Johannesburg — Malawi and Tanzania have never really agreed on who owns Lake Malawi, but it hasn't really mattered until now. What's changed? For the first time, there's something under those placid waters that both countries think is worth fighting for.
There can rarely have been a more incongruous location for a diplomatic spat than Lake Malawi. The lake is one of Africa's most beautiful spots, with its tranquil, turquoise surface and picturesque islands. Tourists love it, drawn by the white sandy beaches and abundance of fresh seafood, and Malawians are inordinately proud of their national landmark.
Only one problem: Tanzanians are quite proud of it too. The lake straddles the borders of three countries - Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. The lion's share of the lake falls in Malawian territory, while Mozambique gets some too. Tanzania, however, gets nothing; under the terms of an 1890 Anglo-German treaty, the border between Malawi and Tanzania runs along the Tanzanian shore, denying Tanzania any access to the lake's waters.
This has been an area of dispute between the two countries ever since they achieved independence in 1963. Although Tanzanian fisherman were permitted to continue to use the lake under the terms of the treaty, Tanzania wants full control of what it thinks is its rightful share.
Malawi, naturally, disagrees.
Although it has occasionally strained relations, the issue of who owns Lake Malawi has never really been a problem - until now. Something has changed, and that something is the unconfirmed but promising potential for huge oil and gas reserves buried under its shores. Conditions for this are thought to be ideal: "There is enough geological evidence suggesting the existence of thick sedimentary rock sequences and structures capable of trapping oil under Lake Malawi," said Ibibia Worik, legal advisor to the Commonwealth Secretariat.
To explore this potential, Malawi last year granted a licence to Surestream Petroleum, a British company. Suddenly, the dispute over Lake Malawi - fuelled by national pride more than anything else - became a lot more serious. Real money is at stake. Tanzania, naturally, wasn't too happy about this development, and made its displeasure clear. One senior official threatened military action if the problem was not resolved to his country's satisfaction.
This year, a series of high-level meetings between the Malawian and Tanzanian governments have attempted to reach some kind of mutually agreeable compromise. They failed. Last week, Malawi's President Joyce Banda declared the negotiations dead in the water (excuse the pun).
Said Banda: "When I was leaving the country for the UN, I thought the issue with Tanzania was sorted out and that we were going to pursue dialogue. However, in the period I have been away, Tanzania launched a new map (showing parts of Lake Malawi as belonging to Tanzania) We have been informed by Tanzania that our boats should stop sailing on the lake otherwise they will blaze them up." As a result of these alleged threats, Banda has cancelled a planned visit to Tanzania later this month.
Instead, she is going to take the matter up with the International Court of Justice. "The issue has gone too far and Malawi will seek international help to ensure that justice prevails," the president added. Tanzania too has indicated in the past it is happy to accept international arbitration, although on Saturday it specified that it would prefer mediation from a former African head of state. Both options seem like sensible - and peaceful - solutions, which is an encouraging sign. Also, the fact that both countries are willing to seek outside help indicates they both think they have a strong case.
Malawi's is simple. It will argue that the terms of the treaty are quite straightforward and leave no room for dispute. Further, it will point to the African Union's repeated commitment to colonial-era boundaries as proof of its borders' legitimacy. This commitment was even affirmed in the continental body's founding charter - of which Tanzania is a signatory.
Tanzania has a more complex case to make. From the government's statements on the issue we have a pretty good idea of what they will argue, however. First is the issue of international norms: where a lake divides two countries, it is customary for the border to pass in the middle of the lake (just look at a map of Africa to see the truth of this argument. Lake Malawi is clearly an aberration). Second, Tanzania deserves a share because Tanzania's rivers provide a large part of the lake's water. Third, the current borders are untenable because of the constantly-shifting tides. Because the border is along the shore, this means it too changes with the tides.
Given what is at stake, the decision has the potential to change the destiny of both countries - and of Lake Malawi itself. Whatever happens, one suspects that once the verdict is in, and the drilling commences, it won't be quite as tranquil as it was before.