Global Policy Forum

Geopolitics, Energy and the Great African Lakes

Hydrocarbon exploration of the British Surestream Petroleum corporation in Laky Nyasa has flared up unresolved territorial disputes between Tanzania and Malawi. This has resulted in an escalation of diplomatic tension between the two countries. While Tanzania claims fifty percent of the lake, Malawi asserts full ownership of Lake Nyasa under the principles of the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty signed in 1890 between the colonial powers. Because of the strategic location of Lake Nyasa in East Africa, the dispute could have broader geopolitical consequences for the region as a whole, which has been labeled an emerging hydrocarbon frontier in Africa.

By Shaantanu Shankar

October 10, 2012

The Berlin Conference on Africa held in 1884-1885 exemplified European colonial ‘divide and rule’ policies implemented in the non-industrial world, dictating the political future of the African continent.  The conference, initiated by the German Chancellor Otto Bismarck and convened by Belgian King Leopold II, effectively cut the African continent into arbitrary pieces on the basis of colonial spheres of interest, allocating resources between the European powers.  The geopolitical impact of these colonial divisions as an indirect source for regional conflict has been evident in the continent’s post-independence phase.  Intrastate conflicts in Saharan Africa, the Congo Basin, the Gulf of Guinea and the African Great Lakes have been influenced by the entrenched colonial legacies left behind by the rule of the industrial powers.

Now in the 21st century, regional divisions and related territorial disputes have re-emerged as flashpoints of instability and conflict in the East African Great Lakes, albeit in a different manner.  An unresolved territorial dispute between Tanzania and Malawi regarding the border line along Lake Malawi/Nyasa has recently attained prominence as a regional issue due to the commencement of hydrocarbon exploration by British corporation Surestream Petroleum in blocks awarded in the disputed area by the Malawi government in September 2011.

Without sufficient indigenous capacity in terms of both technology and capital, the development of hydrocarbon industries has been subject to foreign investment not only in these East African nations, but across the continent as a whole.  Through participation in Malawi’s hydrocarbon sector, international oil and gas corporations, in this case Surestream Petroleum, have re-ignited sparks causing diplomatic uncertainty between the two nations in question.  The dispute over Lake Malawi/Nyasa could have broader geopolitical ramifications for the East African region, an emerging hydrocarbon frontier in Africa.

Lake Malawi/Nyasa is Africa’s third largest lake, with its Western and Southern shore lines in Malawi and Northern and Eastern shoreline across Tanzania and Mozambique.  The disputed waters lie north of the Mozambique-Tanzania borderline, between Malawi and Tanzania.  While Tanzania officially claims fifty per cent of the lake waters along the Tanzanian shoreline, Malawi vehemently opposes these claims, citing full ownership of the questioned waters under the principles of the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty signed between the United Kingdom and the German Empire, also known as the Anglo-German Agreement of 1890.

History of the dispute

Throughout its colonial history, Lake Malawi/Nyasa has represented a natural geographical boundary between different sovereigns. Up until World War I, the lake was shared between the British, German and Portuguese empires.  After World War I, the British took control of majority of the lake, with the Portuguese occupying the remaining south-eastern shoreline and adjacent waters.  The Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty of 1890 delineated the limits of the British and German spheres of influence in Nyasaland (now Malawi) and Tanganyika (now Tanzania) respectively.  However, both sides refer to different provisions of the same treaty to back their national claims over the lake waters.

According to the provisions laid down by the 1890 agreement, German influence extended from the northern limit of the Mozambique border (Portuguese colony), following the shoreline up till the mouth of the Songwe River to the north.  However the agreement did not officially limit German influence to the lake shore, indicated by the presence of German ports and the German administration of small lake islets in the eastern section of the lake.  Additionally, the agreement accounted for freedom of navigation, stating the waters to be free to the flags of Britain, Germany and Portugal.

In the post-World War I phase, the British Empire controlled both the Nyasaland and Tanganyika shoreline of the lake, administering the Lake from Nyasaland itself.  This has featured as another point supporting Malawi’s claims. Further strengthening this claim was the acceptance of colonial borders by African leaders at the time of independence with reference to Nyasaland’s administration of the lake.  However, in spite of historical evidence favouring Malawian claims, international conditions were significantly different during the colonial period, when only land borders held true strategic significance.  Water bodies were open to free navigation, facilitating the maritime trade that was critical to imperial strength of the colonial powers.  

In contemporary international relations, borders have attained greater significance as national boundaries and clear delineation of maritime territory has also become a prominent practice due to strategic importance of maritime space.  Taking this into account, a redrawing of the international border in Lake Malawi/Nyasa favouring both sides could emerge as a more ‘relevant’ outcome. 

Post-colonial emergence of the issue

Tanganyika’s attained independence in 1961, which was followed by its union with Zanzibar officially forming Tanzania in 1964.  In the same year, Malawi also attained independence with both nations accepting the pre-set colonial borders.  However, the lack of clarity in the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty relating to lake ownership provided potential scope for emergence of the lake boundary as an issue of contention for both nations.

At the time of Malawi’s independence, diplomatic relations with Tanzania were strained.  The ideological and political differences due to Malawi’s political affiliation with the apartheid regime in South Africa and alleged Tanzanian aid to Malawi exiles and opposition in Tanzania served as the catalysts in the emergence of the issue.  Malawi’s President at the time, Joyce Banda, perceived lake ownership as an issue of national security due to its potential as an infiltration route into the country.  Diplomatic tensions with Banda’s Tanzanian counterpart, Julius Nyere, further influenced Malawi’s assertiveness on the issue.

The Tanzanian government officially asserted its claim over lake ownership in 1967, stating that ‘fair’ and ‘just’ delineation of maritime space would be through the division of lake waters between the two nations along a ‘median’ line between eastern and western shorelines till the southern extent of the Tanzanian border.  The war of words that followed between the two leaders sparked fears of cross-border conflict.  However, relations between the two states improved in the aftermath of the 1968 Organization for African Unity (OAU) summit in Algeria, resulting in the temporary settlement of the dispute.  Both nations appeared content to sideline the issue.

Since 1968, other than an occasional flare-up, tensions did not escalate to a considerable level.  More than thirty years later in 2005, both nations finally agreed to form a committee to facilitate border negotiations with regards to lake ownership, but no definite consensus has been established since. 

Oil and the Great Lakes: re-emergence of the dispute

East African nations have carefully monitored Uganda’s developments around Lake Albert, where successful exploration efforts indicate exploitable oil reserves estimated at 2.5 million barrels.  Lake Malawi/Nyasa lies in the same Great Lakes system stretching along the African Rift Valley and the prospects of potential hydrocarbon discovery in the lakes waters has resulted in the re-emergence of the issue over ownership of the lakes waters.

The prospect of hydrocarbon wealth has created an optimistic mood around Malawi, an economy primarily dependent on small-scale agriculture and foreign aid.  The lake emerges as the only prospective hydrocarbon deposit in Malawi, further strengthening the nation’s firm position in the dispute. 

In September 2011, Malawi awarded Surestream Petroleum, a British corporation, licenses for oil and gas exploration in the eastern section of the lake resulting in the resurgence of the dispute.  The issue has resulted in an escalation of diplomatic tensions between the two states, especially since July 2012 when Tanzania demanded a halt in exploration activities until the dispute over lake ownership was settled.  Tanzania further published a new map showing the border in question passing through the median line of the lake.    

Since July, bilateral negotiations have not resulted in any sort of consensus, even with regards to arbitration.  Right wing forces in both nations have issued statements inherent with aggression.  In light of the recent events, there is clear indication towards Malawi’s intent of taking the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).  However, Tanzania continues to emphasize the need for a diplomatic solution to the dispute.

Energy geopolitics in East Africa

Initially, economic prospects of lake ownership were limited to fishing resources, limiting national assertiveness with regards to the issue.  Hydrocarbon presence has resulted in diplomatic fallout between the two nations, with greater possible regional ramifications.     

However, African analysts have suggested that in spite of an escalation in tensions, the dispute will be resolved peacefully and amicably.  Malawi and Tanzania are both stable African nations, with positive democratic credentials in the African continent and militarization of the conflict seems extremely improbable.

The presence of hydrocarbons in Lake Albert (Uganda) has also prompted efforts towards exploration in a number of other East African nations.  Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have stepped up exploration activity along the African Rift Valley in Lake Kivu, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Edward.  Though these nations have achieved consensus with regards to territorial limitations, they all share an extremely porous border with the insurgency-hit Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  Additionally, these nations, with the exception of Tanzania, have a history of animosity and conflict. 

Successful hydrocarbon exploration in the region could invigorate hyper-nationalist tendencies among sections of populations, resulting in cross-border conflict either between two states or between state and militant grouping.  The swift resolution of the Lake Malawi/Nyasa dispute gains greater significance due to its regional implications.


It can clearly be established that hydrocarbon prospects have resulted in the re-escalation of the dispute over ownership of Lake Malawi/Nyasa.  Both sides cite different provisions of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty to back their claims, but the influence of the agreement in future negotiations is questionable, especially considering the different geopolitical climate of contemporary East Africa. 

The issue did flare up in 1967 once again, but strained political relations proved to be the factor behind escalation of tensions around the Great Lake.  The essential difference in the recent resurgence of the dispute is that lake ownership itself has become the focal point of strained political relations, posing a serious challenge to negotiating a settlement.

The limited capacity of hydrocarbon industries in the East African states makes foreign investment a necessity for the overall development of related capabilities.  Foreign corporations, unlike national corporations, are neither attached nor sensitized to local issues and regional geopolitics. 

Analysts indicate that in spite of the escalation of tensions, both Malawi and Tanzania will be able to arrive at a diplomatically negotiated settlement over the question of lake ownership.  However, hydrocarbon investment could potentially result in conflict in other more sensitive East African maritime borders, such as Lake Albert, Lake Kivu or Lake Edward, all bordering the insurgent hit-Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Unchecked and unregulated foreign investment, as experience indicates, has had a detrimental impact on regional stability in a number of African states including Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Sudan.  Investment in the region could possibly be streamlined through a regional energy forum of sorts to limit its impact on inter-state relations and its influence in fuelling small-scale conflict.  

A regional mechanism to oversee investment and facilitate joint cooperation between East African nations could possibly serve to prevent escalation of tensions in the region.  The focus of this would have to be limited to a narrow mandate to ensure ‘non-confrontational’ foreign investment and to encourage local investment. 

East Africa is emerging as the next hydrocarbon frontier in Africa, and a majority of the nations are conducting extensive exploration-related operations.  Oil and natural gas resources, in a majority of the region, have not been commercially exploited.  The region encompasses some of the most sensitive ecosystems in the world and there is a need for a strong and thorough legal framework in order to avoid the infamous impacts of an ‘oil curse’ on society, economy, politics and inter-state relations.


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