The Malawi Government strongly and rightly argues that its eastern neighbour, Tanzania, does not own any part of Lake Malawi, also known as Lake Nyasa by Tanzanians following the signing of the Heligoland Treaty of 1890. The dispute between Malawi Tanzania concerns the location of the border between the two States on, or at the perimeter of Lake Malawi.
The contestation relates to whether Tanzania or Malawi exercises sovereignty over the eastern half of the northern part of the Lake—approximately 29 600 square kilometers, and the third largest in Africa—separating the two countries.
As is well known by now, the border dispute escalated in 2011 when Malawi awarded oil exploration licenses covering the disputed part of the Lake to Surestream Petroleum.
The dispute is complicated by historical shifts in the positions of the parties and the former colonial powers. Tanzania was a German colony until 1919 when it was awarded to Britain under the Treaty of Versailles. Thus Tanzania, alongside Malawi (then Nyasaland), became a British territory. The German and British authorities formally agreed under the 1890 Heligoland Treaty that the border ran along the Lake’s eastern shore line.
The Malawi Government maintains that at no time has the treaty been abrogated. Meaning the Republic of Malawi is the rightful owner of the whole Lake and that no part of it belongs to Tanzania. I, for one, fully subscribe to the Malawi Government’s stand on this issue.
A year after the signing of the Heligoland Treaty, Nyasaland was declared a Protectorate. Mombera Kingdom—which is present day Mzimba district was not part of the Protectorate. The Kingdom was administered by M’mbelwa Administrative Council with M’mbelwa as its head.
Just as the Malawi Government is advancing the Heligoland Treaty of 1891 to claim that Tanzania does not own any part of Lake Malawi, the Mzimba Heritage on behalf of the people of Mzimba wants to remind the Government of Malawi of the position of Mzimba district with M’mbelwa as its King (Inkosi ya Makhosi) and not Paramount Chief.
When Nyasaland was declared a Protectorate in 1891, Mombera Kingdom was not part of that arrangement. The Kingdom was administered by M’mbelwa Administrative Council with M’mbelwa as its head.
Some 13 years later (in 1904) when the British Administrators persuaded the Mombera Kingdom through the Free Church of Scotland to join the Nyasaland Protectorate, the terms were that it was joining as a Development Partner. Mzimba was thus never colonized by the colonial administration like the rest of the districts in Nyasaland.
The colonial government governed Mzimba through Indirect Rule. In 1953, when the colonial administration proposed that Nyasaland should join the Federation of Rhodesia of Nyasaland, Inkosi ya Makhosi M’mbelwa II went to London and rejected the proposal. In 1960, Mzimba was sidelined for talks at Lancaster House. When Nyasaland became an independent entity in 1964, the 1904 Protectorate Treaty Agreement was not rescinded or annuled. This means the Treaty is still in force and Mzimba and the Malawi Government are still in a Partnership. It is in that historical sense that the new Land Law does not affect Mzimba and its people who are in a Partnership with government. His Majesty Inkosi ya Makhosi M’mbelwa V remains the administrator of his Territorial Jurisdiction with all powers of the land in his Kingdom. Government may do well to understand and respect this very important historical aspect in relation to the new Land Law just as it uses the Heligoland Treaty to claim ownership of Lake Malawi bordering with Tanzania.
A few weeks ago, the Malawi Government through Landnet started a pilot study on land with Mzimba as one of the pilot districts. This was done without consulting the administrator of the land—the King himself. Mzimba Heritage Association (Mziha) which champions issues about the Kingdom strongly opposed the pilot study. The Government of Malawi not wanting to delay the pilot study has since moved it to Rumphi District. That is the way to go.
The Office of the President and Cabinet now has a copy of the declaration of Nyasaland as a Protectorate in 1891, which shows that Mombera Kingdom was not part of that arrangement. It is my view that the Malawi Government does not want to be double faced by on one hand championing the ownership of Lake Malawi and on another the 1891 Nyasaland Protectorate Treaty which excluded the Mombera Kingdom.