March 17, 2009 / 12:40 PM / 10 years ago

Kenya, Uganda to withdraw from disputed island: Nairobi

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyan and Ugandan security forces will keep away from a one-acre island in Lake Victoria whose disputed ownership has caused a diplomatic row between the two east African nations, Nairobi said on Tuesday.

Tensions over Migingo Island — a rocky protrusion covered in tin shacks used mainly by fishermen — have threatened relations between the key trading partners and are a reminder of myriad disputes over colonial-era borders across Africa.

Acrimonious comments from politicians in both nations have subsided since a meeting in Uganda last week, where they agreed to let geography experts study historical records.

“We agreed and we signed a communique that all forces will withdraw from the island, and they are withdrawing,” Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula told reporters.

“The issue ... is extinguished as far as I’m concerned.”

Kenyan and Ugandan police have occupied the island at various times in recent years, with the most recent spike in tensions coming after an occupation by officials from Kampala.

Waters round Migingo are rich in fish, whereas other parts of Lake Victoria have been decimated by over-exploitation.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, embarrassed by the fuss on both sides of the border, urged a brotherly spirit.

“It is a shame to argue over a small territorial dispute. We should be fighting for the creation of one country called East Africa,” said the keen integrationist.

Kenya’s armed forces’ head, General Jeremiah Kianga, took a similarly distanced view.

“That is the work of cartographers,” he was quoted as saying when asked if the army was going to occupy Migingo.

A pact last week by Kampala and Nairobi, both members of the East African Community trade bloc, said the two nations would determine the island’s status through a border survey within two months based on a 1926 accord when both were under British rule.

Fishermen on both sides would be allowed access.

“We’re just struggling with old colonial boundaries,” said Ugandan Internal Affairs Minister Kirunda Kivejinja.

He told Reuters the island had been submerged until a few years ago when lake waters receded.

A colonial conference in Berlin in the 1880s decided Africa’s borders with little regard for ethnic makeup, and another meeting by newly independent African states in the 1960s confirmed those frontiers.

That has done little to stop disputes over boundaries, often in remote areas, where conflicts have flared from time-to-time, usually over natural resources, land and water access.

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