Malawi is locked in a border wrangle with Tanzania over Lake Malawi, with Tanzania claiming that the northern half of the lake belongs to it. The wrangle goes far back to the 1960s during former president Hastings Kamuzu Bandaâ€™s time and it has resurfaced with each new regime. This time, it has been triggered by oil exploration on the lake. Mwereti Kanjo talks to historian Desmond Dudwa Phiri on the history of the lake:
Q: Over the years, what circumstances have sparked disputes over the lake?
A: The wrangle started in about 1967. At that time, ministers in Dr Bandaâ€™s Cabinet had rebelled. There was what we called a Cabinet Crisis and they fled to Tanzania, Zambia and so forth. Those who had fled to Tanzania were said to be organising groups of invaders to come to Malawi and try to overthrow the government. Dr Banda ordered that the Ship Ilala should stop calling on ports harbouring Tanzania because these rebels would embark on it and come this side. By declaring that, it meant Tanzanians were deprived of the services of the ship. So, at that stage, I do not know how it was said, but Tanzania claimed that part of the lake and declared that they would put their own ship. Banda said no and that the lake was not theirs.
He sent an armed boat, provided by South Africa I think, to go and patrol the Tanzanian side of the lake. There was a lot of bad feeling, but somehow it died. President [Julius] Nyerere was a historian and he knew that Lake Malawi, or what they call Lake Nyasa that side, belongs to Malawi because of historical reasons. Soon after that, Nyerere and Banda used to meet in Commonwealth gatherings and they would shake hands. In fact, he [Nyerere] died in the 1970s and his successor visited Malawi.
Now, it has resurfaced with this new leadership. The main reason is oil. A lot of oil is being discovered under water. I understand in East Africaâ€”Kenya, Uganda and Tanzaniaâ€”all have oil wells. They believe that Lake Malawi has oil. Malawi has had a company from elsewhere to explore the lake and this angered Tanzania, forcing them to claim that the part of the lake is theirs.
Q: But this is not the first time that the issue has resurfaced. It was there in the last two regimes. Why?
A: Unfortunately, they did not take us much into confidence then. The Bingu era is more recent. I understand the Tanzanians were saying we must divide the lake in the middle and our response was no. During this period, the discussions were friendlier. It is only now that there is a mention of war.
Q: Some commentators have advised Malawi to report the issue to international bodies should it get out of hand. Is this ideal?
A: Well that is the ideal thing. This dispute is not isolated in Africa. There was a dispute between Botswana and Namibia over an island, there was another between Nigeria and Cameroon over an island as well and there was also another dispute between Chad and Libya. These were taken to court and settled there. The international court is the only peaceful way of settling this. The Tanzanians seem to be more aware that they cannot win, so they want to force us to surrender it. That is why they were talking of attacks.
Q: There is the Helgoland Treaty that was signed. How does it apply to the lake?
A: The Helgoland is an island near Denmark and Germany. During the Napoleonic War, Britain ceased that land. Germany wanted that island because it is very strategic so they were swapping. So, here in eastern and central Africa when the Germans took over Tanganyika, they also claimed Zanzibar, but the British said they had been there before them, so they claimed it. Coming to the lake, Dr David Livingstone had been sailing, the Germans were new-comers and the British claimed the lake, so the Germans asked for Helgoland in exchange for the lake and Zanzibar. In 1890, Britain surrendered Helgoland and took over the northern part of the lake and Zanzibar.
Sir Harry Johnstone, who made treaties with chiefs starting with the Makorolo and Mangâ€™anja chief in the Lower Shire and the Yao in Mangochi, Chewa in Nkhotakota and the Tonga, went as far as Lake Lukwa and made treaties.
That part should have been part of Nyasaland but it was all taken into account when the Germans were surrendering the northern part of the lake. By surrendering the northern part of the lake, they made the whole lake part of Malawi except the south eastern part near Likoma Island which belongs to Mozambique. The rest was Nyasaland protectorate. That is why only Malawi has a ship on the lake because it belongs to Malawi.
The treaty is still valid today. Boundaries of a country stand for as long as they wish it.
Q: What do you think would be a lasting solution to this dispute?
A: It is difficult to say because the Tanzanians do not like the treaty. They insist on having the lake partitioned and this is something Malawians cannot accept. Would they themselves want their land partitioned? No, it is part of our heritage. We see no reason why we should forfeit our land. They do not need it as much as we do.
Tanzania is 10 times Malawi. History will show that border disputes are very dangerous. Countries have gone to war because of this. Tanzania fought with Uganda over the border. Idi Amini was a mad man and he annexed that. Tanzania invaded Uganda and there were a lot of refugees.
The Organisation of African Unity once said that boundaries made by colonial powers must remain. Malawi is among the main sufferers because Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique are all sizes bigger than Malawi.
Q: Any last comments?
A: I am hoping that the international community will intervene before the worst comes about.