8 August 2012

Malawi: Old Border Dispute With Tanzania Over Lake Malawi Flares Up Again


On Monday 30 July, Tanzania asked Malawi to stop oil and gas exploration activities in Lake Malawi until the border dispute between the two countries involving the lake is resolved.

In September last year, the government of Malawi's late president Bingu wa Mutharika awarded an exploration licence to the British firm Surestream Petroleum to search for oil and gas in the giant lake. The company is currently conducting an environmental impact assessment. There is concern that the border dispute could escalate if 'black gold' is discovered.

Lake Malawi (Lake Nyasa according to Tanzania) is Africa's third largest water mass, covering about 20 per cent of Malawi's total land mass, and is home to 1 000 endemic species of fish.

The latest dispute began when Malawi's fishing and tourism activities allegedly started encroaching on Tanzanian territorial waters. The Tanzanian MP for the Mbeya region, Hilda Ngoye, has argued that the people of Tanzania living around the lake have the right to fish and engage in other productive activities on the lake without being intimidated. Tanzania's Attorney General, Frederick Werema, responded to Ngoye's concerns by asserting that the people of Tanzania should not have to ask for permission from Malawi to fetch water from the lake.

However, Malawi is acting on the supposition that the entire body of the lake belongs to it. The government of Malawi maintains that, according to the 1890 Anglo-German agreement, the border between Tanzania and Malawi is the north-eastern edge of the waters of Lake Malawi. However, the country is willing to engage with Tanzania to reach an amicable resolution.

The last time the issue of the lake boundary was publically disputed by Tanzania and Malawi was in 1967-1968. Although the border dispute remained largely unresolved, it has not been the subject of policy statement or great national concern on either side. Tanzania's Attorney General has pointed out that international law requires a border to be in the middle of a body of water.

Talks between the two countries on the matter will resume on 20 August 2012 in Mzuzu, Malawi. The government of Malawi hopes that it can reach an agreement with its neighbour and that the two countries will sign a memorandum of understanding in light of recent developments in and around the lake relating to oil and gas exploration.

According to media reports, Tanzania has also since announced plans to purchase a new ferry for use on the lake. The Tanzanian Attorney General has said that if an amicable resolution was not reached in the diplomatic talks with its neighbour, the country would seek international intervention to resolve the dispute.

In that scenario, the neighbours may have to justify their legal claims to the disputed territory before the International Court of Justice, given the lamentable absence of similar regional or continental architecture to back the doctrine of 'African solutions for African problems'.

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