Lake Malawi boundary should be handled with the seriousness it deserves

Some two weeks ago I wrote about the need for the Malawi government to be proactive and not just reactive on the Lake Malawi boundary wrangle with Tanzania.

This was after the Chief Secretary to Government George Mkondiwa had issued a circular to all principal secretaries and district commissioners informing them about a map the Tanzanian government had published showing that half of the eastern part of Lake Malawi belonged to it.

In the circular Mkondiwa advised all the addressees to ignore the map because it did not portray the official position of the boundary according to the Heligoland Treaty of 1891 which the colonial government signed.

Further to that, my good friends in government tried to put a spin to the whole issue by saying President Peter Mutharika will arrange a meeting with his Tanzanian counterpart John Magufuli at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to discuss the lake issue. Of course I was skeptical about the outcome of such a meeting at the UNGA. But I gave the President the benefit of doubt. This week, we were told the meeting with Magufuli has been deferred because the Tanzanian president was not at the UNGA as he has to deal with a more pressing and urgent matter at home. That issue turned out to be an earthquake which has claimed 19 lives and affected 200 more people in Kagera Region.

If truth be told, Malawi has lost more lives through road accidents during the past two weeks but they have not prevented our equally caring President from going to the UNGA. About 20 choir members died in a road accident near Mzuzu last week. But all that the President did—to the best of my knowledge—was to send a condolence message to the bereaved families. He didn’t cancel the UNGA meeting to attend to the catastrophe at home. Don’t tell me the two are different. Death is death whether by drowning, in a road accident or through being hit and buried with rubble from falling houses.

Strictly speaking, Magufuli did not go to the New York not because of the earthquake. That is just the good reason, if indeed that is what Malawi was told. There must be the real reason which I don’t even have to bother to state here.

As a matter of fact, I was surprised that the Mutharika and his advisers thought a meeting on the Lake Malawi boundary wrangle on the sidelines of the UNGA was the right thing to do. Granted, this was not going to be the first time that a Malawi leader would be meeting his Tanzanian counterpart on the Lake issue on the sidelines of another important meeting. Former president Joyce Banda her Tanzanian counterpart Jakaya Kikwete did just that in Maputo, Mozambique during the Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) meeting in 2013. But that was a fitting exercise considering that all that JB wanted to hear from him was really Kikwete was up to and that was all. But after so many meetings by senior Sadc mediators have taken place, the UNGA setting—hectic as such meetings are—was not going to be ideal between the two leaders who have never met before. Such meetings also require a lot of time and planning and briefing and debriefings and involve many officials from various sectors.

I did mention last time that since 2014 the DPP- led government has been in a power-drunken stupor on this all-important resource. What Malawi needs is to re-engage the Sadc leaders who have been handling the matter and hear from them regarding progress and what could be done about the issue. As some have rightly said if Mutharika attached so much importance to the lake issue, he should immediately have engaged Magufuli when the latter became president early this year.

After Malawi agreed to engage Sadc mediators, it only makes sense that this regional body should be allowed to take the matter to a logical conclusion—whether such conclusion will be favourable to Malawi or hit a dead end—and only then would it be logical for the government to take the issue to the International Court of Justice.

The Malawi government should not treat the lake issue like a by-the-way matter. It is a serious issue that needs lots of time and energy. n


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