Southern Africa: Lake Victoria Fishers’ Worst Nightmare Not Hippos but Uganda, Tanzania Police

Edwin Osundwa and his colleagues normally set sail across Lake Victoria on a fishing expedition that takes at least eight hours.

The journey on wooden boats usually starts at 7pm, a perfect time to catch silver cyprinid, popularly known as omena.

Mr Osundwa is based at Litare beach on Rusinga island in Mbita sub-county, Homa Bay County, and is among operators of 133 registered fishing boats at the beach whose owners all compete for fish in the lake at night.

Fishing in the calm waters at night is full of hidden dangers, including threats of attacks by hippos or drowning when the lake suddenly gets rough due to a change in weather. But these are rare.

The worst nightmare for fishermen is being arrested and detained in Uganda or Tanzania. It is a horror they have had to contend with for the past two decades.

Once their nets are full, fishermen hope to get back to the shore before sunrise to sell their catch. But only a few of them make it back safely.

Those who return to the beach occasionally do so in empty boats after being deprived of their catch by foreign security officers on the lake.

The unluckiest of them are usually detained.

Held in Tanzania

Mr Osundwa has on several occasions failed to return to the beach after being accused of breaking maritime laws.

He is among thousands of victims who have been detained by Ugandan security officers.

During his recent arrest, Mr Osundwa says he was detained for four days and given one meal a day – a cup of tea and one chapatti.

“We were not allowed to move until we left the detention centre. Any slight movement and you are accused of trying to escape and risk being tortured,” the fisherman said.

They had sailed for a few kilometres in the lake when they encountered a boat operated by Ugandan security officers, who arrested and detained them for trespassing into Uganda.

“The lake has no marks to distinguish the boundary between two countries. To be safe, no Kenyan fisherman ever goes past certain islands that are in Kenya but we still end up being arrested,” he claimed.

Six fishermen from Migori have been held in Tanzania for more than one month.

They were arrested on June 25 and the Tanzanian authorities carted away their fishing gear and boat.

Kibro Beach Management Unit chairman Maulid Joel claimed the officers are demanding Sh40,000 from each fisherman, who are being held at Sota beach in Northern Mara district, before they can be released.

“We sent a delegation to negotiate the terms of their release but the Tanzanian police are demanding Sh40,000 from every fisherman, an amount they cannot raise,” Mr Maulid said.

For a long time, Kenyan fishermen who operate on Lake Victoria have reported being subjected to suffering in detention centres in Uganda and Tanzania.

Many, especially from Homa Bay, Migori and Busia, have claimed to have been assaulted by government officials, including police and military officers from the two countries.

But their incessant pleas to the Kenyan government to protect them from the perennial problem remain unanswered.

The fisherfolk expressed concern that the stalemate on Lake Victoria is yet to be resolved despite bilateral talks between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Tanzanian counterpart Samila Suluhu in May.

President Suluhu’s visit to Kenya was intended to mend frosty relations between the two countries and renew close business ties.

“For the past 13 years, fishermen have fallen victim to arbitrary arrests and harassment by foreign authorities. We thought the coming of the Kenya Coast Guard would scale down the cases but the situation remains the same,” noted fisherman Michael Ngare.

The fishermen noted that arrests were more rampant during the tenure of the late President John Magufuli, most of which ended in torture and payment of exorbitant fines.

“Sometimes we are forced to eat raw fish before being hurled into waiting vessels. The torture is often unbearable even when they (officers) find us in Kenyan waters,” Mr Ngare noted.

Apart from allegedly trespassing on Lake Victoria, Kenyans have also been accused of using illegal fishing gear.

Ugandan and Tanzanian security officers are accused of intimidating vessel operators using their powerful boats, which cause turbulence in the water. Fishermen normally surrender for fear of drowning.

After they are arrested and their boats seized, the Kenyan fishermen are usually taken to detention centres, mainly on islands, from where they cannot escape.

Uganda is known to have invested heavily in security on the lake more than the other countries sharing the water body.

Ugandan officers patrol large parts of the lake and have arrested more Kenyan fishermen than their counterparts from Tanzania.

Kenya, too, has the Coast Guard Service on the lake, but their operations, which started recently, have focused on eradicating illegal fishing gear.

The mainland at Litare beach is the only area where fishermen are assured of their safety, as police officers from Mbita conduct regular patrols.

But fear sets in as soon as the fishermen step into their boats to go fishing.

When fishermen are arrested, beach management unit officials are among those involved in negotiations for their release.

Litare BMU chairman Isaiah Ochieng’ has negotiated the release of several boats and fishermen.

But to release a boat, fishermen say, they are asked to pay bribes.

Depending on one’s negotiation skills, Kenyan fishermen are asked to pay between Sh15,000 and Sh30,000 per boat.

“Those who fail to pay are taken to court and charged with illegal fishing. In court, police would produce juvenile fish as exhibits, which is not always what Kenyans are arrested for,” Mr Ochieng’ said.

Over the years, boat owners have lost their fishing vessels and harvest after being detained.