A few weeks ago, I attended an international workshop. One of the presentations was on the historical analysis of the Malawi-Tanzania border conflict. The presenter’s main argument was that the colonial power, Britain, constantly changed the map of the area; hence, in some cases the lake was wholly for Malawi and in other cases part of it was awarded to Tanzania.
According to his research, the issue was not completely settled when both governments attained independence. In his view, it is the colonial power that is largely to blame for the current border impasse.
Before and after the workshop, I had a long chat with the presenter and it is through this unofficial discussion that I noted the main motivation for his research—the social dimension of borders. I learned that he is a Tanzanian who comes from the other side of Lake Malawi which they call Lake Nyasa. In fact, his home area in Tanzania is also referred to as Nyasa. He mentioned that he has grown up along the lake and all his relatives’ livelihood is derived from it.
He explained: “To one day wake up and be told that the lake does not belong to you is strange and shocking for an average Tanzanian who has grown up in the area.” This, in my view, calls into question the whole issue of the social dimension of African international borders. If we merely focus on the physical aspect of borders, we are likely to miss a number of issues. Borders, by themselves, are useless, but it is communities, State leaders and other stakeholders that attach meanings to these borders.
Unfortunately, the communities who live along these borders are not seriously considered when these disputes arise. Irrespective of what State leaders say, the border communities do not understand the logic of the formal decisions made. For these lakeshore communities, the lake simply is ‘God given’ so that they benefit from its resource, whether Tanzanian or Malawian.
This workshop presentation reminded me of my own personal experience of the social dimension of border community. My father’s home village is right at the Tanzania/Malawi border—along Songwe River. Apart from the Songwe River border, my mother’s village is also bordered by Lake Malawi to the east. In the 1980s, Songwe River used to shift its course so that my relatives could be Tanzanians and later on Malawians, depending on the ‘mood’ of the river that season. These border communities had no problems, but the Malawian and Tanzanian governments were concerned because they encountered several administrative problems, such as those related to taxation.
Consequently, without any media uproar or a call for international assistance, the two governments decided to re-demarcate and confirm the boundaries once and for all. This was dully done without the involvement of the local communities themselves. The outcome is that, to be more precise, my home area relatives have literally and metaphorically been cut into two. I have close relatives in both countries, but they claim different citizenships. Almost everyone in my home area speaks Kiswahili and their daily interaction is not affected by the border.
What is strange with the current Lake Malawi border dispute is that it is emerging at a time when ‘artificiality’ of international African borders is not only seemingly acknowledged, but even publicly proclaimed by African leaders. That is why they speak the language of regional integration and creation of borderless entities. There are no ideological differences between Malawi and Tanzania as it used to be in the past. Why is the border deal difficult to reach now?
I believe the major issue here is the economic benefits to be derived from the lake—oil. Unfortunately, the social dimension of borders is being ignored; hence, the social citizenship that the boarder communities have long cherished is at stake. — The author is associate professor in the Political and Administrative Studies Department, University of Malawi. He is currently on study leave at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.