Standing on Marenga beach on the lake shore at Port Victoria, one cannot escape the ravishing beauty of the silvery water that rolls as far as the eye can see, past the tiny uninhabited Hanete and Nabatuma Islands into Ugandan territory yonder.
Ironically, the water that a majority of the fisher-folk in the small fishing town in Busia County depend on for a livelihood is also their source of misery due to sadistic and outright uncouth behaviour of Ugandan soldiers and police officers who loiter into Kenyan waters.
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They make arrests with primitive abandon and a seemingly emasculated Kenyan contingent that does little or nothing to defend its people.
Beach folks say Ugandan marine soldiers and police audaciously tug away boats anchored as close as 100 metres offshore unchallenged by Kenyan forces.
Fishermen put the number of Kenyan marine police officers based in Port Victoria at five, a joke compared to Uganda with a legion comprising Uganda Peoples’ Defense Force and Uganda Revenue Authority officials and even chiefs who make arrests.
Stories about beatings are lurid and unbelievable. John Okwany who was in the fishing business between 1995 and 2013 narrates how they were once arrested with his cousin while coming from a fishing excursion in Uganda and subjected to cruel beatings. He says his cousin died because of the beatings.
“They took us back to Uganda and beat us senseless. My cousin died shortly after our return home.”
Mr Okwany recalls that apart from being forced to eat raw fish complete with their innards, Ugandan soldiers were in the habit of forcing fish head first into their victim’s mouths and yanking it out, outspread dorsal fins causing serious injuries to the mouth membrane.
“That practice has since stopped given the outcry it generated, but our fishermen are still forced to eat raw fish amid brutal caning that at times result in painful death,” he says.
Now an hotelier, Okwany says Ugandan marines are emboldened by the sloth mien of their Kenyan counterparts and President Yoweri Museveni’s declaration that all Lake Victoria water and the fish belongs to Uganda. Beach unit leaders Stephen Muse and Robert Anema of Marenga Omena Beach and Marenga Main Beach, respectively say they have had to resort to fund raisers to help retrieve boats captured by Ugandan marine guards.
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“A boat captured with nothing in it costs Sh40,000 (Uganda Sh1.5 million) to release while those caught with fish and nets cost Sh60,000 (USh2.2 million) after the fish has been confiscated or the net burnt,” Mr Anema says.
He says Kenyan fishermen who manage to make it home with their catch after parting with hefty bribes are not out of the hoops until they are done with Kenyan police.
Cycle of exploitation
Omuse accuses Kenyan police of shuttling along the shoreline without venturing further into the lake with the excuse that they have no fuel, only to pounce on hapless fishermen in returning boats and demand as much as Sh40,000 for flimsy reasons.
“It is a vicious cycle of exploitation that has pauperised our fishermen. The Fisheries Department is of no consequence here with no tangible work to show for their existence,” he says.
Anema adds many arrested fishermen have jumped into the lake and drowned to avoid torture by Ugandans.
“Cases abound of Kenyan fishermen who have been beaten to death. A boy visiting his Kenyan father on Lolwe Island was picked up and beaten to death only weeks ago because he was seen fishing,” he recounts.
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He describes as pure extortion the habit by Ugandan authorities of imposing heavy fines on boats whose owners have already paid taxes permitting them to fish in Ugandan territorial waters.
For a fishing boat to be allowed in Ugandan waters, the owner has to pay Ksh 1,500 for a monthly permit, Ksh 1,500 as a yearly parking fee and a yearly number plate fee of Ksh3,000. There is also a yearly till number registration fee of Ksh500 to the Uganda Revenue Authority.
“We need more officers in Port Victoria and a police station on Sumba Island to boost the security of Kenyans,” he adds.
Budalangi Deputy County Commissioner Titus Kilonzi, speaking on behalf of Officer Commanding Police Division Fredrick Kaggai who is away on leave, has no qualms dismissing the allegations about extortion and torture as contrived.
“These people (fishermen) are known to maximise on fishing expeditions. Their complaints are myriad but without basis because they have failed to follow rules put in place by Ugandan authorities and expect us to protect them there,” Mr Kilonzi says.
He says nothing has been established about the beatings and deaths because no official complaints have been received from the victims.
“I am not saying it does not happen in Ugandan waters where we have no control, but nothing of that nature is officially reported to us. No boats are tugged away from our shores,” he says.
Sunday Standard sailed to Sumba Island about 15 minutes offshore by speed boat and bumped into the Assistant Chief of Buloma Sub location Rosemary Otieno who minced no words about security.
“All is not well,” she said. “We need more speed boats to respond to distress calls by our people. The security personnel on our side are few and we need a police station in this island that is only metres away from the official boundary.”
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She says it is high time the Government considered flying a Kenyan flag on Sumba Island.
The Fisheries Department in Budalang’i sub-county is nothing but a quintessence of inefficiency. Sunday Standard found a lone secretary basking in the sun by 11am on a weekday. She courteously called the Fisheries Officer Mr Shadrack Kimani who answered impudently from his house thus: “Contact the Director of Fisheries. I have no authority to talk to Press.”