to die.

In 2009, senior government officials went to the island to seek a solution. The two sides sailed around the island for more than three hours as they discussed the matter. They came ashore and gave speeches, during which James Orengo, Kenya’s Minister for Lands, called his Ugandan counterparts “hyenas.”

Negotiations generally don’t go well when such words are bandied about and everybody left the island in foul moods. After a decade on on-again-off-again talks a Memorandum of Understanding emerged at the end of 2019.

Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Monicah Juma said it had been agreed that Kenya owned the island, and that the territory would be administered by both nations. But, Kenyan Senators called the deal “high treason.” So, the entire affair seems destined to descend even further into low farce.

Lake Victoria’s Wider Problem

Bonus Factoids

  • There’s a 1.2-square-kilometre lump of rock in the Arctic called Hans Island. It sits between Ellesmere Island (Canada) and Greenland (Denmark) and both countries have claimed it as theirs since the 1970s. Periodically, warships are sent to the uninhabited and desolate place. The Danes plant their flag and a bottle of schnapps, the Canadians leave their flag and a bottle of rye whiskey. But there’s good news; a task force was struck in 2018 to decide the matter. So, we can look forward to many years of talks over taxpayer-funded lavish meals and fine wines.
  • Far more serious are disagreements over islands and groups of islands in the South China Sea. China and Vietnam came to blows over the Paracel Islands in 1974 and 71 soldiers died. China is now in control. The Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines. All five nations occupy bits and bobs of reefs, shoals, and islands. There have been clashes and bloodshed.
  • The Falkland Islands, Islas Malvinas to the Argentineans, have been occupied by the French, Spanish, Argentineans, and the British. The last named took possession in 1833, although Argentina is by far the closest nation to the islands. In April 1982, Argentina’s dictator ordered an attack on the Falklands to distract opposition to his failing government. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent a task force to retake the islands. More than a thousand military personnel died as Britain retook the islands and saved Mrs. Thatcher’s shaky hold on power. In a March 2013 referendum, Falkland Islanders voted 99.8% to remain a British overseas territory.

Sources

  • “Migingo Island: a Rocky Marriage Between Uganda and Kenya.” France 24, October 22, 2018.
  • “Migingo: Big Trouble on Small Island.” Daniel Howden, The Independent, March 23, 2009.
  • “Dispute Over Migingo Escalates.” Institute for Security Studies, August 17, 2011.
  • “Senators Denounce Joint Administration of Migingo.” Ibrahim Oruko, Daily Nation, November 22, 2019.
  • “Migingo Talks Turn Stormy.” Daniel Otieno and Elisha Otieno, Daily Nation, March 28, 2009.
  • “Migingo Island: Africa’s ‘Smallest War.’ ” Andrea Dijkstra and Jeroen Van Loon, Al Jazeera, February 18, 2019.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on December 15, 2019:

I can hardly believe the picture of this island is real and that people actually live there! There are so many tin roof you can not see ground.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 14, 2019:

My main thought is for the people who live in this horrible place.

Carole Mireri on December 14, 2019:

Migingo Island is indeed a thorny issue.You have put forward the facts very well, Rupert.

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