The blue and golden rays dancing on the water’s surface at sunrise create a magical paradise.
Fishermen rowing ashore in their boats after night-long ventures make Lake Victoria even more memorable as they approach Usenge Beach in Siaya.
But looks can be deceiving. The fishermen are a scared lot. They have gone through much, and the depth of their misery is boiling inside.
The lake shared by three East African countries as well as Siaya, Migori, Kisumu, Homa Bay and Busia counties is the water of death, deception, harassment and open piracy to fishermen.
Interviews with several fishermen have established the horrors of torture and extortion they have been forced to contend with daily while on their fishing expeditions.
Last week, fishermen in Muhuru Bay, Nyatike, claimed four boats were detained by Ugandan authorities and eight of them arrested.
The fishermen were later released but their boats stay detained at Hema Island in Uganda.
“We want our boats released and Ugandan authorities to schedule a meeting so that we can iron out our differences,” said Lucas Sobu, Muhuru Bay Beach Management Unit (BMU) chairman.
So bad is the situation that some fishermen in Mageta and Sifu Islands have acquired Ugandan and Kenyan registration for their boats to escape frequent arrests by Ugandan authorities.
This year alone, tens of fishermen have been arrested by Ugandan security officials, detained and made to part with huge sums of money for allegedly trespassing into the neighbour’s territorial waters.
And when President William Ruto pledged to engage Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni to address the harassment of Kenyan fishermen by Ugandan authorities in October, the fishermen became hopeful that the matter would finally be addressed.
But more than one month after the President’s speech, nothing seems to have changed. On November 6, some 11 fishermen from Nambo Beach in Bondo sub-county were arrested by Ugandan police.
According to Nambo BMU Secretary Alfred Ochieng, the security officers demanded 400 litres of petrol or Sh10,000 from each fisherman.
The fishermen claimed that some of the arrests were illegal and stage-managed by rogue Ugandan officers in collaboration with their Kenyan counterparts.
Multiple sources have described the arrests on the lake as an intricate money-minting web of underdealings involving kickbacks and fines.
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Investigations by The Saturday Standard have established that the extortion ring is controlled by rogue police officers, money transfer agents, fisheries officials, traders and revenue officers.
“If you resist, the cartel leaders organise gangs to impound boats belonging to non-compliant fishermen. You can only disobey them at your peril,” says our source.
Victims say the vice is more pronounced in Lolwe, Hama Island, Sigulu and Namayingo which are unofficial toll stations where fishermen are tortured and extorted by Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) officers.
Michael Okoth (not his real name), a fisherman in Siaya, narrated how he paid Sh40,000 to a coxswain after a senior Kenyan police officer convinced him that the officer was a senior officer in Uganda who would facilitate the release of his boat.
“We met at a hotel in Usenge town and I was shocked to see the person I know being introduced as the officer who wanted to release my boat,” said Okoth.
Bondo MP Gideon Ochanda, who has held several talks with Ugandan authorities on the security of Kenyan fishermen, says extortion is an intricate and elaborate affair.
“The harassment and arrests on the lake is the genesis of the security patrols that have now evolved into an extortion ring,” he said.
Early this year, officials from Kenya and Uganda met to resolve the impasse over fishing rights in Lake Victoria. Busia (Uganda) Resident District Commissioner Michael Kibwika said the two countries must respect and promote peace and security along the borderline.
“We have resolved that at every point in life, to promote peace and security,” he said.
He blamed the constant conflicts on illegal fishing, adding that if the issue is addressed, there will be harmony along the border.