President Lazarus Chakwera’s election as the Sadc incoming chairperson has hyped expectations from international relations experts to put the country’s lake ownership wrangle with Tanzania as a top priority on his international affairs agenda.
The expectations come at the back of continued indecisiveness hanging around the issue with international organisations—expected key stakeholders—remaining mute on their positions despite government lodging the complaint with them.
Again, almost three years have elapsed since the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) High-Level Mediation Team, led by former Mozambican President Joacquim Chissano, met to discuss the issue whose resolutions remain classified.
The mediation team—whose other members include former South Africa and Botswana presidents Thabo Mbeki and Festus Mogae respectively—was expected to brief former president Peter Mutharika on their resolutions in 2018 but failed to do so and did not provide reasons for that.
All five international relations experts and political scientists we talked to agreed that as chairperson of the regional grouping, Chakwera should have an interest to bring an end to the wrangle after a disappointing stance by his predecessor.
International relations expert Ron Nkomba said he expected Chakwera to place the lake ownership wrangle as top priority on his regional and international affairs agenda.
The retired ambassador said Chakwera must not wait until he formally assumes the Sadc chairmanship but deal with the issue urgently.
“Chakwera should take off from where former president Joyce Banda left. In her short two-year reign, Banda conducted undoubtedly the widest consultative campaign on this subject.
“Specifically, I would implore appropriate authorities to advise Chakwera to utilise the diplomatic skills of Banda. She could be appointed as ambassador-at-large or special envoy to prepare, initially, for bilateral talks between Chakwera and Tanzanian President John Magufuli,” said ambassador Nkomba.
He observed Banda could as well effectively touch base with former presidents Chissano and Mbeki and appeal to them to swiftly move their unfinished mission in resolving the long-standing and frustrating bilateral quarrel.
Peace and security studies expert Master Dicks Mfune from Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima), said he also expected Chakwera to provide consultative leadership and take advantage of his position for a contact and dialogue policy.
“The matter has taken long and it requires more time. But it is an issue he has to prioritise to sustain peace and security as it is a threat to human security not only in Malawi and Tanzania but the whole region,” he said.
Fresh dialogue with Magufuli
Mfune suggested Chakwera should enter into fresh dialogue with Magufuli on settling the matter once and for all.
However, he said Chakwera needed to practice a ‘do-no-harm policy’ by not taking a hard stand on the dispute while at the same time maintaining the country’s ideal situation.
“Chakwera should find a fallback position where Malawi and Tanzania share common interests in order to discuss more about their ideal situations.
“Tanzania easily accesses the resource on Lake Malawi and uses it for a number of developmental activities such as fishing, trade and access to water. It has vessels plying on the lake and do go as far as Monkey Bay in Malawi for their maintenances.
“So if he takes the hard stand the standoff shall be prolonged. We need to finish off this issue because leaving it in suspense is detrimental,” said Mfune, who is a global peace ambassador and also heads the Centre for Peace Building and Conflict Management at Chancellor College.
Livingstonia University political scientist George Phiri also said he anticipated the President to end the dispute by establishing whether the dispute really exists or it is just political talk.
“Then he needs to utilise diplomatic relations after constituting a team of skilled negotiators comprising lawyers, historians and social scientists for negotiations. The negotiating team must objectively investigate Tanzania’s interests and intentions,” he said.
On his part, social and governance commentator Desire Zimba said the Sadc chairmanship will give Chakwera the opportunity and leverage to engage in substantial dialogue with his Tanzanian counterpart.
“Although the position cannot give him influence to resolve the issue in favour of Malawi just because he is the chairperson … but with political will, he can successfully engage and negotiate with Tanzania to end the dispute without necessarily using his influence or violating the rules as Sadc chairperson.”
No change in stance
But Minister of Information Gospel Kazako said government was currently in mediation with Tanzania to amicably resolve the issue while waiting for further direction from the Chissano-led mediation team.
He said in an interview: “However, there have been several factors such as elections, Covid-19… that might have hindered the progress of the negotiations.”
Kazako said although the boundary dispute mediation was a diplomatic process involving contact and dialogue between the two countries, government’s position remains that “the entire Lake Malawi is ours.”
The minister said in view of the current circumstances it was an opportunity for the mediation team to brief Chakwera because his government and all Malawians were eager to hear the logical conclusion of the matter which was already settled by the Anglo Heligoland Treaty.
Tanzania is claiming half of the eastern part of Lake Malawi, Africa’s third largest freshwater lake and has insisted it wants a share of the oil resources in the lake they call Lake Nyasa.
The lake border wrangle between the two countries was revived in 2012 after the Malawi Government gave Surestream and Hamra Oil Company licences to explore the possibility of drilling oil and gas on the lake, a development that infuriated Tanzania.
The then president Joyce Banda put the matter high on her political agenda but Mutharika adopted a ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ stance on the issue during his six years in power. Just like Banda in 2013, Mutharika also held the position of Sadc chairperson in 2014 but failed to use the position to influence solid talks and indeed an end to the dispute.