LAST week the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Bernard Membe with his Malawian counterpart Ephraim Chiume agreed to disagree over the disputed border crisis of Lake Nyasa.
While Tanzania maintains that the border in Lake Nyasa is based on International Customary Law that is, it should be the median line of the Lake Nyasa while Malawi categorically refutes to that and insists according to the Heligoland Treaty the border is in the shores of Lake Nyasa.
To agree to disagree is a diplomatic technical terminology, meaning having reached a deadlock and that is where we are right now. However, this follows a series of meetings between the two countries, trying to find a diplomatic solution over a long time border crisis which seems to occasionally erupt and get temporarily eased. This time around the crisis has to be solved amicably.
This week during the SADC second year Strategic Indicative Plan for Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation (SIPO11) in Arusha, President Jakaya Kikwete assured the press that Tanzania still has the capacity of solving this crisis before it can be forwarded to other forums.
The most threatening time was last August when the war of words between the two countries took a turn for the worse after the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Bernard Membe issued what appeared to be the official statement of the Tanzania government.
It followed the revival of a long time claim by Malawi that the border with this country in the Western side is the shores of Lake Nyasa that includes Mbamba Bay and other areas around the lake. In fact the former Malawian leader, Dr Hastings Banda once claimed Njombe, Songea and Mbeya to be part of Malawi!
It was a relief to peace loving people hearing from the Commander in Chief, Dr Jakaya Kikwete that Tanzania cannot go to war with her brothers in Malawi. According to the recent meeting between the two countries' ministers with their experts, it was recommended that for the conflict management and resolution, the matter should be referred to the African Forum of former Heads of states of South African Development Community (SADC) under the Chairmanship of the former Mozambican President Joachim Chisano.
But this is subject to approval by the two heads of states in which President Kikwete had already given his views. Originally it was supposed to be sent to SADC Tribunal based in Windhoek, Namibia, but since the Tribunal is under restructuring and not operational, it was decided not to delay the long awaited solution of this crisis.
The SADC Tribunal had its own problems as other SADC countries were not respecting the decisions made by this tribunal, cases like those filed by some white farmers of Zimbabwe on land protests. How about this African Forum of Former Heads of State of SADC; are they going to provide a solution to this long standing territorial dispute originating from the colonial past?
Originally the Malawian government had vowed to forward this crisis to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in Geneva should it fail to get diplomatic solution. However, Malawi is not a member of ICJ and also it requires the consent of both disputing countries to go for ICJ in order to facilitate the execution of the verdict.
Other members of the SADC former heads of state in the Forum include Dr Sam Nujoma of Namibia, Quett Masire and Feston Mughai of Botswana, Nelson Mandela and Tabu Mbeki, South Africa, Kenneth Kaunda and Phiri Banda of Zambia, Alli Hassan Mwinyi and Ben Mkapa from Tanzania and Bakili Muluzi of Malawi.
It is quite a crowd and I would not imagine all these would meet! Probably those with insurable interests may not be included in this Forum particularly those from Tanzania and Malawi. They are interested parties as their countries would be put on carpet. Countries like Namibia and Botswana had once a similar problem like this one in the same Heligoland Treaty that was signed on behalf of the South West Africa (Namibia) and in 1999 it was also the source of territorial dispute between two countries.
These countries almost went to war after the neighbouring countries had failed to find an amicable solution to the disputed island along the River Chobe. The dispute was referred to the ICJ where it was settled in favour of Botswana. However, the disputed island cannot be compared to that of Lake Nyasa where more than 600,000 inhabitants in the Tanzania side have stayed there for years with Lake Nyasa being everything to their lives.
The two countries, Botswana and Namibia who had a crisis over the Kasikili/Sidudu Island would refresh their minds in their similar case and we are not sure if their decisions would not be based on their immediate past experiences! Won't there be any preferential alignment within those former heads of state basing also on their historical liberation backgrounds in relation to geopolitics of the past?
Do we still remember the previous war in DRC which found SADC countries divided? This border crisis between Malawi and Tanzania is a long standing problem with complicities that came with different administrations from the colonial to the post independence era. Previously to Tanganyika, the boundary with Nyasaland was a matter of administrative convenience rather than political importance.
But it is evident, from the inconsistency of the maps used in both territories during the mandate, that there was, from the start, some confusion as to exactly where the border lay. I fully support President Kikwete's opinion that we still have the capacity of defusing this crisis on our own rather than complicating it further. Let us use all our diplomatic avenues that have the prospects of averting the crisis in the best interest of our countries on the spirit of give and take.