Malawi needs to be proactive and not just reactive on the Lake Malawi boundary wrangle with its north-eastern neighbour, Tanzania. But while I am on this, let me warn that resorting to wresting the part of the lake Tanzania claims is its territory will only worsen the matter. To be brutally frank, and without underrating our military prowess, Malawi will be the bigger casualty in any military undertaking with Tanzania. Tanzania, geographically bigger than Malawi—is no match for us military-wise.
To begin with, we need the lake more than Tanzania needs the part they are claiming to belong to them. Unlike Tanzania, which also has lakes Victoria and Tanganyika and a long seashore on the Indian Ocean, Lake Malawi is our only biggest water resource body spanning all the three regions. As a result its economic importance to Malawi cannot be overstated.
We need the lake for transport purposes—which to say the least—we have underutilised. The lake’s fish resources are an economic lifeline for 90 percent of the people along the lakeshore who subsist as fishermen. Take away the lake and see what would become of people in Karonga, Nkhata Bay, Likoma and Chizumulo, part of Rumphi, Nkhotakota, Salima, Mangochi. In short, the lake is actually synonymous with their livelihood.
At national level, Lake Malawi is the main source of water for the Shire River, which is again the source of 90 percent of our hydro-electricity from Nkula, Tedzani and Kapichira hydro-power stations.
Agriculturally, Illovo and Dwangwa Sugar company—probably the country’s biggest employers—depend on water bodies from the Shire and Lake Malawi, respectively. And if we had visionary leaders, they would long have transformed lakeshore districts into breadbaskets for the entire country producing rice, maize and cassava.
Blantyre Water Board’s main source of water—Walker’s Ferry—is the Shire River (whose main source of water is Lake Malawi), meaning that the whole Blantyre city and parts of Chiradzulu and Thyolo are serviced by the Shire River.
As a tourist destination—which again I must state we have grossly underdeveloped—Lake Malawi’s importance cannot be overstated, contributing a good percentage to the tourism’s gross domestic product (GDP).
In short, Lake Malawi’s importance should not be something any caring government should only talk about when there are no elections in the country. In Tumbuka we would have said navyose vyamthengere.
If truth be told, since 2014 the DPP-led government has been in a power-drunken stupor on this important issue and is only being awakened now that Tanzania has published maps showing part of the eastern part of the lake as belonging to them.
Going to war with Tanzania over the lake would be foolhardy (Uchindere wakufikapo). They have both the military and economic might to annihilate us within a short period of time. They can squeeze us by closing off the Dar es Salaam port facility through which Malawi imports about 20 percent of its cargo, including fuel.
With the issues I have outlined above, not even the elections should have stopped us from getting the mediators to continue the talks. Why should everything else come to a standstill when there are elections? After all, it has been two years and six months since Malawi held its elections and one year since Tanzania went to the polls. The problem on the part of Malawi is the ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ mentality. In Tumbuka they say Uyo wakoleka na pamoyo ndiyo wakujura kumulyango. It is naïvity at its worst that the Malawi government only wants to do something when Tanzanians are on the offensive. That is not the way to go. Government should quickly get this issue to a logical conclusion.
It is a well-known fact that Tanzania wants half of the eastern part of the lake because of the oil exploration activities underway in the lake. And it is unlikely that the Sadc mediators—led by Mozambique former president Joachim Chissano—will side with Malawi on the issue, the Anglo-Heligoland Treaty notwithstanding. That is why it is important for Malawi to be proactive and take the issue to the International Court of Justice. That part of the lake is for Malawi to lose. n