Thursday, February 16, 2017

Migingo Island and the ‘law of triviality’


That small, but potentially explosive, matter of Migingo Island in Lake Victoria is back in the news.

Kenyans on Twitter were venting about reports that Uganda had replaced it’s police force on the island with an elite military unit.

It seemed at one point that the squabble over this tiny rock, which is about a quarter the size of a football pitch, had been settled and Uganda president Yoweri Museveni agreed in a much-publicised meeting in State House, Kampala, some years ago that the thing belonged to Kenya.

Miniscule Migingo has over the years become the famous island in Lake Victoria because of this row over its ownership.

There is talk that beneath and around Migingo there are precious liquids, which is why its ownership has become important.

But even without that, many who have been following the Migingo ping pong over the last years will be worried that it could cause very big problems between Kenya and Uganda.

Kenyan politicians from the Lake Victoria region have argued that both former president Mwai Kibaki and president Uhuru Kenyatta have not fought harder to assert a claim over the rock because they are mountain people from the central part of the country.

The risk with that is that a muscular response from the government in Nairobi over the ownership of Migingo then becomes inevitable with each passing day, because there is a higher electoral premium in doing so.

Not only would Kenyatta prove critics wrong by doing so, but because the island has become an emotive issue, the political reward for doing so would be higher.

Alternatively, a local politician could do something that forces him to choose between siding with a Kenyan or the Ugandan government.

On the other hand, Migingo seems to have turned into a bone that Museveni just won’t let go of.

It’s getting to a point where doing so unequivocally would be seen as a face-losing climb-down, and demonstrate weakness at a time when the government in Kampala needs, more than ever, to look strong.

The risks are therefore high that the political luvvy-duvvy between Kampala and Nairobi could be raptured by a small rock.

Indeed the very fact that Migingo is tiny could be the greatest source of danger. We are entering here into Parkinson’s famed “law of triviality”.

Propounded by British historian and author C. Northcote Parkison in his delightful 1957 book Parkison’s Law and Other Studies in Administration, it holds that organisations (and one would add people in general) give too much weight to trivial issues.

Parkison gives the example of a fictional committee tasked with approving the plans for a nuclear plant (which would cost a lot of money), but instead spent most of its time debating minor but easy-to-understand matters like what materials to use for the staff bike-shed (which would cost peanuts).

The reason is that a nuclear plant, though more important, is complex. But a bicycle shed, everyone understands that and knows they won’t make fools of themselves talking about it.

At 0.49 acres, Migingo is smaller than many plots in Muthaiga, Karen, and places like Kitsuru. It is the size of land most understand, and people kill each over in the villages.

If it was the size of Zanzibar, at nearly 1,500 square kilometres, everyone would say, “honestly, don’t tell me that all this time the ownership of something this size is unsettled”.

And if Migingo was Zanzibar-size, you would even propose that Kenya and Uganda share it. But how can you divvy 0.49 acres between two countries?

Because it’s so small, Uganda’s interest in it is seen by many people I have spoken to in Nairobi about it as “being more than just about the island”. “Iko kitu”, a proud Kenyan said, giving me that accusatory look like I was a land grabber.

There is a real danger then that this could come to be seen as a gratuitous attempt to humiliate the country.

Hopefully this matter will be put to rest, and also that the lesson has been learnt.

Lake Victoria has been bountiful to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

The Migingo dispute tells us that in the years to come, it is set to be the main source of East African rivalry and conflict, as water and fish resources become ever more scarce in the region.