In April 2014 on the Lake Victoria island of Buvuma, as Easter hymns filled the air, and Christians anxiously awaited the symbolic resurrection of Jesus, Gabriel Emitu and colleagues were secretly being drilled for an attack on fishermen with outlawed fishing tools.
They were to pounce immediately after Easter. Little did Emitu know that the operation would nearly take his life. He escaped with severe injuries including a cracked skull.
Like an action movie, fishermen armed with stones, clubs and machetes take on gun-wielding government agents over control of a precious item, fish in L. Victoria.
Emitu’s troubles started with a three-month ultimatum given to the District Fisheries Officer (DFO) by Buvuma Resident District Commissioner (RDC) Fabian Bomeera to end illegal fishing acts in the district. After consulting some local leaders, the DFO decided to lead his team across landing sites to compel area chairmen produce lists of people with illegal fishing nets and boats.
“Immediately after Easter we moved site to site burning illegal fishing gear,” says Emitu, an enforcement officer for Bugabo Beach Management Unit (BMU). BMUs are community-based institutions at landing sites established in the early 2000s to work with government and other institutions for proper management of fisheries in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, which share L. Victoria at a proportion of 6 per cent, 49 per cent and 45 per cent respectively.
On the day of his predicament, dark skinned and big-bodied Emitu was asked to join the operation at Bwagwe landing site.
“We confiscated bao tatus (small outlawed boats), around 10 of them and broke them. We called on illegal [fish] net owners to surrender their nets and they resisted. We saw another small boat hidden in a video hall and asked the area LC1 chairman to produce the owner of the hall and the chairman disappeared. We called in his wife. We pulled out the boat and dismantled it. That is when the community became wild,” narrates Emitu.
The DFO’s team of about 20 men, including policemen, rushed to its two waiting boats to run away from the angry crowd. The mob started to pelt them with stones. Police fired in the air but the mob kept advancing. They started their boats and took off.
“In that confusion, the mob did not know that the boats had left me. I tried to escape but I think someone saw me and alerted the mob. They attacked me with knives, clubs and axes. I tried to run but my landing site was far. They caught me. They beat me to the extent that they thought I was dead,” Emitu recalls.
At that moment the mob withdrew. But Emitu was only unconscious. When he regained consciousness he stood up, unaware that a few had remained at the scene observing.
“They came to finish me off. I was only saved by three of them who knew me well. They told the mob that I had been beaten enough. They left me and ran towards my landing site to hunt for my colleagues. They found that those people had not landed there. My chairman was hit with stones and they broke his teeth,” Emitu adds.
From the scene of torture, Emitu was picked up with a motorcycle by a relative he had rung. They met the mob returning from its exploits in Emitu’s home landing site. Again they wanted to attack Emitu but his rider changed route and took Emitu to the Kitamiro Police Station.
For seven days Emitu was admitted at Rippon Medical Centre in Jinja and treated for severe injuries. It cost him Shs1.8m and he has lived to tell his story.
Lake Victoria has become a battlefield as its fish stocks continue to dwindle.
Since 2005 when Uganda exported 39,000 tonnes of fish. Export volumes have declined to as low as 23,000 tonnes in 2008, 17,000 in 2011, 20,000 in 2012 and slightly over 18,000 in 2013, a trend blamed on poor fishing methods.
Fighting government agents
Desperate communities continue to battle with government agents deployed to stop illegal fishing acts. Fatalities have been reported with some fishermen jumping and drowning in the lake as they try to escape marine patrols.
Amid all this confusion are widespread allegations of corruption and abuse of power.
State minister for Fisheries Ruth Nankabirwa is accused of controlling a militia-like force which beats fishermen, extorts money from them, and confiscates illegal fishing gear only to sell it on other landing sites.
“There is total confusion on Lake Victoria. Nankabirwa appointed enforcement people who are not paid. They extort money from people. Her approach is completely exacerbating the problem of illegal fishing,” RDC Fabiano Bomeera told a team from the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI) that had visited the islands to promote cage-fish farming as an alternative source of income for the fishermen.
“We have lost two people in the water because of her approach. They instill fear in order to extort money. They grab the illegal gear and sell it elsewhere. I chased them away from Buvuma,” Bomera added.
Nankabirwa, however, says although she has a group, it is not armed.
“I have a group that works with district security committees throughout the country. It is not armed. For Buvuma, I suspended the operations until they give me a clear work plan. It is now four months and they have not given me that,” Nankabirwa said in a telephone interview.
Nankabirwa refutes reports that she does not facilitate her operatives, but admits that the facilitation may not be sufficient.
“I facilitate my group but the facilitation is not enough. Enforcement is very expensive. I facilitate them, I give them fuel, but the Fisheries Act also gives them a chance to raise some money from some of the things they impound,” Nankabirwa says.
The BMUs, established under a close to Euro 30m European Union funded project, the Implementation of a Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP), were meant to bring ownership and management to the fish communities to stop illegal fishing activities and boost fish stocks. Many of the BMU executive committees are said to have used this opportunity to instead safeguard their illegal activities and take bribes.
As illegal fishing practices persist, and fish stocks continue to dwindle, it becomes clear the BMU approach has not delivered the expected results.