Oil exploration at the disputed Lake Nyasa border has rekindled the decade-old tension between Tanzania and Malawi. Malawi refers to the colonial demarcations while Tanzania stakes claim of 50% of the resource-rich lake. Citizens of both countries are worried.

When Malawian government awarded a contract to the British company, Surestream Petroleum, to explore oil and gas in Lake Nyasa in September, 2011, Tanzania felt unsettled, sparking off controversy over the ownership of the 3rd largest lake in Africa.

Tanzania is seeking 50% ownership of the Lake, arguing that borders should be in the middle of water bodies according to the international maritime law.

Malawi on the other hand is pointing to the colonial agreement between the colonial governments who presided over the two countries – Britain for Malawi, and German for Tanzania – that demarcated Lake Nyasa to the Malawian side in 1890.

The agreement, dubbed Heligoland agreement, was ratified by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now African Union (AU), at a summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1963.

However, Tanzania has long held that the colonialists erred in stipulating the border between them. What began as a mere diplomatic spat has now turned into a full-scale scramble for resource, threatening peace and stability between the two nations.

Tanzania announced in July, 2012, that it would allow its ferries to cross Lake Nyasa waters, ruffling the feathers of their Malawian counterparts, who viewed it as an aggression. It also lamented that Malawian tourists and fishermen were encroaching on its territories.

Stalemate
The intensity was so much that the Malawian Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Patrick Kabambe, was quoted by the Nyasa Times of Malawi saying “We categorically put it to them that as far as we are concerned, the entire Lake belongs to Malawi”.

A meeting called to appease tensions between the two countries in the month of July ended in a stalemate after Tanzania asserted that Malawi must stop oil exploration until border issues are resolved.

There have been unconfirmed reports that foreign military jets have been flying over Tanzanian territory, throwing the nation into panic.

A Tanzanian Member of Parliament, Edward Lowass, who heads the parliament’s defence committee, was quoted by Tanzanian and Malawian Newspapers saying the country could be forced to resort to war if negotiations hit a snag.

“If it reaches the war stage, then we are ready to sacrifice our people’s blood and our military forces are committed in equipment and psychologically,” he said.

Tanzania is viewed to be keen on harvesting from the oil find to boost its mineral haven. Currently, it boasts of gold mining, contributing to 4.6% to its economy, according to the 2012 Tanzania Economic Survey Report. The country’s economy is agriculture based, contributing to 25% of the Gross domestic Product (GDP). Oil prospects could, however, change the over-reliance in agriculture.

Beach Energy, an Australian company, has been issued with exploration licenses to prospect for oil in Lake Tanganyika. The company argues the lake has the potential of producing 200million barrels of oil.

Fear
The Lake Nyasa standoff has caused fear among Tanzanians and Malawians who live at the border. For a long time, they have maintained mutual trade and social relationship, but the dispute could change the way they operate.

“Malawi has been using our waters yet they don’t want us to move freely. They claim that there are no boundaries in water and the Lake belongs to them,” David Magesa, a resident of Arusha, told IQ4News.

“There could be war which might cost the economies of the two countries a lot. Something ought to be done,” he added, sentiments echoed by Timothy Mugisha, a Tanzanian business man in Kenya.

“Tanzania changed from a socialist system of economy to a capitalist one. The tension with Malawi could drive away investors. This would have far reaching implications on the economy”.

The Ujamaa system, Kiswahili for socialism, propounded by its founding president, Julius Nyerere, has formed the basis of Tanzanian development, but there have been persistent efforts lately to create room for private sector participation.

Tanzanian President, Jakaya Kikwete’s claim that diplomacy would be the only approach for his country in the dispute, has been dismissed by many, pointing to his government’s decree in 2007 that all maps showing that Tanzania and Malawi border runs on Tanzanian side of the lake be set ablaze.

The dispute dates back to 1960 when then Malawian President, Kamuzu Banda, made it clear that they would not share the Lake with Tanzania. Apart from the oil prospects, Lake Nyasa, referred to by Malawians as Lake Malawi, contains an estimated 168,000 tones of fish that sustains about 600,000 Tanzanians and Malawians.

As oil explorers turn to East Africa for oil prospects, governments continue to nurse hopes that the economies of their countries would change for the better.

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