A military prison may be built on the “contested” Migingo Island full with Court Martial akin to the infamous Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The plan, this writer has established, dates as far back as 2004 and involves Kenya, Uganda and the US.
Even as it seemed to the wider public that the spat over Migingo was a genuine boarder disagreement between Kenya and Uganda, the controversy surrounding Migingo is part of a meticulous plan by the three countries to transform the strategic Island into a prison to be used in the so-called fight against terror.
Apparently the countries have an interest in keeping the true location of Migingo ambiguous, giving them room to manouvre the anticipated legal challenges regarding detention and Jurisdiction.
According to the plan, building blocks habouring 1000 solitary confinement cells, 5 by 8 feet in measure are to be set up with an unnamed Halliburton (Halliburton has oil contracts in Western Uganda) subsidiary being the lead contractor. The works would involve reclaiming more land from the lake to cater for various security installations while advanced water security systems would be deployed.
American power at stake.
As the George W. Bush presidency eyed a second term, US officials were keen on ending the worldwide backlash caused by Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre and the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They sought to establish another facility – preferably in Africa where human rights issues receive less scrutiny.
Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni long the Pentagon’s man in the region seems to have agreed to the plan following consultations with his Kenyan counterpart, Mwai Kibaki who was in Kampala to attend the ninth COMESA Summit of the Authority of Heads of State and Government in June 2004.
But the calculus did not go their way.
Kibaki eying re-election for a second term had to delay the plans at least until after the elections to avoid a backlash. But plans were even delayed further as Kibaki emerged weakened by the 2007 post election violence. He also failed to follow through with his pledge largely because the then Prime Minister, Raila Odinga with whom he shared power was reluctant. Understandably, Migingo (if in Kenya) is in Nyanza Province – his political heartland. Indeed, Odinga instead drummed up Luo nationalism demanding that Uganda withdraws its officials from Migingo, effectively rendering the Migingo plan impossible.
It is Odinga’s perceived sabotage of the planned facility that prompted President Museveni to implicitly refer to him and his “Jaluo” tribesmen as mad, in an address at the University of Dar-es-salaam while on a visit to Tanzania in May 2009.
Terrorism and the Security Dilemma
But the need for the Migingo Prison regained relevance when in 2010, Somali Islamist group Al Shabab attacked Uganda killing 70 people. Suddenly, increased US presence in Eastern Africa was inevitable. The heightened security cooperation among countries saw Kenya arbitrarily extraditing several radicals and suspected Al-Shabab members to Uganda to face terrorism charges.
Yet both countries faced a key security dilemma on how and where to detain the radicals. Luzira Prison, currently Uganda’s most secure is too close to the Kampala Commercial District to house terrorists. Apart from fears that mobs seeking revenge might attack the suspects while on the way to the High Court (which is located in the Kampala CBD), there was a possibility that other terrorists could likely target suspects’ convoys in a bid to silence those in custody. This put security in a tricky position that the trials more or less stalled, not necessarily because the cases lack merit but transporting terrorists through the CBD proved a security nightmare.
In fact, security gurus in Kampala consider Luzira Prison untenable that government is contemplating a swap deal in which a private investor would take over Luzira land in exchange for constructing better, modern, spacious and conveniently located detention facilities. The Commissioner General of Prisons, Johnson Byabashaija told parliament last year that he had forwarded the plan to Cabinet.
Nairobi’s Kamiti and Industrial Prisons also presented the same dilemma.
Besides, cramping terrorists with regular criminals is a recipe for disaster. The terrorists often use Prisons as recruitment grounds.
All this justified the urgent need for the Migingo facility.
Another Kenya Spoiler
However, events in Kenya yet again took a different turn from what the US had expected. Following a long break of political uncertainty and US having counted on a Raila Odinga win, Uhuru Kenyatta emerged President resulting in the limited cooperation with the West due to ICC charges, hence compounding the delay by the US to move on the Migingo plan.
This writer understands that President Obama who used the “close Guantanamo” card to his electoral advantage knew about the Migingo plan, which is why he spoke with such confidence in 2008 – hoping that it would be salvaged with him at the White House and Raila Odinga at State House Nairobi.
But as things stand, the US seems to have resorted to other alternatives like releasing some prisoners that were planned for transfer to the “new Migingo Prison” most of them without being charged. Others are transferred to face charges in their home countries. An estimated 158 prisoners down from a high of nearly 800 when the plan was conceived are currently held at Guantanamo.
It is unclear if the project is still on the books but Ugandan Special Forces and police officers still administer Migingo Island and the Kenyan government has not raised any protests in recent years. Meanwhile, the work of the joint re-demarcation team instituted to mark the boarder in 2009 has since stalled although the two countries set up a Joint Permanent Commission this year, which among other things will streamline their borders. A separate Kenyan commission established in 2010 concluded that the Island belonged to Kenya. However, no move has been made since to reclaim the Island from Ugandan authority.
Uganda and Kenya are some of the top US military allies in Sub Saharan Africa along with Ethiopia and Djibouti. According to this 2012 report by the Washington Post http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-06-14/world/35462335_1_contractors-missions-central-african-republic, Uganda alone hosts a US airbase with a large fleet of PC-12 aircrafts used in surveillance operations in Central and Eastern Africa. The country’s Entebbe airport also has a fueling partnership with the Pentagon while several sites in the country are used as Strategic Bases, Forward Operating Sites and Contingency Security Locations as well as many other shared facilities. The US army also routinely trains Ugandan troops and conducts joint operations like those against the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Kenya, apart from hosting a US Naval base in Mombasa has over 100 US Commandos stationed at a Military Base in Manda Bay. The country, like Uganda also hosts Forward Operating Sites and all its Airports have fueling agreements with the US Military, according to a report by Tom Dispatch http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/09/us-military-bases-africa in 2013.
But relations between Kampala and Washington are not at their best since the signing in February of the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Law by President Museveni despite fierce opposition by President Obama.
The posturing over the Anti-gay laws however seems to have no bearing on the long standing military relations as it emerged this week that Washington is sending more combat aircrafts and US special forces to join the UPDF hunt for Ugandan rebel leader, Joseph Kony.
On the domestic front, some sources this writer spoke to allude to the idea that President Museveni will not rest until the Migingo Prison is in place because it fits in his retirement plan. His government perpetually tainted by corruption and allegations of officials committing war crimes, President Museveni who has ruled for 28 years and is eying another five-year term in 2016 is gradually constructing his legacy around the fight against corruption and intends to leave a “clean” government in place.
“One pointer is his move to scrap bail for those he calls economic saboteurs”
“The hardcore corrupt officials will be banished and isolated in the maximum security Migingo Prison, if it comes into existence,” a source says, noting that he will not want them to destabilize his new kids on the block.
Apparently, Museveni hopes to hand over power to a new professional and well-educated class which he has been personally grooming using the magnanimous State House coffers for the last 20 years.
If true, President Museveni is likely to have revisited the Migingo Plan when he held talks with US Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel and other Pentagon officials on his last visit to US in September last year.
In Secretary Hegel’s meeting room, President Museveni was quickly followed by Defence ministers – Denmark’s Nicolai Wammen, Italy’s Roberta Pinotti and Spain’s Dr. Pedro Morenes, all countries that can easily buy into the Migingo Plan given their history with Islamist radicals.