As President Museveni endeavours to mend fences with the fishing communities who claim they were tortured by the army’s Fisheries Protection Unit (FPU),majority have vowed not to vote for National Resistance Movement (NRM) candidates in the Thursday national elections.
The communities, who derive their livelihood mainly from the lakes such as Victoria, Albert, George, and Kyoga, have in the previous elections overwhelmingly supported Mr Museveni and his NRM government.
However, a mini-survey conducted by this newspaper suggests that such support is no more because of the alleged torture perpetrated by the army against fishermen suspected to be engaging in illegal fishing activities.
In September 2019, at least 68 people sued the government, demanding Shs1.2 trillion in compensation for alleged torture by Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers.
Through their lawyer Abwang Otim, the fishermen submitted before the High Court in Lira District horrifying images of their colleagues being tortured on the shores of Lake Kyoga in Amolatar.
The landing sites where fishermen were allegedly tortured are Bangladesh, Namasale, Mbiko, Kayago, Nalubwoyo, Abeja, Amai and Muntu, all in Amolatar District.
Gen David Muhoozi, the Chief of Defence Forces, while meeting leaders and fishing communities at Nalubwoyo and Bangladesh Landing Sites in Namasale Sub-county, Amolatar District, on August 12, 2019, said the army would investigate allegations of abuse.
The army was deployed after the President banned the Beach Management Unit (BMUs) during the campaigns in 2015 ahead of the 2016 elections.
The BMUs were elected by the fishermen at each of the landing sites across the country to manage the issue of overfishing on the lakes.
In 2017, government set up the FPU, to crackdown on illegal fishing activities on water bodies.
Their activities momentarily reduced the vice, but the enforcers received a lot of criticism for their brutality.
Mr Yusuf Okello Lemeriga, a fisherman, said many people have faced tough times as the army’s FPU fights to regulate fishing and save the industry.
“Operations against illegal fishing were intended to restore sanity on the lakes and those who became victims are free to politicise them .For me, I will vote for leaders who are ready to serve us,” he said.
Some fishermen in Buvuma Island, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said since it is a secret ballot, they know who to vote for.
“I do not need to share that information with you, but just know that I will not vote those who did not protect us,” a fisherman at Senyi Landing Site said.
In Kalangala, the situation is not any different. A section of islanders say the deployment of the soldiers on the lake has done more harm than good as many of their colleagues have lost their lives and property.
“At first we were happy with the operations as we started catching mature fish. However, the situation turned violent when the soldiers started harassing us and confiscating our boats as well as killing some of our colleagues. We do not see any reason to support NRM when they are oppressing us,” a fisherman at Kitobo Landing Site, Bufumira Sub-county in Kalangala District, said.
To soften the hearts of some fishermen in Busoga Sub-region, the army last week started returning all items the FPU had confiscated from them. A similar exercise was also carried out in Masaka at the weekend.
The exercise to return the items, which include boat engines, vehicles, and motorcycles followed a directive by President Museveni to all Resident District Commissioners (RDCs).
Mr Majid Dhikusooka, the Namayingo deputy RDC, who spearheaded the exercise, has since denied that the presidential directive has anything to do with Thursday’s elections.
“You very well know that the President, as a leader of this country, has been giving back many things to people who lost them and when he received fishermen’s complaints, he acted,” he said.
Mr Salongo Philemon, the vice chairperson of the fishing community in Masese Landing Site in Jinja City, said about 90 per cent of the fishing communities in some regions including Busoga will not vote for NRM.
“The intervention of the President ordering RDCs to ensure confiscated fishermen’s vehicles, motorcycles, boat engines, among other things would have been done some time back,” he added.
The vice chairperson of the Association of Fishers and Lake Users of Uganda (AFALU) in eastern region, Mr Joseph Lukwago, said voting a candidate of one’s choice is a personal decision.
“You cannot rule out who is going to vote who even if she/he tells you he is going to vote for candidate so and so because you will not be there when he/she is going to cast in the vote,” Mr Lukwago said.
Mr Joseph Okello, a fisherman in Serere District, said those kicked out of Lake Kyoga have abandoned NRM because they believe the orders to have soldiers on the lakes were made by Mr Museveni.
“The idle men whose main source of survival was the lake are politically charged against NRM. I do not think NRM has any bigger chances along landing sites,” he added.
Mr Okello said initially, Kaburare Landing Site in Serere District had more than 30 boats. Today, the landing site has less than 12 registered boats.
Akampala Landing Site, Ochero Sub-county in Kaberamaido District used to have more than 60 boats but currently there are only 20 boats operating, according to Mr Samuel Ejoku, former chairperson Akampala Landing Site.
Mr Ejoku, who believes those displaced could turn to show their anger on January 14, said cases of torture are still rampant at various landing sites.
In Apac, fishermen said they are not willing to give their votes to President Museveni and his NRM party. This is because some of their colleagues were killed during the operations by the UPDF to crackdown on illegal fishing in Lake Kwania.
Mr Amos Otim, a fisherman at Apalamio Landing Site in Apoi Sub-county, said: “I cannot vote for the leader who ordered the army to kill us in the lake. This is the right time for us the fishermen to find the solution to our problems.”
Mr Fred Oweka, a fisherman at Kayei Landing Site in Akokoro Town Council, said his wife was killed by the army and he is not happy with the government.
“We are still being chased away from landing sites up to now. I cannot give my vote to anybody associated with this government. It is now time for change, I want a new government which will consider the welfare of fishermen,” he said.
In Pakwach, the regulation of fishing by the UPDF has created more misery for the fishermen and traders in Panyimur. The market supplies the entire West Nile, Acholi and Lango sub regions and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mr Okumu Jamtho, a fisherman at Dei Landing Site, said the price of a piece of Angara used to be at Shs20, 000, but with the prevailing insecurity on Lake Albert it has shot to Shs 30,000.
“Fishermen fear to go fishing on Lake Albert due to security threats,” he said.
In July last year, there were gunshots in Panyimur market as the UPDF enforcement officers attempted to impound fish.
In Ntoroko, the story is the same. The army has reportedly been confiscating fishing gear and immature fish at Kanara, Rwagara, Kamuga and Kachwakumu landing sites, all on Lake Albert.
The Kachwakumu Village chairman, Mr Rweheru Byaruhanga, said many fishermen will not vote for President Museveni because they have been disturbed by the army.
Mr James Ategeka, a fisherman at Kanara Landing Site, said soldiers have tortured the fishermen and there is no reason why they should elect their commander-in-chief again.
Mr Henry Chance, the NRM party mobiliser for Rwenshama fishing village in Rukungiri District, confirmed that fishermen are suffering.
“I find it very hard to mobilise people because of poor working conditions characterised by kidnap of fishermen by the Congolese security personnel,” he said.
He asked the government to always deploy marine security personnel that have friendly working methods with the fishermen unlike those that end up harassing them.
Cameras on lakes
On December 30, President Museveni again promised to install surveillance cameras on the shorelines of lakes to monitor fishing activities.
He said this would be done after the government returns management of the lakes to fishermen.
The President had also in May 2019, said he would install security cameras on lakes shared with neighbouring countries but they are yet to be installed.
What they say…
Yusuf O. Lemeriga, fisherman.
Operations against illegal fishing were intended to restore sanity on the lakes and those who became victims are free to politicise them. I will vote for leaders who are ready to serve us.
Majid Dhikusooka, Namayingo RDC.
You very well know that the President, as a leader of this country, has been giving back many things to people who lost them and when he received fishermen’s complaints, he acted.
Henry Chance, NRM mobiliser
I find it very hard to mobilise people because of poor working conditions characterised by kidnap of fishermen by the Congolese security personnel.
Joseph Okello, fisherman.
The idle men whose main source of survival was the lake are politically charged against NRM. I do not think NRM has any bigger chances on landing sites.
Compiled by Bill Oketch, Felix Basiime, Al-Mahdi Ssenkabirwa, Simon Peter Emwamu, Robert Muhereza, Ronald Kabanza, Alex Ashaba, Denis Edema, Santo Ojok, Sylvester Ssemugenyi, & Patrick Okaba