Tuesday, July 13, 2010


In the last few weeks a small rock sticking out of Lake Victoria has taken on added importance.

Migingo Island, a one-acre rock that has been occupied only in the last five years, serves as a landing site for fishermen from Uganda and Kenya.

For casual onlookers the spurt is baffling, especially if one has seen the pictures of the island, which looks like a cut out of a Kampala slum. Even more baffling is that most of the hoolah balooh is being generated in Kenya, with Uganda’s political class – apart from President Yoweri Museveni, seemingly oblivious to the fracas.

The Kenyan media choose to play this as an attack on their country’s sovereignty, an attempt to deprive Kenya’s of its fishing rights. Understandably the fishing tribes of Kenya’s Nyanza province have been sucked into the melee. It does not help of course, that Kenyan politics is in a delicate state with the dysfunctional nature of the coalition government coming into full view.

The coalition government was cobbled together as a compromise after the badly flawed 2007 elections, which Jaramogi Odinga, a son of Nyanza province believes he won. The incumbent president Mwai Kibaki’s tribe, the Kikuyu has had a historical rivalry with the Odinga’s Luo since independence.

The tribal/nationalistic element is really a cover for commercial interests buffeted by the international global crisis.

First of all it is not true that by the island being in Uganda, Kenyans will be deprived their fishing rights. Migingo is two hours by boat from the Kenyan shores as opposed to six hours from the Ugandan shore and as a consequence all fish caught on around Migingo is sold in Kenya. Besides Kenyans pay a better price for fish.

However in the last year fish prices on the world markets have plummeted, and fish processors in the region are suffering ever decreasing margins. In the light of this new development the cost of fish to the processors becomes critical.

Apparently the Ugandan fisheries authorities have been exercising some discriminatory taxing, levying the Ugandan fishermen less than their Kenyan counterparts. This has had the effect of the lowering the Kenyan fishermen’s margins when the onsell their catch to the processors, leaving them understandably unamused.

A few disgruntled fishermen will not make MPs rise in their defence, but then the discomfort of some major fish processors is another matter all together. Evidence of this is the deafening silence from our own MPs, which is in sharp contrast to their Kenyan counterparts.

At the beginning of society’s evolution were the hunter gatherers, small bands of people in constant motion, living off the bounty of the land and lugging around narrow loyalties to family and clan. Populations were small and bountiful lands were guarded jealously, with bloody clashes the main avenue of conflict resolution.

Violence as a means of settling disputes faded away as populations grew larger and the agrarian revolution set in. Interdependence between communities became critical because the now much larger communities could not provide for all the needs of their respective people. Enter trade. Trade cemented interdependence and reduced the incentive for violent conflict resolution.

The initial movement towards globalization, at the beginning of the last century was nipped in the bud by the two world wars stalling human advancement in many fields.

With the demise of the Soviet Union globalization has gained steam again and borders are falling, facilitating trade and banishing the specter of war in the advanced economies into a distant memory.

The chest thumping and beating of war drums has been left to our pre-agrarian revolution societies.

If ever there was a case for a fast tracking of the East African Customs Union, Migingo has given us that reason.

By easing trade the EAC will increase the interdependence of the region’s countries beyond sentimentalism, relegating conflict as a last resort and enriching everyone.

The middle class – the children of better trading relations, are the ultimate guarantors of regional peace and stability.

In his seminal book, “The Lexus and the Olive tree”, Thomas Friedman pointed out that no two nations with a McDonald’s outlet have ever gone to war – with the exception of the former Yugoslavia. A McDonald’s outlet is an indication that the middle class have achieved a sufficient critical mass to not only sustain an outlet, but also to put a lid on our primordial instincts towards violence and lawlessness.

In our case maybe a Nakumatt or Uchumi outlet or a KCB branch might serve as a useful indicator.

Published May 2009, New Vision.

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