Lake Malawi Talks: Which way after Malawi polls?


It is clear, the lake border dispute talks between Tanzania and her Southern neighbour Malawi over Lake Nyasa have hit a snag after the Maputo mediation team failed to give a decisive ruling in March 2014.

While Malawi still maintains her claim over total ownership of the lake based on the 1890 Heligoland Treaty that reportedly draws the border line on the Tanzania side of the lake, Tanzania dismisses Malawi’s position claiming that the colonial treaty was a human mistake because the lake is a historical heritage of all surrounding communities and generations who share its coastlines in Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique even before the arrival of the aliens.

Former Mozambican leader, Joachim Chissano’s team of mediators comprising the most prominent diplomats on the continent such as former presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Festus Mogae of Botswana could neither lead to any diplomatic breakthrough nor compromise.

• Banda and Nyerere relations

According to history, during the times of Presidents Julius Nyerere and Kamuzu Banda relations between the people of Tanzania and Malawi were good, but official relations were strained. This is attributed to the fact that Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda supported apartheid whereas Mwalimu Nyerere supported the ANC. Tensions were further heightened when Banda suspected that Tanzania was aiding and abetting the attempts by prominent Malawi exiles to subvert his regime. With the lake dispute fed into this tension, Kamuzu Banda and Nyerere did not see eye to eye.

• Present-day motives behind the dispute

The dispute over Lake Nyasa ownership, which started in the early 1960s and cooled off soon after, resurfaced immediately in the 2000s after geological surveys discovered a possibility of oil and gas reserves in the lake. Although the eighth largest lake in the world is also endowed with huge fish resources that are able to sustain more than 600 000 people per year, the most pressing issue underlining the tension now seems to be the scramble for possible oil and gas finds in the lake. Both countries have been trading accusations of foul play against each other, with Tanzania ordering Malawi to suspend its private exploration for oil and gas in the lake.

Malawi’s May 2014 general elections could be a game changer that will determine Lilongwe’s policy towards the border dispute with Tanzania, given the fact that successive Malawi administrations had adopted different approaches, both silent and hard-line over time.

• Presidential contenders and their potential stance on the dispute

Going into the polls, there were 12 presidential contenders ‑ four of them having a high chance of winning the elections. Professor Peter Mutharika eventually won the polls. President Mutharika is the younger brother of the immediate former president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika, the soft-spoken initiator of the bilateral negotiations on the border dispute who could not achieve any milestones during his almost decade-long tenure.

Outgoing president Joyce Banda (of the People’s Party) had a hard-line stance on the lake dispute and her ultimatum to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) threatened the very life of the Maputo mediation process, brokered by eminent personalities on the continent led by former Mozambican president, Cde Joacquim Chissano.

Another losing frontrunner was preacher-turned-politician, Lazarus Chikwera (Malawi Congress Party), whose international policy in response to the lake dispute was largely a puzzle but likely passive.

The youthful Atupele Muluzi (United Democratic Front) ‑ the 35-year-old son of former president Bakili Muluzi, who enjoyed fruitful relations with Tanzania during his tenure, adopted a rather silent policy on the border dispute ‑ was likely to adopt a more diplomatic and productive approach to the conflict if he had secured the top most office.

Tanzania was eagerly waiting to learn the winner of the Malawi elections and his/her foreign policy priorities, so that she can prepare for a revival of the negotiation process that is currently in shambles.

• The Challenges ahead

* The absence of a Malawi ambassador in Tanzania will likely cause uncertainty over the future of the Maputo talks, leaving a diplomatic vacuum that might slow down the mediation process in the short run.

* Tanzania 2015 elections ‑ Tanzania is preparing for its 2015 general elections. No doubt 2015 will be a busy period compounded by the likelihood that some local politicians might engage into anti-Malawi rhetoric during campaigns to boost their local approval ratings/election chances and consequently hurt the delicate border talks.

* Arbitration at ICJ, a bitter pill? ‑ Professor Rosalyn Higgins, former head of the ICJ, which might handle the border dispute if diplomacy fails, has already given her legal opinion suggesting that Malawi owns the entire lake.

* Potential great lakes-style conflict – President Mutharika should engage with his Tanzanian counterpart in clearing the cloud of uncertainty for mutual socio-economic benefit of all the people and communities surrounding the lake. He should avoid getting into a series prolonged and unproductive mediation processes such as the DRC/Great Lakes peace initiatives, Middle-East peace talks or six-party talks in the Korean peninsula.

All in all, the last thing the two neighbours want is having a prolonged mediation process that could indefinitely prevent them from exploiting the oil and gas resources in the lake for development. – The African Economist

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