The Migingo test is coming… a looming tragedy?

02Jul 2017
Isaac Mwangi
The Guardian
The Migingo test is coming… a looming tragedy?

KENYA’S opposition leader Raila Odinga is a serious contender for the country’s presidency by all means - and is even considered by many to be a frontrunner. 

 

With the elections slated for August, everything he says that involves relations with other countries in the region should therefore be accorded a lot of weight at home and abroad. And he has now made himself clear about the Migingo dispute between Kenya and Uganda.

This is a dispute that has taken many turns and twists over the years. When it first arose in 2004, during the reign of retired Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki, the government of Kenya seemed hesitant to take any decisive action. At one point, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was quoted as saying that although the Lake Victoria island of Migingo was in Kenya, the waters around it were in Uganda. 

It therefore appeared absurd that Uganda was laying claim to it, and everyone quickly understood that Uganda’s claim had to do with the rich fishing waters surrounding the island.

There have also been purported incursions by Ugandan troops in Pokot, but these have not generated as much heat as the dispute over Migingo. In Pokot, the Ugandans are said to have uprooted beacons marking the common border between the two countries.

In an effort to resolve the Migingo problem, a joint task force was set up to demarcate the maritime boundary in the lake between the two countries. The joint survey work however stalled mid stream after the Ugandan surveyors left to consult their seniors in Kampala before the announcement of their findings. 

It is apparent that the Ugandan authorities were uncomfortable with the outcome of the survey and did not want the matter finalized.

As the dispute over the island raged, Rwandan President Paul Kagame at one time offered to mediate, but this offer was never taken up. That was probably the best opportunity to solve a problem that will soon rear its ugly head again.

The dilly-dallying over the dispute has continued during the reign of President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is also seeking re-election in the coming polls against a strong and united opposition. 

The indecisiveness that has characterized Kenya’s foreign and defence policy in the Migingo saga is therefore likely to come to a screeching halt if Odinga assumes the reins of power.

Several scenarios could then come into play. To start with, there will be bad blood and heated exchanges between Kenyan and Ugandan leaders. Once Museveni realizes that Odinga means business, he could withdraw in the same manner that he did when retired Kenyan president Daniel arapMoi sent troops to Busia to counter his aggression way back in 1987.

But should the situation turn nasty, it could mark a difficult period between the two neighbours and the entire region. East Africa is already embroiled in conflicts within partner states as well as neighbouring countries, from South Sudan to Burundi and Somalia to the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

The genesis of a new conflict will have far-reaching repercussions across the whole region, creating instability and sending new waves of refugees across borders.

The ability of the region to deal with existing conflicts will also be impaired. Both Kenya and Uganda have contributed troops to the African Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), for instance, and these troops will be required back in their home countries should open hostilities break out between the two neighbours. That will provide an opportunity for the Al Shabaab militia to regain its strength and territory in Somalia, with severe repercussions for the war on terror in the region and beyond.

While war may appear far-fetched when one considers the current peaceful relations and co-operation within the framework of the East African Community and other regional organisations, the Migingo conflict could easily provide the spark that brings the whole house down. 

It should be remembered that Odinga comes from the lakeside Luo community, which has complained of harassment by Ugandan troops stationed on MigingoIsland ever since the advent of thecrisis.

National pride will also be at stake and could cloud issues and prevent reasoned thinking. Once conflict begins, accusations and counter-accusations will then gain prominence, with the initial dispute all but forgotten. 

Territorial sovereignty is important for all modern nation-states, and there is no reason why a simple border demarcation exercise between two partner states of the EAC has now dragged on for 13 years. 

This high level negligence – essentially an attitude of looking the other way and assuming a problem will resolve itself – could now prove extremely costly. Migingo promises to offer the second EAC its first real test – in just a few months. 

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