Concern over death of 47 people on Lake Kyoga

Fishermen look on as soldiers embark on an operation against illegal fishing gear at Kayei Landing Site on Lake Kyoga on December 18, 2022. PHOTO |  BILL OKETCH

What you need to know:

  • The Fisheries Protection Unit says the allegations that soldiers are involved in the deaths are unfounded.

On March 1, a former Senior Four candidate identified as Denis Opio, reportedly entered Lake Kyoga to look for food for his family.

Instead of receiving him with the food he had gone to catch, the family, located about 200 metres from the lake, only got his body for burial the following day.

Opio, who was the son of Mr Peter Odwee, the chairperson of Kipangani ‘B’ Village, Namasale Sub-county in Amolatar District, had allegedly been killed by the UPDF soldiers attached to the Fisheries Protection Unit (FPU).

On March 14, 2023, another body of James Opio Angol, a resident of Etam Sub-county, was discovered at Te-atoke Landing Site. The deceased had reportedly left their home at Cakwara Parish to go and fish in Lake Kyoga the previous day.

On March 17, 2023, Lameck Erac of Cakwara Parish, Etam Sub-county, also in Amolatar District, died after he went to the lake to fish. Erac reportedly drowned after his boat was allegedly knocked down by FPU.

On April 14, 2023, the body of a fisherman only identified as Ogwang Katogo was found floating on Lake Kyoga.

Mr Denis Rambo Ongu, the Namasale LC3 chairman, said Ogwang is among dozens of people who have died in the lake as soldiers attached to FPU stand in the way of people’s decent livelihood.

So far, 47 fishermen have died in Lake Kyoga since 2019, according to local leaders in Amolatar District.

Ms Sarah Anyango Odwee, a resident of Kipangani ‘B’ Village in Namasale Sub-county, said she has lost three sons in less than one year in the lake.

“Towards the end of last year, two of my sons, who were all in Senior Six, went to the lake to fish since we did not have food that day but drowned after their boat was knocked down into the water,” she said.

The mother of six children – three girls and three boys – lost her only remaining son, Opio on March 1 this year.

“On March 1 at around 4am, a certain man called my husband on the phone and told him never to allow Opio to enter the lake that day. My husband immediately followed Opio to his house and told him never to go to the lake,” she recalled.

“We left him home and went to the garden but moments later a certain soldier telephoned my husband telling him that Opio was left on the papyrus in the lake. Members of the community then mounted a search and his body was recovered after two days. His neck was strangled and arms were broken,” she added.

Mr Kenneth Massette, the officer-in-charge of Amolatar Central Police Station, confirmed the incident, adding that when they wanted to do a postmortem on the deceased’s remains, the family refused and hurriedly buried him.

 Following the incident, angry members of the community on March 2 mobilised and attacked a UPDF informant identified as Okello Ouni who was said to be in the company of the soldiers that allegedly killed Opio.

“The police later arrested the father of the late Opio, Mr Peter Odwee, because of failing to chase away people who gathered at his home,” said Mr Geoffrey Ocen, the Amolatar District chairman.

“This was very unfortunate. The man is on remand and yet he is innocent. He was not part of anything. If the government was sympathetic, he would have been released unconditionally. The security forces now want to shield the crimes committed by FPU against the family by putting this man behind bars,” he added.

Mr Ocen said FPU during their patrol allegedly knock fishing boats into the lake.

“Instead of getting to them (fishermen) to look at the kind of fishing gear they are using, they knock the fishermen’s boats, throwing all the fishermen into the lake and those who are injured in the process end up dying,” he added.

Ms Collins Angwech, a resident of Namasale Sub-county, said the government needs to review its enforcement strategy in Lake Kyoga.

“We were born here and we grew up knowing this lake. Most of us survive because of this lake, it is our source of livelihood; it is our source of food,” she said.

The district chairperson recorded a statement at Amolatar Central Police Station on March 25, according to the letter he wrote to chairperson of all district chairpersons in Lango Sub-region, Mr David Kennedy Odongo.

In that letter, Mr Ocen said he had requested his Alebtong counterpart to call an emergency meeting in Amolatar District to discuss the brutality against the fishing community in Amolatar District allegedly perpetrated by tFPU. 

The officer-in-charge of Amolatar Central Police Station,  Mr Massette, confirmed to this newspaper that people were dying in Lake Kyoga and that they are investigating the matter.

Mr Francis Okello Rwotlonyo, the Amolatar Resident District Commissioner (RDC), agreed that the majority of fishermen who end up dying in the lake are those using illegal fishing gear.

“The only issue we have in Amolatar is politics. Many people have interest in that lake, including the local leaders. They also have illegal fishing gear. They send their people to go fishing and when they are arrested, they begin making a lot of alarm. Some government officials also have illegal boats,” he said.

Mr Okello said the government has been appealing to the community to stop using illegal fishing gear in vain. 

FPU speaks out

When contacted, Lt Lauben Ndifula, the FPU spokesperson, dismissed the allegations of killings in Lake Kyoga as baseless.

“You know there are a lot of allegations whereby people are giving false information, which is not true but when you try to find out and you ask those people to give us some evidence so that maybe we can pick up and start investigations, sometimes you find that they cannot give us any evidence,” he said.

Lt Ndifula added: “For us as FPU, we have been working with these fishermen. Our target is to see that the fishermen can change from illegal fishing to legal fishing for their benefit. Our work is to enforce and sensitise them. We are not there to kill people.”

Museveni pledge

President Museveni has promised to remove the FPU from the water bodies and hand over the administration of fishing communities to the elders.

 “In May, I want you the people who are near the lakes to guide me, to get the elders of this area; they should be the ones to tell us who is spoiling the lakes so that the army can go away and the people themselves look after the lakes,” he said at Amatiburu Primary School, Kangai Sub-county in Dokolo District on March 19.

 FPU under the UPDF was established in 2017 in a bid to curb illegal fishing and streamline the fisheries sector.