MANY will remember the year 2012 as yet another point in time when the Lake Nyasa border dispute became a thorny issue. The historical mix-up on the legal border line had created panic and fear as dialogues between Tanzania and Malawi came to a deadlock.
The origin of the current crisis between Tanzania and Malawi is an agreement made between the British and the Germans on July 1, 1890. The agreement known as the Treaty of Heligoland (The Anglo-Germany Heligoland Treaty) was signed in Berlin, Germany, between the British and the Germans.
In the case of Lake Nyasa, the British and the Germans agreed that the border should be on Tanzania's shores and the whole lake was declared to be on Malawi's side. In the sixth section (Article VI) of the Convention, the colonists agreed to make border adjustments if necessary, depending on the circumstances and situation of the place.
From such a background, Malawi's argument is based on the 1890's agreement but Tanzania bases on the 1982 UN Convention on Law of the Sea that stipulates that in case nations are bordered by a water body (sea or lake), the border of the two nations will always be on the middle of the water body.
Several meetings between the ministers of foreign affairs of both countries and other representatives have been held in a quest to find a lasting solution amicably but every part stood firm to defend its position on the matter to the extent that the dialogues reached a deadlock.
However, it is important to note that a kind of Christmas and New Year gift was recently given to people of these two countries as leaders decided to move forward and in one voice forwarded the matter to external mediator bringing a new hope for a peaceful settlement of the matter in question.
It is a huge and commendable achievement made so far as some time in this year some people and mainly politicians tried to set an agenda that it was a time to teach Malawi a lesson through military action. Such reactions were mainly caused by the Malawian government's move to award licence to a British company, Surestream Petroleum, to search for oil in the whole of the lake.
The move to claim the exclusive ownership of the lake was translated by some politicians as an invention by a neighbouring country which deserved fierce reaction. Then the East African Cooperation Minister, Mr Samuel Sitta, who was Acting Prime Minister in the National Assembly warned that Tanzania would not hesitate to respond to any military provocation from southern neighbours over their claims that Lake Nyasa, which they have preferred to call Lake Malawi belongs to them.
However, wisdom was applied and Malawi was asked to revoke the oil search licence until the matter is dealt with and a lasting solution is found. The request was observed. President Jakaya Kikwete added his voice on the matter saying a diplomatic negotiation was the only way to go.
He urged the media and sections of politicians to avoid making inflammatory statements which might jeopardize talks which were underway between the two countries. "I would like to assure my fellow Tanzanians that we are not in any way in a state of war with Malawi... Get rid of fear of war and you should continue with all your activities in the development of your nation as you have always been doing," he said.
Such words of encouragement from commander-in-chief ended days of rumours of possibilities of war.
When President Kikwete met Malawian President Ms Joyce Banda in Maputo, Mozambique, he assured her that Tanzania had no plans to engage into war with Malawi. He said when Tanzania attained independence in 1961, the debate on the border on Tanganyika and Malawi was brought to Parliament, where it was argued that some effort should be made to establish and maintain dialogue to solve the border dispute for the benefit of all citizens who live along the lake.
According to the president, it was decided that Tanzania should wait until Malawi attains independence so that talks will be done between two independent countries.
"Unfortunately it was not that way and things turned out to be complicated and hostile. Three years after the independence of Malawi (1964), on January 3, 1967, the Government of Tanzania wrote a letter to the government of Malawi to explain the border issues and recommend our two countries should talk and come up with a solution," he said.
He said that fortunately on January 24, 1967, the Government of Malawi replied and acknowledged receiving the letter and promised that they would provide the answers in a short while.
However, he said on June 27, 1967, President Kamuzu Banda while addressing the National Assembly of Malawi, refused Tanzania's request, saying that Tanzania's claim was not genuine and that historically Songea, Njombe and Mbeya was part of Malawi, thus, negotiations came to a halt.
"Tanzania did not give up. When Bakili Muluzi was elected, new efforts were made but they did not pay off. On June 9, 2005, Malawi's third president, Bingu Wa Mutharika, who is now dead, wrote a letter to former Tanzanian president, Benjamin William Mkapa and advised him that our two countries should negotiate on the border of Lake Nyasa," the president said.
Reports have it that Joint Commission held several meetings in vain and the last one was held in November, this year where the two countries reached deadlock and decided to look for an external mediator to the matter.
The agreement has resulted into the recent move by Tanzania and Malawi to submit joint letters of application to the Chairperson of the Forum of Former African Heads of State and Governments, Mr Joaquim Chissano, requesting the Forum to mediate the dispute.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Bernard Membe, said that the move means that there will be no any other move to mediate the matter within the interested parties. "This submission of joint letters means that the chapter for internal mediation dialogues between the two countries is closed and all the hopes are now on the Forum to decide on the matter," he said.
He said that had there been any avenue to seek the solution to the row internally, that would be the way to go but internal avenues have been exhausted. Mr Chissano, who is also former President of Mozambique, received the letters from foreign affairs ministers of the two countries on behalf of presidents of these two countries in Maputo recently.
The African forum is made up of retired democraticallyelected presidents from Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries. Mr Membe who was accompanied by Attorney General, Judge Frederick Werema stressed that Tanzania was confident that the matter would be ruled in its favour.
"History speaks itself in such disputes. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has always ruled in favour of the median line border, as guided by the Customary International Law which states that when water bodies lie between two or three countries, the median line forms the boundary," he said.
He also said Tanzania has a firm trust in the SADC, adding: "We are not worried at all. Even Mr Chissano himself comes from a country which had a similar problem, but was solved amicably in 1953". Malawi was represented by its Foreign Minister Ephraim Chiume and its Attorney General, Judge Anthony Kamanga.
Receiving the applications, Mr Chissano said he was humbled by the trust the two countries have put in the forum, and that he would make sure a solution would be worked out. "We (the forum) have happily accepted the task. We know that it is not easy but we will make sure we find a solution," he said.
He added that members of the forum will meet after the holidays to determine the date to start discussing the matter. "We will be guided by the interests of both countries when seeking a lasting solution to the dispute," he said. Mr Membe and Chiume thanked Mr Chissano for receiving the applications, reaffirming their confidence in the forum to come up with a permanent solution.
So as the 2012 days are numbered, we the citizens of Tanzania and Malawi cross into 2013 with hopes of better days. It should be the year of peaceful settlement of the matter.