By Max Patrick Ocaido
KAMPALA. Bright Rwamirama, State Minister for Veteran Affairs, on Tuesday defended UPDF involvement in fishing operations on several islands.
Last week, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga suspended the House sine die on pressure from MPs demanding for a comprehensive statement from the in line ministry after allegations that UPDF officers were mistreating and even extorting from fishing communities.
MPs allege that UPDF has reportedly been extorting money from fishermen, under pretext that the fishing community is engaged in illegal fishing.
These allegations prompted minister Rwamirama to explain on the floor of Parliament saying that the UPDF officers also known as Fisheries Protection Force (FPF) are very professional and that there is no evidence that they are involved in extortion or mistreatment whatsoever. He however, urged anybody with vital information to present it to the UPDF leadership for redress.
"The UPDF enforcers are conversant with their roles for which they were deployed. Before UPDF personnel join operations of Fisheries Protection Force (FPF), they all go through training on Fisheries laws and regulations and they operate alongside subject matter specialist (Fisheries Officers). They know what mature fish is and what it is not, as prescribed in section 2 sub section (r) of the Fisheries Act Cap 197. If there is any person who can differentiate immature from mature fish, it is the UPDF enforcers," Rwamirama said. The FPF was set up to assist Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in regulating fisheries malpractices.
"Certainly, it is not true that the enforcers apprehend persons with mature fish. The Officers confiscate immature fish as prescribed in laws."
Rwamirama also added that he does not have evidence on allegations that the officers confiscate boat engines and sell them.
"The UPDF enforcers have pursuant to the above provision of the law confiscated engines, which are in its custody. There is no evidence on allegations of selling of confiscated engines, and we request anybody who has information on the same to bring it forward to the UPDF leadership for redress. We provide pictorial evidence of boats whose sizes are not acceptable on our lakes, nets and hooks whose dimensions are not allowable (illegal fishing gear), the presence of local leadership/communities when disposing of illegal gears," he said.
He also denied allegations that UPDF officers beat a one George Othieno and Fredrick Omondi to death.
"It is not true that UPDF led to the death of Othieno George and Omondi Fredrick. The truth is that, these incidences happened at different times. Around February 2017 after the beginning of enforcement operations, one fisherman who was identified as Othieno George jumped into water to hide away from the enforcers who were on patrol in the wee hours of the morning. At this point, the Marine enforcers embarked on the process of rescuing him. Despite the fact that they got him from the waters alive and gave him first aid, he collapsed dead before he could reach a health center. The District Medical Officer conducted a postmortem and a CID Officer investigated the matter which concluded that Othieno died of drowning. His body was thereafter recommended to the family of the deceased for burial," he said.
As a follow up action and based on UPDF institutional culture of reasonable suspicion, Rwamirama said that the two soldiers (L/Cpt Kibirige Joseph and Pte Opio Steven) who were on duty at that time, were arrested and subjected to the Unit Disciplinary Committee (UDC) of the Marine Brigade and were later released after serving one year.
"The second alleged death of Omondi Frederick comes to the knowledge of FPF three days after the rescue incident of Othieno George, by the fishermen who reportedly recovered the body 9 Km from our operating area of responsibility. The FPF therefore has no hand in the alleged death of Mr. Omondi Fredrick," he said.
In February 2017, President Museveni made an intervention to revive the fish potential by creating FPF and hence the ongoing operations on Lake Victoria, George and Edward.
As a result of rampant illegal fishing, 15 fish factories out of 21 closed leading to reduced exports to prime markets, reduction in fishermen's incomes and increased fishing pressure in search for more fish including reduced fish for local and regional consumption. The remaining 6 factories are reportedly operating below capacity.