Troubled Waters

Malawi's claim over a lake’s oil resources is challenged by an aggressive neighbour

Fishermen on the banks of Lake Malawi. The dispute between Malawi and Tanzania could threaten the livelihoods of thousands. SIPHIWE SIBEKO / REUTERS
01 November, 2013

IT HAD BEEN A LONG NIGHT for Precious Mwenifumbo. At 6 pm the previous day, in August this year, the fisherman and his six colleagues left from the lakeshore for the middle of Lake Malawi. After sailing for 15 kilometres, they stopped the motorboat and slid two narrow canoes, carved out of wood, into the water. While Mwenifumbo and a few others remained on the mother boat, three of their colleagues entered the water in the canoes. They hovered above the silent world, lamps tied with white cloth to their boat’s bows baiting the fish to come to the surface.

Bucket after bucket of “usipa”, the endemic lake sardine, filled the belly of the mother boat, which Mwenifumbo was steering. After ten hours on the water, the fishermen drew the last net full of fish into the boat, slid the canoes back into the mother boat, and started the engine. On the journey back to the shore, Mwenifumbo’s colleagues dozed off in the boat, tired after the long night’s work.

Like hundreds of thousands of people in the region, Mwenifumbo has been making a living from Lake Malawi for many decades. He likes his job, he said. But since late 2011, it has been under threat owing to the fraught relationship between Malawi and Tanzania over the oil in the lake. “That oil is a problem,” said Mwenifumbo, a Malawian. “Oil that is found in Tanzania is owned by Tanzania. Oil that is found in Malawi is owned by Malawi. Now, the problem is that Malawi wants all of [the oil in the lake]. And we don’t know how they’re going to discuss it.”

Lake Malawi, known as Lake Nyasa in Tanzania and Mozambique, is a strip running along Malawi’s eastern border. On its eastern shore it borders Tanzania, which looms large over it in the north. For years, the lake has not been an issue between these two poor neighbouring countries in Africa’s south-east, who shared the waters peacefully. A German-British treaty from 1890 outlined terms of sharing the lake between the two colonial powers—this shared status was accepted by Malawi and Tanzania’s first presidents in the 1960s, and remained largely unchallenged for the next few decades.

The first moves towards oil exploration in the lake came in September 2011, when Malawi awarded a license to a British company to prospect for oil on the north-eastern side, near Tanzania’s shores. This ignited a conflict between the two countries, with Tanzania announcing that it would start a ferry service across the lake, over waters that Malawi claimed were its own. Malawi’s Ministry of Land responded, stating that Tanzania had no legal right to run the service until the border dispute was resolved.

Negotiations began, but Malawi pulled out of them at the end of 2012, accusing Tanzania of intimidating its fishermen. While Malawi returned to the table later to push for the exploration of gas and oil, Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete, addressed the issue again during a speech at his country’s national heroes’ day, 25 July, this year. “Anyone who tries to provoke our country will face consequences,” Kikwete said. “Our country is safe and the army is strong and ready to defend our country.” Tanzania calls for a fair renegotiation of the border according to modern international law.

“It is rather surprising that recently the subject has come back and has been given a new lease of life,” said Henry Chingaipe, the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Social Empowerment, an independent Malawian think tank in the country’s capital, Lilongwe. “I’m not sure of what the motivations on the part of Tanzania are.” The Malawian analyst Simburashe Mungoshi was quoted in a 2012 article for the magazine Think Africa Press suggesting that a trade-off could solve the problem: if Tanzania wants rights of use over the north-eastern waters of the lake, he said, it could give landlocked Malawi a land route through Tanzania to access the sea. “In theory it is possible,” Chingaipe said. “In practice it is also possible. It depends on the temperament of the leaderships in both countries, and how they want to deal with it.”

So far, Tanzania has not publicly declared why it wants to renegotiate borders. Tanzania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its national liaison office to the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which mediates in the matter, did not answer emails and phone calls for this report. George Mkondiwa, Malawi’s liaison officer to the SADC, suggested that apart from wanting a share of the oil, Tanzania’s position might also spring from environmental concerns. Oil exploration is likely to pollute the lake’s waters—a concern both for fisherfolk and the general population who rely on it for drinking water. The Tanzanian government could also be indulging in propaganda before the local elections next year, exacerbating a border dispute to appear decisive and drum up domestic support, Mkondiwa suggested.

In a telephone interview, Malawi’s minister of information, Moses Kunkuyu, said only that “the affair is now with SADC.” A special SADC committee was constituted to find a solution by the end of September, but had made no announcements as of mid October. At a July meeting in Lilongwe with Joaquim Chissano, the former Mozambican president who heads the mediation team, Malawi’s president Joyce Banda said that if SADC does not find a solution, Malawi will take the case to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, which has already ruled other border disputes in Africa. But the court’s success on the ground has been limited—in 2002, for instance, the court decided that the Bakassi peninsula belonged to Cameroon, but it was almost five years before Nigeria finally handed over the territory to its West African neighbour.

Malawian citizens are divided on the issue. The lake’s oil resources could provide a major boost to the poor economy. However, they too fear that the quality of drinking water in the region, and the large fish population, could deteriorate if oil drilling commences.

At Songwe border crossing point, a bustling settlement of shacks and traders in north-east Malawi, close to Lake Malawi, I met Rebecca Kaumba, a fish vendor who had just got a load of fresh “chambo”, or tilapia, that she put on a big plate before her on the ground. Nearby, men fried cassava on a barbecue, and the bustle of voices competed with loud dancehall music from a nearby barbershop. Kaumba said she was worried. “If the problem remains unsolved, we will lose our income,” she said. Next to her, 27-year-old Ian Mukhondia and his colleague ran a grocery shop where they sold chips, sweets and soda. Mukhondia, a Malawian, blamed his native country for the conflict. “In my opinion, we’re wrong to do that because we used to be together,” he said. “We do business together. Sometimes we go to a nearby town without a passport, just using a border pass. We can go to Tanzania without any document just because we take it like one community. If this dispute continues, I think this relationship can no longer be there.”

A high-ranking Malawian immigration officer at the border crossing was also critical of his government’s moves towards oil exploration. “The benefit from the oil will be much lesser to this country than what we’re getting now from the lake,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Precious Mwenifumbo returned from his fishing expedition at 4 am, with a boat full of fish and six tired colleagues. They then rushed to the market at the beach near Karonga district to meet their fellow fishermen from across the region and sell their catch. Mwenifumbo believes it would be better if Tanzania continued to insist on a fair share of the lake, since then no one will be able to drill for oil and contaminate the water. “Fishermen in Malawi support Tanzania because they know if Malawi uses the lake for oil, all fishermen will suffer,” he said.