Global Policy Forum

Who Owns Lake Nyasa?

Disputes between Malawi and Tanzania over the ownership of Lake Nyasa, which borders the two countries, were rekindled recently when Malawi awarded a contract to British Surestream Petroleum to start gas and oil exploration on the eastern part of the lake. The 1890 Heligoland Agreement between colonial Britain and Germany defined that the border of Lake Nyasa lies along the Tanzanian side of the lake. This was reasserted at the 1963 Organisation of African Unity summit. International law, however, designates that borders are generally in the middle of a body of water, implying half of the lake belongs to Tanzania. Explorations for oil and gas are likely to endanger the current negotiations between the two countries to resolve the border issue and even pose a security threat.

By Courtney Meyer

August 21, 2012

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.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.