The boundaries of Lake Malawi are contested. Tanzania claims 50% of the lake they call Lake Nyasa belongs within its own territory, while Malawi claims full ownership, based on an 1890 colonial agreement (Heligoland) made between the colonial administrations at the time, Germany and Britain, that was since upheld by the African Union. The Malawian and Tanzanian governments were unable to settle the dispute last year. Consequently, the case is currently being discussed by the Africa Forum of former African Heads of State and Government, which is chaired by Mozambique’s former president Joaquim Chissano.
This dispute is not new, however, it resurfaced following the Malawian government’s issuance of exclusive prospecting licence to two companies, Surestream Petroleum and SacOil, for three zones in the lake. The companies will explore for oil.
Yesterday was a busy day for the online discussion of Lake Malawi with deep concerns that Malawi will lose part of the lake now that the decision lies with the Forum, or with the International Court of Justice should the Forum be unable to make a decision. Calls have been made for Malawi to pull out of the mediation process.
Two opinion pieces were published online by Nyasa Times (“Lake Malawi Now More Likely To Be Divided“ by Dr. Cedrick Ngalande and “Special Editorial: Malawi – Stand up for what is yours, Lake Malawi“) as well as an open letter to Malawi’s president Joyce Banda with the subject “Serious Alert on Tanzanian Resolve and Strategem to Seize Lake Malawi” written by Z Allan Ntata and available on the Malawi Breaking News and Vacancies page on Facebook.
Ngalande notes in the beginning of his piece “Lake Malawi Now More Likely To Be Divided” that he is disturbed because “we find ourselves today trying to defend a lake that has always been known to be ours”. He believes that the faltering leadership in the country will mean that the lake will be divided. He writes
When the Tanzanians started talking of part ownership of the lake, government should have told them off, and should have advised them to take the issue to international justice systems if they wished to do so.
Ngalande is concerned about the choice of mediator for the dispute and argues that an international justice system would have been a better platform for determining a resolution, since
Anybody with the slightest knowledge of liberation movements in this region knows that Chissano is buddies with most high-ranking people in Tanzania. Tanzania is Chissano’s second home. Malawi does not have much sympathy from former freedom fighters in this region because of our support for the failed RENAMO and close relationship with the then apartheid South Africa. Arbitrations by leaders in this region between Malawi and any SADC country are therefore likely to be highly skewed against us.
The author of the “Special Editorial: Malawi – Stand up for what is yours, Lake Malawi” also believes that the mediation is compromised because
Reports are rife that Tanzania has co-opted corrupt but powerful and well-funded fiends with interests in the lake. This is to say the least, unfair, in bad faith, given that the African elders are yet to determine the ownership.[...]
Tanzania’s envoys are, as we speak, all over the world, palm-oiling decision makers to make sure that the outcome of the Lake Malawi mediation is decided in Tanzania’s favour.
To be specific, big oil conglomerates are in Dar es Salaam negotiating for oil deals to do with our part of the lake, a development t which is a slap in our faces given that Tanzania never wanted us to even prospect for oil.
Once again, the leadership of Malawi takes a hit for its poor performance to date on the lake dispute
For once, our leadership must steer clear of the bad habit of focussing on the mundane when danger is lurking. The type of leadership that Malawi needs now is not the ostrich type because by the time we lift our heads out of the sand, we will have nothing with which to quench our thirst – our lake having been seized.
Finally, the author agrees with Ngalande that the dispute should be resolved internationally and not regionally,
The first thing is to immediately withdraw from the now compromised mediation effort. The second thing is to gather intelligence on what Tanzania has been up to behind the scenes. And the third thing is to go to the Hague for a settlement under international law.
In his open letter to the president, Ntata suggests that the Tanzanian is ensuring the “deck is stacked against Malawi” through intelligence he claims to have seen that reveals
[...] the conspiracy that is being orchestrated by the most powerful and well-funded parties who have an interest in the lake, not, of course, in favour of the interests of Malawi. As we speak, the undercover apparatus of foreign governments is picking up and processing intelligence cables about Malawi whose details and motives your government and the people of Malawi are probably not privy to [...].
I am betraying my patriotism if I do not mention to you that as I write this letter, madam, big oil companies are in Dar es Salaam negotiating for oil deals to do with our part of the lake, a development that am certain is flying in the face of your government because of the docility in our approach to this matter.
Ntata, like the authors of the other articles, deems Malawi’s handling of the dispute as inadequate
Meanwhile, Your Excellency, the people that you have appointed and entrusted with the critical responsibility of dealing with these matters, including protecting our country with intelligence gathering, are comfortable with doing nothing out of either their ignorance or their belief that all is well, while their counterparts are travelling all over the world palm-oiling decision makers to make sure that the outcome of the Lake Malawi mediation is decided in Tanzania’s favour. [...]
I must humbly urge you, Your Excellency, to still apply your thoughts and undivided attention to the storm brewing over Lake Malawi, for if unchecked, it will tarnish whatever legacy you hope to leave for Malawi.
Lastly, singing the same tune, Ntata advises that Malawi should withdraw from the mediation and hints at ensuring the military is in place
I urge Your Excellency to pull out of the mediation effort immediately and only address this matter when enough intelligence is available of what Tanzania is doing and a clear Malawian strategy for dealing with the Tanzanian threat is formulated. In the meantime, it would be wise to deploy the defence forces to closely guard and monitor the lake and ensure that our possession of it remains certain.
Meanwhile, lakeshore fishing communities are worried about the likely costs of the decision about the boundaries and oil exploration, and Likoma Island’s residents are struggling as the main ferry, the Ilala, is currently out of service.
Update 4 March 2013: The Daily News, Tanzania’s leading online news edition, responded to the article Nyasa Times published on the 28 February 2013 ”Special Editorial: Malawi – Stand up for what is yours, Lake Malawi“. Munyaga described the article has having
made sweeping, reckless, and careless accusations against Tanzania as regards the border dispute between the two countries on Lake Nyasa.
Furthermore, he argues that the media should have upheld “civilized conduct” while the Forum goes through the case.
In any case, trial by the media is unacceptable. With due respect, journalists would make the worst jurists, as the case of the Nyasa Times special editorial shows, they are often prone to making unsubstantiated claims, which in jurisprudence would amount to nothing but a travesty of justice.
It is worth noting that the article points out Tanzania is not a signatory of the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction clause so it is not bound by its decisions. If the Forum is unable to resolve the case and the ICJ hears the case, Tanzania may not abide by a final ruling.
Update 13 March 2013: Chiume, Malawi’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, has also come under attack with commentators asserting that he is conspiring against Malawi’s interests.