The wrangle that has erupted between Malawi and Tanzania over the control of Lake Malawi is a tricky issue which, if wrongly handled, can be a recipe for trouble. In this interview, Ephraim Nyondo engaged historian DD Phiri to give a historical aspect of the wrangle to help Malawians and their government to make informed decisions.
We know the wrangle over Lake Malawi between Malawi and Tanzania is historical. Whatâ€™s new today?
The first time we experienced it was way back in 1965. It was after some Cabinet ministers went to Tanzania. They wanted to cross the border to Malawi and initiate a revolution. Dr Kamuzu Banda imposed that Ilala should not stop at Tanzania ports for fear of being used by the dissidents. A wrangle resulted. The Tanzanians resented because Ilala served both countries. Dr Banda, in retaliation, fumed that â€˜the lake does not belong to youâ€™. Of course, after that, there have been wrangles and discussions over years. But all of them were minor. They havenâ€™t been as serious as it is the case today.
Then why do you think the wrangle has turned out this tense today?
In one way, I am very sorry because Tanzanians are my good fellows. I lived there for 12 years and worked there for a company and government. They are very good people. But I am very sorry to say that Tanzanians are deliberately provoking us.
You are asking why? Donâ€™t you see that they are demanding our lake? They want part of our lake to belong to them. Thatâ€™s a provocation!
But why, after all these years, are they provoking us now?
I have a reason, or call it a guess. It has to do with oil discoveries.Â There is a lot of oil exploration in East Africa now. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, too; all of them have discovered oil. They are very busy exploring and discovering oil. They have heard that Malawi has employed the Chinese to explore oil on Lake Malawi. Now you know the Tanzanians coming! They know that the oil will be exclusively ours even if it is discovered near their shores.
So, the oil thing is the main thing here. I once wrote in The Nation that I pray God that oil should not be discovered on Lake Malawi. The reason is that, once discovered, all our neighbours will be on us.
They have been quiet all the time because they know the colonial governments gave Lake Malawi to the British. This they know. Mozambique was given a small portion near Likoma Island. Tanzania was given none.
So, it is the oil thing which has motivated Tanzania. In fact, their Foreign Minister was heard ordering us â€˜stop oil exploration!â€™ on our lake as if they are ordering a child. The lake is ours by the agreement involving three nations, namely; Portugal, Britain and Germany way back in 1890.
On August 20, a dialogue meeting has been slated in Mzuzu to try to resolve the wrangle amicably. Do you think Malawi has enough ground to own the lake?
It has enough [ground]! The boundaries between countries in Africa were made by colonialists. In 1963, when they formed the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)â€”the later day African Unionâ€”they passed a resolution that colonial demarcations should not be disturbed. They should remain intact. The reason was that if we should started claiming each otherâ€™s land, Africa would be at war. There should be no claim on each otherâ€™s land!
But Dr Phiri, Malawi is currently involved in border demarcation exercise with its neighbours. The principle behind it is that some colonial borders are faulty. Canâ€™t Tanzania use this principle to advance its claim?
No! Those are being made because of slight mistakes made. Those are very minor ones which are respected on both sides. One village there may belong to Malawi and another there may belong to Zambia and so on. They are very small demarcations. They donâ€™t involve big issues like: because in Lundazi District, Zambia, people speak Chitumbuka then Lundazi should go to Malawi. No!
What do you think is the basis of the Tanzaniansâ€™ claim on the lake?
They want Lake Malawi to be split into half like Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. The two lakes are shared by all the countries that border it. I also understand that there is an international law that says that inland water bodies need to be shared by bordering countries. How?
Somebody told meâ€”and this is a person who served in Bingu wa Mutharikaâ€™s government, as such, it is recentâ€”that this wrangle erupted between the two governments. The Malawi Government said letâ€™s take the matter to the International Court, but the Tanzanians said â€˜no, no, no, letâ€™s just agree between ourselvesâ€™ because they knew they would lose. The agreement was made between three governments [Britain, Portugal and Germany] and the OAU said we should not question the agreement.
What would be your advice to our government then?
The Tanzanians are too powerful for us. Even if they were not to use the army, they can just close the Dar-es-salaam port for us and we are finished. We get a lot of imports from Dar-es-salaam.
Now they are talking of using the army, we should not try to fight back. They are too big for us. What we can do is that we should not surrender our lake but complain to the international community e.g. African Union and the UN.
We should tell them that the Tanzanians are seizing land from us but here are the documents and the evidence is very clear. Throughout the colonial days, there was only one ship called Von Wissman on Lake Malawi because the lake was exclusively ours.