Tanzania Daily News (Dar es Salaam)

25 December 2013

Tanzania: Malawi-Tanzania Border Dispute an Eye-Sore in 2013

Photo: IPS
Local communities bordering Lake Nyasa on the Malawi, Tanzania border.

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WHETHER we like it or not, we will soon, much sooner, in fact, pay our last respect to this odd thing called 2013.

To be frank, it has done more physical and mental harm than good to us mortals; for it cut short the life of the son of Africa, a freedom fighter, a winner and a true democrat who drew inspiration from almost all reputable leaders in the world, Nelson Mandela.

This 2013 monster did a lot of other social and financial damage to many a people in this country although it helped a few others like us to continue contributing to the survival of our families and very recently, it disgraced some high profile people leaving their families celebrating Christmas in sour moods.

On a larger scale, it was during the reign of this 2013 bully that our country nearly went to war with our neighbours in the south west. Actually, the 2013 guy simply opened up old wounds of a border dispute between Tanzania and Malawi because the dispute had briefly gone to sleep.

It is a long standing on and off issue. It is important to note that all the time, as it is this time, it is Malawi who are the provocateurs. Malawi has always claimed that the whole lake belongs to them, claims which are baseless much as they are outrageous as all world maps and the fact on the ground shows that the lake transcends the common border and each country has got an equal right to it.

First to make such outrageous claim was Malawi's first president, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who repeatedly in the 1960s and 1970s claimed 'full ownership' of the lake and at some stage even deployed military boats to patrol its waters' expanse, which was a pure act of provocation against Tanzania.

Kamuzu Banda did not in fact stop at the shores of the lake, but even claimed the border was about 40 kilometres beyond the lake shore inside Tanzania, saying that parts of Mbinga, Ludewa and Kyela districts belonged to Malawi. The claims fizzled out after Tanzania had deployed military units along the lake.

The fact, as we all know it and as the world knows it, is that Lake Nyasa, one of the largest lakes in the Great African Rift Valley area, is bordered by three African countries of Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. It is the third largest lake in Africa after Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika.

It even gave Malawi its pre-independence era name, Nyasaland. Located in the southwest of Tanzania, the lake is spread over an area of 11,400 square kilometres. The depth of the lake also reaches to 700 metres in certain places. Lake Nyasa has some special features, which make the lake very attractive. Fourteen rivers flow into this large lake, but only River Shire flows out from Lake Nyasa to the sea.

The source of the border dispute between the two nations has nothing to do with Malawi or Tanzania. It is purely one of those colonialists-made disputes. Malawi's argument is based on an agreement of 1890 between former colonial powers that stipulates the border between the two countries as lying along the Tanzanian shore of the lake.

On the other hand, Tanzania's argument is based 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. In perspective, Lake Malawi (Lake Nyasa or Lago Niassa in Mozambique), is an African Great Lake and the southernmost lake in the East African Rift system, located between Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.

The third largest and second deepest lake in Africa, it is also the ninth largest in the world. It is reportedly the habitat of more species of fish than any other body of freshwater, including more than 1000 species of cichlids and was officially declared a reserve by the Government of Mozambique on June 10, 2011.

Lake Malawi is a Meromictic lake; permanent stratification and the oxic-anoxic boundary are maintained by moderately small chemical and thermal gradients. Lake Malawi is between 560 kilometres (350 mi) and 580 kilometres (360 mi) long and about 75 kilometres (47 mi) wide at its widest point.

The total surface area of the lake is about 29,600 square kilometres (11,400 sq mi). The lake has shorelines on western Mozambique, eastern Malawi, and southern Tanzania. The largest river flowing into it is the Ruhuhu River and there is an outlet at its southern end, the Shire River, a tributary that flows into the very large Zambezi River in Mozambique.

The lake lies in a valley formed by the opening of the East African Rift, where the African tectonic plate is being split into two pieces. This is called a divergent plate tectonics boundary. It is variously estimated at about 40,000 years old or about one to two million years.

The lake is about 350 kilometres (220 mi) southeast of Lake Tanganyika, another of the great lakes of the East African Rift. The geographic name of the lake is disputed. Malawi claims that it is named 'Lake Malawi,' whereas other countries bordering on the lake, such as Mozambique and Tanzania, claim that the name is 'Lake Nyasa.'

The origin of the dispute over the name has its background in geopolitical disputes that began before the independence of Malawi was achieved in 1964, when the territory had been known as 'Nyasaland.' Further complications emerged for political reasons during the 1960s, when President Hastings Banda of Malawi became the only African leader to establish diplomatic relations with the white-ruled country of South Africa.

This recognition of the South African regime was fiercely repudiated by almost all other African leaders, including President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. This contrasting in policies toward South Africa gave some more impetus to disputes between Malawi and Tanzania, especially concerning the name of the lake itself -- the water boundary between the two countries.

The current wave of dispute can be sourced to to 2011, when Malawi awarded exploration licences to British-based Surestream Petroleum to search for oil in the lake. In 2012, Malawi's oil exploration initiative brought the issue to the fore, with Tanzania demanding that exploration cease until the dispute was settled.

It is believed that most of the oil wells are located on the Tanzania side of the lake. Tanzania's objection to the oil exploration by Malawi prompted a senior Malawian official, a principal secretary to saying that his country would not hesitate to use military force to defend 'their lake.'

In response East African Cooperation Minister and then Acting Prime Minister, Mr Samuel Sitta, warned that Tanzania would not hesitate to respond to any military provocation from our southwestern neighbours over their claims that Lake Nyasa, which they have preferred to call Lake Malawi belongs to them.

Further, Malawi has been on and off dispute negotiating table under former heads of state of SADC and other prominent people in the region. at one point, Malawi President Joyce Banda told mediators her government would not accept any interim deal on the disputed boundary with Tanzania until the wrangle over sovereignty was settled, adding that her government would not entertain any interim agreement on Tanzania usage of the lake until the issue was resolved.

President Kikwete in a speech to mark Tanzania's National Heroes day, remarked that "anyone who tries to provoke our country will face consequences ... Our country is safe and the army is strong and ready to defend our country," without directly mentioning the Malawi border dispute. "We will not allow anyone to mess with our country or try to take away our territory. We will deal with them just as we dealt with Amin," he added.

Tanzania has repeatedly assured their citizens to continue using the lake without any fear. The Minister for Foreign Relations and International Cooperation, Bernard Membe embarked on a long tour of villages along the lake to reassure them of peace. It was a year that gave some scare to the people living along the lake shore both in Malawi and Tanzania.

Let us hope the statement by Malawi Foreign Minister Ephraim Mganda Chiume that his country was determined to peacefully resolve the lake dispute currently raging with neighbouring Tanzania holds water. "We want this matter to be resolved diplomatically but with all the speed that it requires in order to avoid tension between the two very peaceful sister countries," he said. And this should be the spirit.

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