Just which country, Tanzania or Malawi, does Lake Malawi belong to? No one bothered to define ownership of this vast lake lying between the two nations for decades, but following exploration for oil and gas in it, a dispute between the two neighbours has been gathering a head of steam.
A decades-old border disptute has resurfaced between Malawi and Tanzania over the ownership of Lake Malawi. The 29,600 square kilometre lake is the third-largest freshwater lake in Africa. In Tanzania, it is called Lake Nyasa, which is taken from Malawi’s colonial name.
A home to about 1,000 endemic species of fish, it is located at the junction of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. With an estimated fish stock of 168,000 tonnes, Lake Malawi sustains nearly 10m people in these three countries. In the standoff, which dates back to early 1960s, Tanzania is seeking 50% of the ownership of the part of lake under dispute while Malawi claims 100% ownership.
The latest dispute comes after the government of Malawi last year awarded contract to a British company Suresteam Petroleum to start gas and oil exploration in the lake. Surestream is currently conducting an environmental impact assessment.
But this infuriated Tanzania, which has called on the Malawi government and the company carrying out exploration of oil and gas in the eastern part of the lake to halt the project until the dispute between the two countries is over.
Tanzania’s Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister Bernard Membe said at the end of a ministerial meeting held in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe that Tanzania wants all the exploration activities in the northeast part of the lake to be shelved to pave the way for the ongoing discussions to resolve the crisis.
The eight-day meeting, which aimed to find a lasting solution to the dispute after a similar meeting of border experts from the two countries scrutinising the technicalities of the border wrangle, ended in deadlock. It was, in fact, a follow-up to a similar meeting of the representatives of the two countries held in Tanzania in July.
Membe, however, asked government authorities in Malawi and Tanzania to handle the border issue with “a degree of diplomacy”, and called upon the media to cover the misunderstanding with “a sense of fairness, responsibility and especially avoiding being provocative”.
Media reports, especially from Tanzania, had quoted some Tanzania officials saying that the country was ready to go to war with Malawi should the country refuse to fail to bow down to its demand. A Tanzanian online publication, The Citizen, quoted the chairperson of Tanzania’s Parliamentary Committee for Defence, Security and Foreign Affairs, Edward Lowassa, as saying “Malawi is our neighbour and therefore we would not like to go into war with it.
“However, if it reaches the war stage, then we are ready to sacrifice our people’s blood and our military forces are committed in equipment and psychologically. Our army is among the most modern and stable defence forces in the world.”
The statement created fear among Malawians, especially those living in the border districts of Chitipa and Karonga, and it attracted an immediate reaction from Malawi’s Minister of Home Affairs and Internal Security, Uladi Mussa, who told Malawians: “I would like to assure people in Chitipa and Karonga as well as all Malawians in this country, that issues of boundaries between Malawi and Tanzania are amicably being resolved. It is at discussion level. So they should not be living in fear at all. Legally, Lake Malawi belongs to Malawi government.”
Give and take
Malawi bases its claim to ownership of the entire lake on an 1890 treaty between former colonial powers Britain and Germany and says it was later reaffirmed by the Organisation of African Unity as Malawi was gaining its independence in the early 1960s.
A history and political science lecturer at the Malawi Polytechnic, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, Simburashe Mungoshi, told African Business that the treaty clearly stated that the eastern boundary of Malawi and Tanzania is on the shores of Lake Malawi.
“However the treaty allowed the Tanganyika [now Tanzania] territory to use the waters for fishing and even for transportation. Otherwise it recognises that the shores were the boundary. The Organisation of African Union said following independence in Africa that the existing boundaries should be respected,” he said.
Mungoshi suggests the dispute can only be resolved if the two countries agree to reach a compromise, as was the case between the colonial masters Britain and Germany.
“When these boundaries were agreed upon by the British and Germans, it was a give-and-take game. The British had to give up claims in some territories in Tanganyika area. Needless to say, the Germans had also to give up. So if Tanzania wants a change in its boundaries, it would be a give-and-take situation. If they want something, they must give something. Malawi is a landlocked country; we need access to the sea. Maybe they could give us an equivalent piece of land to take us to the sea.”
There has been no indication that such a trade would be possible as Tanzania rejects colonial-era agreements and argues that most international law supports sharing common bodies of water by bordering nations. However, as we went to press, another meeting between officials from the two countries to resolve the issue was scheduled for mid-September in Dar es Salaam. Recommendations were expected to be presented to the presidents of the two counties for action.
Malawi had previously supported a recommendation to take that matter to the International Court of Justice.
“In Malawi we have a feeling that this issue has just been going for too long and it must be put to rest. We also believe that it can impact negatively on the economy of both Tanzania and Malawi. Our people have co-existed peacefully but they (the Tanzanians) were heightening tension because of this particular issue,” said Malawi’s foreign minister Ephraim Mganda Chiume. He added that should the two countries fail to resolve the matter, the next option will be taking the matter to the International Court of Justice.