Uganda: Fishermen accuse army of staging accidents on lakes

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UPDF marine soldiers patrol Lake Victoria early this year. Fishermen around Lake Victoria have continued to accuse the FPU of torture. COURTESY PHOTO

By Emmanuel Mutaizibwa

The ominous dark clouds ruffle in ripples over the drab hamlet of Luwerere, Buhemba County in Namayingo District. A heavy downpour has pounded this area barely after we arrived at the birthplace of Oundo Enyasi.

We rushed and huddled in a hut as the droplets pelted the grass-thatched roof. Oundo, a fisherman, was killed by the Uganda People’s Defence Forces Fisheries Protection Unit (FPU) in Lake Victoria.

The sorrow grew profound when we tried to inquire from the family how they were coping without him. Oundo was not given a decent burial. As the head of this poor family, he was laid to rest next to his hut and left behind a widow and orphans.

On July 24, 2019 before dusk, Oundo sailed across Lake Victoria in a rickety canoe. He was accompanied by a friend, Cyrus Wejuli.

Later on, the soldiers  who were in a boat and were patrolling the lake approached the fishermen in the dark and deliberately knocked their canoe.

“It was about 8.pm, when we fell in the water and my colleague [Oundo] could not swim. I swam and they flushed a torch towards us in water. One said let us rescue this one, his colleague said leave them to die. I swam and stuck by one of the pieces of the broken canoe, I made an alarm and 40 minutes later, I was rescued and brought to the shore. Advertisement

“On the same day, two other individuals from our village were killed after their boat was knocked. We spent a number of days looking for their bodies. For instance, we found Oundo’s body after five days near Entebbe,” Wejuli revealed.

Daily Monitor has established a pattern of incidents by conducting a number of interviews with victims involving rogue UPDF marine officers who are staging accidents to cause drowning.  

Emmanuel Kato told Daily Monitor: “The army is killing people deliberately. They even take our fish and claim its illegal fishing yet the nets are brought into the country and cleared by UNBS. My brother, Kibirango  Ivan, and three others were killed. He left behind a pregnant wife.”

For instance in Mpuunge Sub-county, Mukono District, we established deaths of a number of young men including Ssekitoleko Kaggwa from Lulagwe Village, Dennis Nyanzi, Yasin Mutebi, Kenneth Kayira, Ronald Businge, Sande Ssebantazi, Roger Musisi, Ivan Kibirango, and others only identified as Odongo and Tobia in a space of a year.

The army spokesperson, Brig Flavia Byekwaso, was yet to respond to the claims by press time. But in the past, the army leadership has responded to these allegations of gross human rights abuses.
Many of the locals who were evicted at Nankooko, Kyazi and Busoke landing sites in Mpuunge Sub-county live in fear. They claim no one including their leaders has come to their rescue.

The law
Mr Emmanuel Malunga Acidri, the programmes officer for Fian Uganda, a human rights organisation, that has been conducting human rights sensitisation programmes among fishing communities in Mukono District, argues that there is no justification for the torture of fishermen.

“The Uganda Constitution, specifically lists freedom from torture as one of the non-derogable rights. The convention against torture to which Uganda is a signatory also says as much. In other words, under no circumstances can it be permitted.

“That is why even persons accused of grave crimes such as rape and murder are still given the benefit of a legal process. Why then are fishermen still being tortured?”
Acidri says government ought to rein in the errant acts of soldiers and protect the lives and dignity of fishermen while enforcing laws.

In January 2018, Daily Monitor documented a number of killings across the islands of Lake Victoria involving the FPU.  Almost a year later on December 18, 2019, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga directed the FPU to halt its operations on all water bodies in the country for alleged mistreatment of fishing communities.

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A man transports fish from the shores of Lake Kyoga at Kayei Landing Site last week. Some fishermen in many lakes across the county have been accused of engaging in illegal fishing. PHOTO | BILL OKETCH

“Relating to the conducting of UPDF against the citizens of Uganda, this House directs that the operations of the FPU be halted with immediate effect…” Ms Kadaga said.

Ms Kadaga’s directive came on the heels of a heated debate in Parliament in regard to the conduct of the FPU.
“For two years, I have been reporting to the President and even giving him names of soldiers who are culprits, but no action has been taken…” she said.

MPs had earlier on rejected a statement by Defence State Minister Charles Okello Engola that was meant to offer a comprehensive response in regards to the human rights violation, saying it didn’t offer any accountability and solution.

Mr Engola had told the House that he needed time to review the cases involving UPDF officers and report back after recess.
On October 17, 2019, Mr Engola addressed a meeting convened by fishermen at Kasambya Landing Site in Nakasongola District where he apologised on behalf of government and the UPDF for acts of torture allegedly executed by soldiers.

The minister told the meeting that President Museveni had directed the UPDF to quickly investigate these incidents against civilians and immediately stop the torture acts reminding the UPDF that it is a ‘peoples’ army’.
But many fishermen at landing sites in Mukono continue to speak of a campaign of terror.

Farouk Kakembo, who previously worked at Nankoko Landing Site says: “I had gone to Ngamba Island to fish where I laid the nets, they knocked my boat and it broke into pieces. One of my colleagues fell in the water, the army rotated their engine for hours and they started piercing sticks to ensure that he is dead. We were later taken to Gerenge and we were beaten, they took us to court and we were sentenced to prison for nine months.”

Kakembo says if government wants to halt illegal fishing, the army should be deployed at the border to stop the importation of poor fishing nets.
Mr Johnson Muyanja Ssenyonga, who is the area MP for Mukono South, says the solution to halt illegal fishing is to provide affirmative action to locals.

“The best solution to stop illegal fishing is by assisting fishermen like they are doing to farmers through National Agriculture Advisory Services. To have a boat with required nets plus an engine, one needs Shs40m, the army has failed to organise these groups into Saccos and human rights abuses are continuing…,” he argues.

“We have not been helped by MPs and local council leaders. We pay taxes and need licensing, when government disarmed the Karimojong, they gave them cows, the lake is our saviour,  we depend on it. Last week, the army in Bugonga allegedly beat up people and impounded boats,” says Kibirango who lost his brother.

He says the army leadership should liaise with local leaders to address this crisis.
“Many who are not involved in bad fishing have lost their lives, lost money and property. Some of them [army] solicit for money, if you have Shs4m or Shs5m, you survive. They have the means to arrest you and take you to court, sometimes they beat you and shoot you,” he adds.

Mukono area
Across landing sites in Mukono, normal life continues to be disrupted by the activities of the army.
Peter Kakinda says he was detained when the army found him transporting locals on a boat.  
“They found me transporting people on the lake to the island, they arrested and detained us at Entebbe CPS. Our relatives had to pay money to get us released,” he says.
Some of the victims of this brutality are women and children. Sarah Natukunda says she was asleep at 4.am when they knocked on her door.

“The army officer said he wants the nets, they took us to a place where I was beaten with an oar, the women detained were about 20 while the men were 30, they used iron bars to beat us, they beat us untill morning, we were told to sleep on the ground. At 6.am, they freed us, I was tormented and had to pay more than Shs400,000. They burnt all my boats and I no longer work,” she reveals with visible scars on her feet.  Wejuli, who escaped death after his friend Oundo was killed, says the army returned and picked him up from his home.

“I was sleeping at home, they said open the door, they moved me out when I was naked and started beating me saying bring the things you use in the lake, my kids cried, we were taken somewhere and told to lie on the ground, they took us to the water and continued to beat us. They broke my hand and later went home and beat my wife before I was released,” he says.

Mastula Nalubega continues to mourn the death of her son, Yasin Mubiru.  She claims her son was beaten on the shores and later dumped into the lake by the army to disguise his death.

“He had injuries on the head as a result of the beating. Mubiru was a fisherman. They beat him on a Saturday and I got to know on a Monday. People told me that they had found Yasin in water, they removed him, he had been beaten, he had a twisted jaw,” Nalubega narrates.

Many of these locals are poor and most of them did not carry out postmortem examinations to establish the cause of death of their relatives killed by the army. However, they have corroborated this piece of evidence, which places those accused at the scene of crime.

There has been widespread condemnation of these human rights abuses whose most egregious form has resulted into death. Yet the army continues to torture civilians in total violation for the sanctity of life.  

FPU CRACKDOWN

The FPU crackdown, which began in 2017, was prompted by illegal fishing methods across the country. By the time, the operation to halt illegal fishing on lakes was commenced, Uganda’s fish exports had begun to decline. Nile perch catches declined by 46 per cent from 2011 to 2015 while tilapia catches were lower by 38 per cent during the same period, according to Uganda’s National Fisheries Resources Research Institute’s fisheries catch assessment survey.

The annual catch for tilapia declined from 29,415 metric tonnes in 2005 to 13,278 metric tonnes in 2015. While Uganda’s fish exports rose from $85 million in 2003 to a high of $141 million in 2006, they have wavered over the past decade, declining to $118 million in 2015. About 13 fish factories closed in 2018 as a result of  fish scarcity 500 people lost jobs.

Source Daily Monitor.

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