by Harvey C.C. Banda
On Malawi's international political front, the Malawi-Tanzania border dispute continues to rock the country. This wrangle is a security issue and is causing high levels of (human) insecurity to Malawians along the border, especially in Karonga and Chitipa districts. In this article I will reflect on the course that the dispute has taken and draw lessons from it as part of the way forward.
Both sides (Malawi and Tanzania) have been to blame, as it were, in one way or another, over the course of the dispute. On the genesis of the role of the former country, it is alleged that the Minister of Energy and Mining (of Malawi) did not properly and thoroughly inform the Tanzanian Government about the intended (not on-going) oil exploration on Lake Malawi. In the absence of this happening, it should not have been a surprise to see the Tanzanian Government getting alarmed. This was, indeed, cause for worry since the Tanzanians along the lakeshore depend on the same water for subsistence. Environmental impact assessment, too, ought to have been carefully discussed by the two countries because, surely, there are genuine concerns about the issue of water pollution – about the risk that oil 'tapping', for instance, would pose to the many fish species.
Nonetheless, there was over-reaction on the Tanzanian side when the government declared that part of Lake Malawi was actually theirs. Historically, Malawi maintains that it owns the entire lake based on the Anglo-German (Heligoland) Treaty of 1890. Malawi’s position is strengthened by the OAU (now AU) declaration at its inception that borders demarcated by colonial governments should remain as such to avoid disputes (like the one at hand). On the other hand, Tanzania argues that it owns half of the lake because common international law stipulates that water bodies separating countries must be shared equally. In October 2012, Tanzania heightened tensions when it released a new map that showed part of the lake belonging to Dodoma (part of Tanzania).
It is fascinating to realise that the two countries have historically 'co-existed' largely based on or in line with the old border agreements of their former colonial masters. Probably that is why this issue has raised so many questions (without answers) amongst Malawians. Going by popular opinion, for example, from the survey I conducted in Mzuzu City in northern Malawi, the conviction held by a cross-section of Malawians is that the Tanzanian Government is driven by greed: If Lake Malawi belonged to Tanzania, why did they not claim it long ago? Is it because of the prospects for oil (petroleum) on Lake Malawi? Why the sudden change in seriousness on the part of Tanzania? Why should a lake of another country be named another country’s name? If the lake belonged to Tanzania, it should have been given, say, a Swahili (Tanzanian) name. In short, the emerging and dominant view in Malawi is that the border dispute started mainly following the Tanzanians’ wish to be recognized as co-owners of the lake. However, the economic opportunities that the lake possesses have intensified the wrangle.
So far, several bilateral efforts have been made by representatives of the two governments through various fora both in Malawi and in Tanzania to settle the matter diplomatically. In fact, I personally feel ‘grounded’ (genuine) diplomacy is the only sure way out of this wrangle. However, limited progress has been made to date. In December 2012, both countries sought the intervention of the Africa Forum for Former Heads of State and Government, whose chairperson is the former President of Mozambique, Joachim Chisano.
Currently (early April 2013), the Malawi Government is seriously contemplating of taking the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to resolve the matter. This move confirms the view that limited progress has so far been made. This is baffling, to say the least. One would expect that in the twenty-first century with so many vivid lessons from what countries have experienced in the past as a result of lack of diplomacy (largely driven by impudence; greed; parochialism; etc), sobriety on the part of the two countries would have allowed diplomacy to take its course.
On the role played by the Malawi Government, there is a general feeling among the people that the stand taken by their government is rather lukewarm: that it lacks a ‘robust’ stance on the issue. There has been no clear-cut response by the government, for example, on the alleged harassment of Malawians living along the border by the Tanzanian authorities. In addition, while dialogue is of paramount importance in the wrangle, it is thought that the Malawi Government, through the same dialogue, ought to make its position very clear to the Tanzanian Government – that the border issue is not ‘a negotiated zone’.
What are some of the lessons to be learnt from this wrangle? Firstly, this is the age of diplomacy and it is only diplomacy which can bring the issue at hand to a conclusive end. So far, the matter is getting out of control day by day because ‘grounded diplomacy’ has been ‘thrown to the dogs’. Secondly, there is a need on the part of both countries to respect borders, as declared by the OAU (now AU) at its inception. Thirdly, there is need to recognise standing historical treaties, for example, the Heligoland Treaty, in order to ensure what one might call ‘peaceful co-existence in our time’. While salvation is by grace, peaceful co-existence is through sobriety!