Fishing | Uganda

Soldiers versus fishermen

Corrupt authorities and violence bring the people of Lake Victoria to the brink of ruin

A man carries a huge fish on his shoulder, his face is covered. In the background you can see poor huts with isolated people.

A man carries a Nile Perch of 80 kilograms in Kasenyi, Entebbe, Uganda, 2008

It is about 8am on a cloudy mid-spring morning. Two of the first boats loaded with the night’s catch calmly sail towards Kigungu, a fish landing site perched on the northern shores of the Ugandan section of Lake Victoria not far from Entebbe International Airport. The first boat with three fishermen docks. Six men who have been waiting on dry ground rush to help off-load its haul of fresh fish.  One man holds a flat piece of wood, which I later learn is a tool for measuring the Nile Perch— one of the most sought-after fish species in this lake, exported to Europe and elsewhere. “The whole fish must fit on the wood’s surface. If its tail touches the edge of the wood, it means it is above the legal minimum size of 18 inches,” explains Silas Kambejje, a fisherman.

Kambejje and his friends return from their night trip with fewer than a dozen Nile perches, including one that is undersize. From head to tail, it only covers half the wood. The Nile perch population in Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, has shrunk by more than half since 2004. Fisheries experts blame the over fishing of young often sexually immature fish. As a result, the average perch caught today is far smaller than it used to be.

Tony Kilembwe, one of the fishermen returning from the lake, says the Nile perch is vital to the survival of the fishing community. He will earn around 24 euros for each fish. For context: a primary school teacher takes home the equivalent of around 130 euros a month. Before he saunters home for his routine nap, he explains how fishermen face new challenges. In 2017, Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president, ordered the national army—the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) —onto the lake to curb illegal fishing. In the course of their operations, the soldiers confiscate what they call illegal fishing gear which normally includes boats (below 8.5 meters in length), illegal fishing nets (nets which can catch fish below the size of an adult human’s palm) and other equipment. The military often take the fishermen to their barracks and simply collect the equivalent of between 25 and eighty euros. Afterwards, they release the fishermen and their equipment.

“Many fishermen harbour suicidal thoughts because they felt helpless against the ever-present military”

If the soldiers had discovered the too-small perch from the night catch on their boat, Silas Kambejje explains, they would have arrested the entire crew and confiscated the entire catch - and the boat as well. “The soldiers get rich from these operations,” complains the forty-year-old Kilembwe. Sometimes the military even fuels illegal fishing by selling the confiscated catch on for their own gain.

Human rights organisations like FIAN-Uganda and the Human Rights and Peace Centre of Makerere University in Kampala accuse the army of using brute force in its operations. The soldiers, who patrol the entire 1,300-kilometre coastline of Uganda's shore and islands belonging to Uganda, often physically assault the fishermen and are estimated to have already destroyed property worth a six-figure sum in euros. Ugandan media reported that young fishermen were killed in military operations.

Charles Kitobo, a 34-year-old fisherman who operates at the nearby Kasenyi landing site in Entebbe, says the soldiers have perfected their extortionist schemes. “Once they see you have fish in the boat, they cannot let you go without getting money from you.” In early April, he says, soldiers arrested six fishermen and released them after a fortnight. “We kept wondering what had happened to these fishermen because their phones were off. Thank God they got back alive. But some of them lost a lot of weight. Two are HIV positive and did not take medication while in detention.”

“As the threats and harassment continue, local fishermen fear for their future”

The two fishermen were employees of 35-year old Ssalongo Ssemafumu, a fisherman-cum-entrepreneur at this landing site. He owns two colourful wooden boats which he hires out to fishermen. Ssemafumu, who has fished in this lake since he was 15, says his workers take an increasingly desolate view of the future. Many fishermen harbour suicidal thoughts because they feel helpless with the continued presence of soldiers on the lake, he says. “If this brutality and extortion goes on, the army will take over fishing and we, the fishermen and fishing communities, will starve to death or just commit suicide.”

Elia Kavuma has been fishing for about 40 years says the soldiers no longer carry out their primary role of protecting the lake’s fish stocks. Instead, the 62-year-old says, they have become obsessed with money. “Even when they find a fisherman has Nile perch weighing 30kg (well above the permitted size), they will say ‘leave me with one’.” The official narrative from the Fisheries Protection Unit (FPU) and the state fisheries research organization, NaFIRRI National Fisheries Resources Research Institute is that fish stocks seem to be recovering. In 2018 the latter organisation concluded that the increase in fish size in Lake Victoria “may possibly be attributed to the current efforts to combat illegality using the military.”

On a recent online television talk show, Deogratiuos Sentiba, the official spokesperson of the FPU denied any wrong doing by the soldiers deployed in the lake. The fisheries protection unit was not immediately available to comment on the issue. But as the threats and harassment continue, local fishermen fear for their future.