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Who Owns Lake Nyasa?

Oil exploration in Lake Nyasa has rekindled disputes between Malawi and Tanzania over who owns the lake.
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Lake Nyasa. Photograph by Karim Logue.

President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania has insisted that war with Malawi is not a feasible outcome of ongoing disputes between the two countries over the ownership of the lake which borders the two countries.

Lake Nyasa, known as Lake Malawi by Malawians, has been the source of disagreements since colonial times, which were rekindled recently when Malawi allowed gas and oil exploration to begin around the lake’s border. Rhetoric has escalated over the past few months although it seems both sides are now attempting to calm tensions.

A history of disputes

Located at the junction of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, Lake Nyasa – the eighth largest in the world – contains an estimated 168,000 tonnes of fish of nearly 1000 species, and is able to provide sustenance for nearly 600,000 people.

In the early 1960s, Malawi’s first president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, claimed that Lake Nyasa was part of Malawi referring to 1890 Heligoland Agreement between Britain and Germany which stipulated that the border between the countries lay along the Tanzanian side of the lake. This treaty was reaffirmed at the 1963 Organisation of African Unity summit where it was accepted reluctantly by Tanzania although disputes reignited in 1967-8.

Malawi also alleges that the 2002 and 2007 African Union resolutions upheld the colonial agreement because of the emphasis on member states upholding the borders inherited upon independence.

Some, however, argue that it is necessary to correct the errors of the colonial powers, and Tanzania has sought recourse to international law, which indicates that borders are generally in the middle of a body of water, claiming Tanzania should therefore own half the lake.

Oil and the re-emergence of the issue

The resurgence of the dispute began in October when Malawi’s former president, Bingu wa Mutharika, awarded a contract to British Surestream Petroleum to start gas and oil exploration on the eastern part of the lake. Since then, a number of disagreements over the use of the lake have arisen.

At the close of July, Tanzania announced plans to purchase a new $9 million ferry to cross Lake Nyasa’s waters. Malawi’s Ministry of Lands responded by claiming that Tanzania has no legal right to start operating on Lake Malawi since the ownership and border dispute remains unresolved.

For their part, Tanzanian authorities argued that Malawian fishing and tourist boats were encroaching on Tanzania’s waters. Hilda Ngoye, MP for the Mbeya region, alleged that Malawi has been conducting tourism activities beyond its territorial waters, escalating tension further.

Earlier this month, a two-day meeting was held with the aim of reviving stalled negotiations on the delineation of the lake’s boundaries. Tanzania’s Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister, Bernard Membe, requested that the exploration activities be shelved until discussions had been fully resolved, saying “any exploration or research activities for oil and gas prospects must stop forthwith as their presence was likely to jeopardise the ongoing negotiations and pose a security threat".

Tanzania’s Attorney General, Frederick Werema, has added that Tanzania will seek international intervention if diplomatic negotiations do not produce results.

Malawi’s Minister of Energy and Mining, Cassim Chilumpha, has, however, countered that Malawi is justified to start exploration since the lake lies within the borders stipulated by the Heligoland treaty.

Overblown fears?

Amidst these legal claims and disagreements, some representatives have also sought recourse to more potentially inflammatory language. Edward Lowassa, Chair of Tanzania’s Parliamentary Committee for Defence, Security and Foreign Affairs, for example told reporters that the country is ready to wage war against Malawi if necessary.

“We expect this conflict will be solved diplomatically… Malawi is our neighbour and therefore we would not like to go into war with it”, he said, continuing, “however, if it reaches the war stage then we are ready to sacrifice our people’s blood and our military forces are committed in equipment and psychologically.”

Both countries have increasingly backed away from such harsh statements, however, and Malawi’s Minister of Home Affairs and Internal Security, Uladi Mussa, told a local radio that Malawians have nothing to fear, reassuring listeners that “issues of boundaries between Malawi and Tanzania are amicably being resolved”.

Malawi’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ephraim Mganda Chiume, also played down the conflict, calling it simply a misinterpretation. “As Malawi we are not calling it a conflict or dispute rather a misunderstanding and at this point we are going to sort it out ourselves without the inventions of other bodies.”

Drawing a line under the dispute

According to Simburashe Mungoshi, a historian and political analyst with the University of Malawi, the dispute can be resolved only if the two countries take a leaf from how their colonisers Britain and Germany dealt with the boundary issue.

“When these boundaries were agreed upon by the British and Germans it was a give and take game” he explained to Think Africa Press. “The British had to give up claims in some territories in the Tanganyika area. Needless to say the Germans also had to give up [some claims]. If Tanzania wants a change in boundaries, it would be a give and take. Malawi is a land-locked country; we need access to the sea. Maybe they could give us an equivalent piece of land to take us to the sea.”

As discussions continue, however, life goes on, and Tanzanians and Malawians continue to cross the border, selling and buying products that will ensure their livelihoods.

Kyela District Commissioner Margaret Ester Malenga has emphasised the atmosphere of mutual dependence between citizens of the two countries, something she believes war would ruin.

Representatives of the two countries are currently engaging in discussions in Mzuzu, Malawi, as part of a five-day summit ending on August 25 to resolve the border issue once and for all.

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I think the Tanzanians are just being slefish over the issue of Lake Malawi. It is interesting that after the threats of war from hastings kamuzu banda and during the presidency of bakili muluzi and bingu wa mutharika, the Tanzanians did not want to take an offensive approach. One would, therefore ask whether they are just taking advantage of malawi having a female president or they are being influenced by a third party. another country outside africa thats wants a stake in the resources of lake malawi. i must also say that the word nyasa comes from the yao language to mean nyanja which is lake in english. when dr david livingstone came to nyasaland (present day Malawi) he asked the people of mangochi the name of the lake and they answered him  nyanja, nyasa and he named the lake , Lake Nyasa and the land of the lake Nyasaland. In essence if you say Lake Nyasa you mean Lake Malawi. they are one and the same. Unless there is an international resolution on the issue, Malawians will not give an inch of that Lake. as far as Malawi is concerned Lake Malawi belong to Malawi and Malawians. 

The African countries needs to be very careful. They are poor and every day ask loan from western states, which the repayment is very dificult because of rate of interest attached to those loans. it is time we must think how to achieve development and forget thinking of resolving bourder conflicts which rooted from colonialism. when dealing with African borders, it is important to note that they were drawn according to the interest of those colonial rules. Even if we say we can solve the conflict through those international Institutions like International Court of Justice (ICJ), then we need to ask who control such institution and do we think that western states are ready for African to develop?. what are know and this is my opinion, to be able to continue to exploit the African resources, most of developed countries will wish to see African remain poor, remain with endless conflicts among themselves either between one country and another or internally conflict.It is not the time after African countries achieved their political independent from colonial government to start confliting themselve but I think it is the time to share thoughts how the so called Poverty in Africa can be eradicated. Let us not blame developed countries that they made african continent to remain poor forever, we blessed with resources but what is need is how should we utilised such resources to benefit our people. Think of the Nyasa lake conflict, do you think that those who want to invest there will be ready for Tanzania and Malawi government to settle amicably the conflict or they wish the two countries to enter into war in order to use the same loophole to exploit the resources unfairly?For me the conflict should not make either Tanzania or Malawi opt for selfishness idea opting for war. Remember these two countries if they enter into war negative impact may be high compare to benefit. African People should be hunger of development. 

Tanzania and Malawi are neighbouring countries it will be too bad for the two countries to go into war. Let this issue be solved in adiplomatic way as civilized people without involving bloodshed. By the sharing is a best way just try to ask your a person taking a whole thing and another person wants to share between the two who is selfish don't let that oil found on the lake drive you crazy Malawians and don't say that Tanzanian are taking advantage of Malawians just because you have a female president that shows that you don't believe your president then why did you vote for her to be a president. People leave the diplomats to take and settle the dispute no one to blame know this problem because of the former leaders they never solved the issue when it was necessary. Lake Nyasa/Malawi is own by half Malawi and half Tanzania and it will remain as that forever and both countries are friend you people stop feeding others hatrage which is unnecessary. Malawians and Tanzanians love each other and do business together or don't you know that Malawi uses Tanzanian ports to import their goods put your hatrage aside. GOD Bless Malawi and Tanzania. NO WAR

The border between Malawi na Tanganyika (today Tanzania) was made accordingly to the British and Germans interests we all know that. So to lets stick to the new international law which allows two countries separated by lake to divide it into halves. Same as Tanganyika (todayTanzania) and Democratic Republic of Congo did it over lake Tanganyika. Same as Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda did it over lake Victoria, same as you Malawians did it with Mozambique over lake Malawi, so why can't you do the same thing with Tanzania?!!!!!! And one of the commentors said the name of lake is called lake malawi so it belongs to Malawi, that is the most ignorant thing I have heard so far about this matter. If it was about the name of the lake then lake tanganyika should 100% belong to Tanganyika then. I think Malawi should follow the new international law not the heligoland treaty 1890 because in heligoland treaty 1980 there some things have been corrected by new international law. Otherwise if Malawi can't accepted international law then Tanzania has no choice than to enter the war with Malawi.  

 As aim trying to see its hardly to believe that neither of the party will accept to loose anything in this case AS Malawian strongly hold their stand on the lake as owner by 100% the truth is very open that the 1890 treaty between the germany and British did not consider any of the MONKEYS sorounding the  LAKE as commonly whites called blacks it was for their benefit by 100% and that is where the misunderstanding started as the new nations were born and ruled by MONKEY while HUMANS are gone as whites called them selves