A Small, Packed Island with 131 Residents Sparked Africa’s Smallest War

Published: Nov 05, 2023

While it might look like a floating pile of garbage to some, to the 131 residents that live there, the tiny island of Migingo is so much more. However, despite its small size, this tiny Island on Africa’s Lake Victoria has caused many large issues over the past few years.

Now, national experts say it has become the cause of Africa’s ‘smallest war.

Migingo Island - An Anomaly in Lake Victoria

Migingo Island is no more than a tiny Rock packed to the brim with corrugated metal tracks, rising out of the heart of Lake Victoria on the border between Uganda and Kenya. Fishermen began migrating here many years ago, as the deep waters surrounding the island are rich with unique fish species. 

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Unfortunately, this anomaly of an island is beginning to cause a good deal of tension between the two countries. 

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The Island Covers Less Than Half a Football Field

The island is very small, covering a little less than half the length of a football field. While the international census has the population label at 900, which was from 2009, the national census now claims that it’s around 500.

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All of these people live in just under 2,000 square feet of space. 

Both Kenya and Uganda Claim Ownership Over This Island

Both Kenya and Uganda claim ownership over Migingo Island and have yet to find a resolution.

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Beyond its many fishermen, this rock island has an open-air casino, a brothel, a tiny boating port, a few poorly constructed huts, and a couple of local bars. It’s truly a lot more than you would ever expect to be within this band of square feet. 

It’s Come a Long Way Since the 1990s

Ironically enough, Migingo was nothing more than the peak of a rock jutting slightly out of the water during the 1990s. 

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However, when the lake began to recede, people began showing up there to fish. Emmanuel Kisiangani, the senior researcher for the Pretoria office of the Institute for Security Studies, hinted at the fact that it’s near unrecognizable. 

Overfishing Has Depled the Lake’s Resources Over the Past Few Decades

In the past few decades, fish catches have greatly diminished. Lake Victoria quickly became susceptible to overfishing, with many commercial fishermen and an invasion of hyacinth plants, which blocked access to the ports and transport on the lake. 

As cause and effect, the island became an incredibly valuable hub for fishing. 

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More Than 100 Boats Go Out Every Day

Every morning, more than 100 boats go out into the water to fish and bring their valuable catches back to the tiny island to be weighed and sold. 

Once the fish processing firms purchase the amount of fish that they need to fulfill the requirements of national and International buyers, they transport the catches to the Kenyan mainland to prepare them for sale. The number of fishermen in the area seems to be growing each week. 

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Trouble Began Brewing When Pirates First Showed Up

Pirates heard that fishermen were starting to make upward of $300 a day, which was about four times as much as most people in East Africa’s land workforce were earning an entire month.

These pirates began flocking to the island, stealing the fisherman’s cash, catches, and boat engines, leaving them without money to send back to their families. 

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Armed Police Began Appearing in 2004

To make matters worse for fishermen who found this valuable island, Uganda began sending Marines and armed police to the island in 2004.

While these officers provided them with protection against the incoming pirates, they also forced heavy taxes on the fisherman in exchange for that protection. At this point, there was barely anybody living on the island. 

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Kenyan Fisherman Complained of Police Harassment

Soon, Kenyan fishermen began sending out complaints, saying they were being harassed by Ugandan police. Many Ugandan officers would arrest Kenyan fishermen, saying they were illegally fishing in Ugandan waters.

Source: blesk.cz

The Kenyan government responded by deploying marines to Migingo, which almost put these two nations at war.

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Kenya and Uganda Tried to Work Together to Manage the Island

Eventually, Kenya and Uganda worked together to create a joint committee. The goal was to use maps dating back from me 1920s to settle any current border conflicts, which were taking place in 2016.

At this point, the population was quickly swelling on the island, and in many ways, it was becoming its own city. 

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Now, the Island is Co-Managed by Kenya and Uganda

Throughout this process, Kenya and Uganda have been trying to co-manage the island equally.

However, this led to a rise in tension, what many Migingo fishermen are beginning to refer to as Africa’s ‘Smallest War.’ 

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As of Today, Many Say Migingo Is a No-Man’s Land

Eddison Ouma, a fisherman on Migingo, says that the two countries have yet to decide who owns the island. This is left the residents of Migingo in limbo over the past few years, trying to fish and work while governments argue over ownership.

Ouma calls it “no man’s land.”

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The Fish in the Lake Have Become a Delicacy

As European Union continued growing over the years, and the demand Nile perch sword in Asia, a place where the Nile perch swim bladder is considered a delicacy, the prices of these fish have exploded.

Economic experts say this has become a multimillion-dollar export for these fishermen 

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Prices for Nile Perch Have Doubled Over the Past Five Years

Over the past five years, the price of Nile perch has increased by around 50%. Kennedy Ochieng, a local fisherman, says that a pretty decent quantity of fish can bring in around $300 a kilogram in some international markets.

It seems like a pretty decent game for locals. 

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Kenyan Fishermen Want to Claim the Island as Their Own

Of course, there is fighting every day, and both parties want to claim Migingo as their own. 

On the larger Usingo island, which overlooks Migingo, the Kenyan Marine police station raised its flag to show ownership. However, when Ugandan residents complained, Ugandan Security Forces pulled the flag down. 

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Kenyan Claims the Island Because of Proximity

The boat ride from the mainland of Kenya to Migingo takes around two hours, while the boat ride from Jinja in Uganda and Migingo takes around 18 hours.

One of the main reasons that the Kenyans claim Migingo as their own is its proximity. 

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Unfortunately, Fishing Is Beginning to Wein

One of the big issues fishermen are facing is the lack of freshwater fish due to recent overfishing. 

Over the past five years, the demand for these fish has soared in Asia, and with little fish to catch, many fish them in our heading home each day empty-handed. 

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Ugandan Fisherman Kennedy Ochieng Had His Catch Seized

Kennedy Ochiend, a 37-year-old fisherman on Migingo, had his 300kg Nile perch catch seized by the Ugandan police after they accused him of fishing illegally in Ugandan waters. 

This same Ugandan police force stole his fuel and bait, leaving him without the ability to work until he is able to secure more supplies. Unfortunately, this setback could leave Ochieng without many weeks of fishing unless he rents his supplies from other fishermen in the form of catch payment.

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Ugandan Officers are Beginning to Seize Fishing Equipment

Several of Migingo’s Kenyan fishermen complain about being harassed by Ugandan officers, having their fish and equipment stolen after being told they were fishing illegally in the wrong waters, even though many of them say they were in Kenyan Waters at the time.

These fish mostly breed in shallow waters on the Kenyan side of the lake, though most fisherman fish in the deep waters on the Ugandan side.

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Many Fishermen are Struggling As It Is

Most of the island’s fishermen are struggling to make ends meet as it is, as many of them do not own their own boats.

To get boats, they are for 80% of their catches to the boat owners on the Ugandan or Kenyan mainland, leaving them without much money when they return back to the island. 

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The Same Goes for Ugandans, Who Rarely Get to See Their Families

It’s even more difficult for Ugandans on the island, as they rarely get to see their families. Most Kenyans are able to return home for the weekends, while most Ugandans only get to see their families once or twice each year. 

This is because reaching the Ugandan Mainland requires an 18-hour trip. 

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Luckily, Residents Still Know How to Have Fun

The good thing is that residents still know how to enjoy themselves, and many have opened fun businesses or entertainment establishments.

One interesting thing you’ll find on this island is the open-air makeshift casino, where local fishermen can try their luck with handmade slot machines. While it may not be anything you’d find on the Las Vegas strip, it makes living on this tiny Island much more hospitable. 

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Some Women Accompany Their Husbands on the Island

There are a few women who accompany their husbands on the island, many of which work in the kitchens or restaurants on Migingo.

However, this is pretty rare to see, as Migingo is not the most stable place to have families. Of course, there are also a few things in life that can come between love.

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One Resident Even Runs His Own Barber Shop and Phone Charging Shop

Daniel Onadha, a 35-year-old resident, who trained as an electrician on Mainland Kenya, has been running a barber shop/phone charging shop on the island, which has been successful for the past few years. 

Onadha says that he enjoys living on Migingo and that he gets plenty of business from customers coming from Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. In fact,  he says he earns much more than he would working a regular job on the mainland. 

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Another Young Resident Has Been on the Island for Five Years

Ugandan fisherman Eddie Ouma has been a Migingo resident for five years. Unfortunately, he only gets to visit his wife and two children once every year.

He says that he is fishing because he does not have a job on the mainland. Oum also has to pay a few fish from every catch to the Ugandan police for protection 

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You’ll Also Find a Tiny Clinic on the Island

A nurse on the island opened up a small clinic a few years back, where fishermen can go to have minor issues treated, such as malaria testing or wound stitching. Unfortunately, this tiny clinic is not equipped to treat more significant medical problems.

When inhabitants have severe medical problems, they have to travel to the Kenyan mainland. 

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Amongst the Population, Tensions are Growing

With the ever-growing demand for a large adult Nile perch, tensions are growing more and more every day around Migingo. Kenya’s local politicians recently demanded the Kenyan government passed the case to the International Court of Justice to make a final decision on the border. 

As of now, no decision has been made, and the residents are still living in limbo. 

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What’s Most Interesting is the Nearby Island

The most ironic thing about the entire situation is that there is a much larger Island sitting just 200 meters off the sharp side of Migingo, which is completely uninhabited.

There is plenty of green space on this nearby island and about four times more space to build. It’s a wonder why some of Migingo’s fishermen don’t leave to build their own slices of paradise nearby, where they can catch the same fish. 

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No One Actually Owns the Island

What’s even crazier is that there is actually no ownership over the island at all. Not the government nor any private entity owns the island, yet its residents have made it their own with businesses and homes. 

Everything you would need to survive and enjoy your life can be found on Migingo, from salons to bars and beyond. 

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Raila Odinga Is Planning to Meet with the Ugandan President

The latest update comes from Raila Odinga, who recently announced that he would meet with Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, to further discuss the matter.

Fishermen on the island are hoping for the best, as they are tired of the conflict in suing between these two major nations. 

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