For many of us who trace our ancestral roots to Malindi or other villages that dot our beautiful lake, Lake Malawi represents much more than a quick weekend destination for that lovely get away with the MG1 or MG2, as the case may be. The lake represents a spiritual home, a connection to this beautiful land that carries more meaning than the boxes we have built in Ntandile, Ntopwa or Namiwawa.
Yet, the lake belongs not only to the Malindi few. It belongs to us all. It is our national treasure and our birthright. It contains a huge abundance of resources both of the edible type as well as the aesthetic variety. Its importance will only increase as climate change wreaks havoc against the agricultural and subsistence livelihoods we have cherished for so long. In a few short years, just how important this resource is to the life of this nation will become clear .It is therefore essential that the lake is protected from environmental degradation and similar threats so that future generations can enjoy the benefits that we currently enjoy. It is only right that decisions relating to how we utilise the lake are transparent and subject to public scrutiny.
The planned Salima-Lilongwe water project is an example of how not to utilise the lake. The lack of an open tender process and public consultation coupled with the deliberate disregard of environmental impact assessment jeopardises this resource. The statement by Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe that the process will be restarted is a good starting point but it is crucial that officials responsible for circumventing public procurement and environmental rules will be made accountable. Our prosecutorial agencies, including the ACB, need to scrutinise the project so far to determine if any offences have been committed. Such a step would ensure that such mischief does not happen again.
However, it is not only improperly conceived developments that threaten our lake. Since independence, our ownership of the lake has faced persistent threats from successive governments of the Republic of Tanzania. Through official pronouncements and fake cartography, Tanzania has peddled the legally unfounded claim that it is entitled to some part of the lake or the resources therein. Most recently, in April, Tanzania’s High Commissioner to Malawi, Victoria Mwakasege briefed Malawian media on Tanzania’s alleged entitlement to the lake and its resources. This followed a statement by her Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augustine Mahinga in February where he too claimed that part of Lake Malawi belongs to Tanzania.
These statements by state officials serving in important capacities are not the chance pronouncements of errant officers but rather an official campaign designed to change the facts on the ground in preparation for the inevitable legal resolution of this dispute. One does not have to search long and hard to find examples in international relations where countries have sought to change the facts on the ground to thwart a legal resolution not in their favour: just look at China’s actions in the South China Sea or Russia’s activities in Crimea.
Our government’s approach since Tanzania started making these claims in the 1960s has been too diplomatic at best and at worst perhaps a little negligent. Here, we are faced with a neighbouring country that has grown more and more assertive in pursuing a legally unfounded claim over one of our most important resources and yet we have accepted mediation as a path to resolution. We have allowed their top diplomat to stay in country despite making inflammatory statements. Whilst such an approach is understandable only in the context of Pan–Africanism, it lends credence to unjustified claims of co-ownership. This needs to change and change quickly. Our Tanzanian brothers and sisters need to be put on notice that we will defend our interests in Lake Malawi vigorously.
It is therefore heartening to see a firming up of resolve by the government in relation to this issue. In particular, the announcement by our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Francis Kasaila on 18 May that the government was considering taking the matter to the International Court of Justice for resolution.
Thus, much like the annoying neighbour who comes to borrow one’s best brown suit during all the important village functions, Malawi is left in the awkward position of having to prove ownership as against a borrower. Just because Malawi has allowed our brothers and sisters on the northern and eastern shore user rights in the lake, it does not mean we have ceded our sovereignty over the lake to Dodoma. But as they say, sometimes you cannot choose your neighbours and some will habitually throw their nkhoko on your khonde. Just to be clear, Malawi owns all of the lake up to the shorelines on the border with Tanzania. This is a legal fact that will not be changed by a thousand fake maps or a thousand media briefings.
That said, it is important that we diligently defend this most precious of our resources from both internal and external threats. That effort begins right here at home and it starts by putting in place publicly vetted, transparent and legally sound plans to develop the lake.
*The author is a lawyer based in Bangwe. He wishes that his ashes be scattered on Lake Malawi when he checks out.