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Migingo: Big trouble on small island

This tiny rock in Lake Victoria nearly brought Kenya and Uganda to war. Daniel Howden reports from Migingo

Migingo Island rises out of the waters of Lake Victoria like an armour-plated turtle. An uneven, rocky dome of less than an acre, it is clad above the water line in corrugated iron. The rusty shacks crowded on to its back give shelter to a scarcely credible 500 people – a slice of life transplanted from the worst city slum into the middle of the world's largest tropical lake. It is also home to Africa's smallest war, a conflict fought in advances of three soldiers, a dozen policemen or eight marines. Any more than that and they would not fit. The fate of this rocky islet has caused outrage in east Africa, triggered a ministerial crisis and brought Kenya and Uganda to the brink of a shooting war.

The pair of flags that fly above the island, hoisted on driftwood, are testimony to a temporary victory and they have been torn down and replaced twice already. Across one of them prances a grey crane – fabled for its gentle nature – on a background of yellow, red and black: Uganda's national flag. The other has the black and white colours of the Ugandan police which, from a distance, look worryingly like a pirate's emblem. To the Kenyan fishermen who make up the bulk of the island's population, it is a symbol of fear and humiliation.

Nicholas Makongo Nyanda, 30, used to be one of those fishermen but he has not been back to Migingo for two years. As the outboard engine pushes his reluctant craft through the waves towards it, he becomes visibly more nervous. He retreated from the island after being forced to pay £250 – a fortune on the impoverished shores of Victoria – to Ugandan officials as a ransom for his confiscated engine. He speaks of rumours of violent arrests, torture and men with guns. Kenyan fishermen who go to Migingo can be lost and never heard of again, he says, adding: "It is full of Ugandan soldiers."

Like all good maritime stories, this one begins with pirates. Five years ago, the island was home to a solitary, eccentric fisherman. When word got out of the catches he was landing, more fishermen came, some from nearby islands, others from the Kenyan shore three hours away, and others from Uganda, a six-hour trip by motor boat. The influx brought with it a different kind of attention. Pirates, some with assault rifles, appeared from as far afield as Tanzania, stealing engines, fish and any cash they found. The fishermen appealed to their respective governments for help, and that was when the real trouble began. Uganda answered the call first, sending a detachment of maritime police to defend the fishermen, and suddenly an island which, if anyone had cared to think about it, had always been thought to be Kenya had the wrong flag flying over it.

Then the Ugandan officials on the rock saw how much money was being made. Migingo's wealth lies in its proximity to some of the richest remaining deep-water fishing in the lake. A short ride from the barren rock, nets can still be filled with Nile perch, a freshwater giant worth tens of millions of pounds in exports to the EU and beyond. Boats have been landing more than 100kg of fish a day, earning up to £200 – three or four times what many in Kenya or Uganda make in a month on land. The rush to cash in on this bonanza created an increasingly harsh regime on the island as entry permits, taxes, fines, tithes and ransoms were used to extract money with menaces. Some fishermen were arrested and sent to Uganda, others were expelled or fled. Jacob Otieno, a shopkeeper on the island, described seeing two fishermen, caught without an expensive permit, being paraded and forced to eat raw okoko, a fish with spines like "helicopter rotors".

The plight of the fishermen eventually attracted public attention in Kenya and the politicians were forced to respond. Last month, an excitable district commissioner, Julius Mutula, with a dozen Kenyan police, arrived on the island, declared it to be Kenyan soil, tore down the Ugandan flag and hoisted their own. Within 24 hours, Uganda sent in 60 heavily armed marines. Suddenly, the region stood on the brink of its first full-blown conflict over the dwindling resources of the once-abundant Lake Victoria.

While it is hard to imagine, given it is such a vast body of water, the 68,800sq-km (26,600sq-miles) source of the Nile is under an accelerating and life-threatening siege, with 30 million dependants divided between Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Godfrey Ogonda, an environmental expert with the Friends of Lake Victoria, based in the Kenyan city of Kisumu, unravels the nightmare. He begins with a list of the lake's attackers, industry, agriculture, sewage, over-fishing, climate change. But what it all comes back to is poverty. Unable to buy gas or paraffin, people cut down the trees for fuel. Deforestation strips the surrounding land of its protection and plays havoc with rainfall. The soil, loaded with chemical fertilisers and pesticides, is washed into the rivers in a process known as eutrophication and ends up in the lake where it joins a soup of other nutrients with alarming consequences. Vast mats of water hyacinth, an invasive species that has flourished in the deteriorating ecosystem, chokes the lake's harbours and blocks its shoreline. A massive and costly manual extraction funded by the World Bank offered brief respite but in the past two years the hyacinth has returned, bringing with it hippo grass, a so-called "superweed". The grass now forms entire floating meadows that are altering the chemical balance of the water. Professor Ogonda believes changes in the PH values of the lake are, in effect, slowly turning the water into acid.

Then there is overfishing. Victoria supports an estimated two million fishermen. Kenya's fisheries department says stocks of some species have collapsed by 80 per cent in three years. Scientists believe the lake could recover if left alone for as little as five years and there are now calls for a moratorium on fishing. The problem, again, is poverty. The three nations bound by Victoria face a choice between co-operating in making difficult decisions to save the body of water or engaging in a destructive race to the ecological bottom of the dying lake. The Migingo crisis gives little cause for optimism. "Everyone wants their share," says Professor Ogonda. "People do not understand they are killing their life source."

Landing on the rocky tail of Migingo it is hard to see it as a place where fortunes are made. It has the rough edges of a frontier town, with tiny pathways separating bars, brothels and doss houses; prostitutes and their young children rub shoulders with shopkeepers, fishermen and police in the scant space in between. The welcoming committee is a muscular man in combat trousers and a striped shirt, open to the waist, who introduces himself only as Victor. He is the Ugandan police commander, he says, and will need to see a passport. The document is taken through a labyrinth of scraping iron doors to the real commanding officer, Superintendent St John Nuwagira.

Outside the metal hatch, propped open with stick, a fish eagle floats at eye level in the wind and waves crash on the rocks, making it hard to hear anything. He confesses to being surprised when he arrived on the contested island. "I was expecting it to be bigger. It's just a small rock."

It would be "useless", he says, to go to war over this. That prospect receded with a recent foreign ministers' meeting where an awkward accord was reached. Calm and quietly spoken, Mr Nuwagira says a joint survey team from both countries will be arriving soon to establish finally who the island belongs to. He insists he does not know what his colleagues have been charging fishermen. "You'll have to ask them."

Outside the superintendent's office, Juma Ombori is waiting to do just that. A heavy-set man in his mid-50s and the leader of the Kenyan fishermen, he has witnessed things go from bad to worse with "a lot of money" lost. Even if Migingo is eventually surrendered to Kenya, that is unlikely to bring peace and prosperity for long. Digging out a sheaf of papers on which Mr Ombori has carefully traced the average catch even during the chaos and confrontation, he shares a much more frightening revelation. "The fish is running out."

Migingo In numbers

2002 The year that the first house was built on the tiny island outcrop.

500 People live on the island. Eighty per cent of the population are Kenyan and 20 per cent are Ugandan.

3 Hours is how long it takes to reach Migingo by motor boat from Kenya.

6 Hours is how long it takes to reach Migingo from Uganda.

2,000 Kenyan shillings is the sum, equivalent to £17, that visitors are charged each week to stay in a boarding house on Migingo – more than eight times the going rate in the nearby city of Kisumu.

4 Pubs are on the island, together with one pharmacy, one hair salon and several brothels.

10 Cabinet ministers from two countries attended an emergency summit on Migingo.