A fresh row is brewing between Tanzania and Malawi over the ownership of Lake Nyasa, one of the world’s largest freshwater bodies. Home to 1,000 endemic species of fish, estimated to be more than any other place on earth, Lake Nyasa (referred to as Lake Malawi in Southern Africa) is located at the junction of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. With an estimated fish stock of 168,000 tonnes, Lake Nyasa sustains nearly 10 million people in these three riparian countries.
The latest dispute has been prompted by Malawi fishing and tourist boats allegedly encroaching on Tanzanian territorial waters on the grounds that the whole water body belongs to their country.
Whereas Malawi maintains that it owns the entire lake, Tanzania claims the border is in the middle of the water body, intensifying animosity between the two neighbouring countries.
The Member of Parliament for Mbeya Region (special seats), Hilda Ngoye, last week informed the Tanzanian parliament that in recent weeks, Malawi has been conducting tourism activities beyond its territorial waters.
Ms Ngoye charged that the Malawian tourists and fishing boats have been trespassing on Tanzanian territorial waters at will, escalating tensions. “Tanzanians around Lake Nyasa’s shores have the right to fish or engage in other productive activities on the lake, without being intimidated,” she told parliament, demanding an explanation from the government on the status of the border between Tanzania and Malawi.
This development comes at a time when the two countries have formed a joint team to resolve the issue of the shifting River Songwe border by creating dams to be used for the economic benefit of the people of Malawi and Tanzania.
The standoff over the lake is reminiscent of a recent dispute between Kenya and Uganda over the tiny Lake Victoria archipelago of Migingo.
Responding to Ms Ngoye’s remarks, Attorney General Frederick Werema said Tanzania would seek international intervention in case diplomatic negotiations on the border dispute did not bear fruit.
“We don’t want Tanzanians to ask for permission from Malawi to fetch water or fish from Lake Nyasa,” Judge Werema said, adding, “If we don’t reach a consensus, we will take recourse in international law.”
He explained that international law requires a border to be in the middle of a water body. Recently, Tanzania announced plans to purchase a new $9 million ferry to ply Lake Nyasa’s waters, provoking a critical response from the Malawian government.
A Malawian government spokesperson said, “Like any international operation, we will need to sign a memorandum of understanding for them to start operating in a foreign water body.”
An official in Malawi’s Ministry of Lands who requested anonymity said Tanzania has no legal right to start operating on Lake Malawi as the issues of the border was still unresolved.
“We have been holding talks over the borders of Lake Malawi (Lake Nyasa) with Tanzania and since we haven’t agreed to anything as of now, the issue of sharing it with Tanzania does not exist,” said the official.
Another source in Malawi told The EastAfrican in Arusha that the perception of a majority of Malawians back home was that the entire lake and even Kyela in Mbeya belongs to their country.
In the early 1960s, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, then president of Malawi, had claimed that Lake Nyasa and the whole of Mbeya area in Tanzania were part of Malawi.
As a result, a committee was appointed by both countries to solve the dispute over the border and the lake’s name. To date, however, no one knows whether it was agreed on that the lake be named Lake Nyasa or Lake Malawi or if it was given another name altogether.
Records show that Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere said that he did not care if the name was Lake Nyasa, Malawi, Banda or Kamuzu, but “borders were not negotiable.”
Efforts by The EastAfrican to get a comment from the new Malawian government spokesperson, Moses Kunkuyu, who is also the Minister of Information and Civic Education, proved futile as he did not respond to e-mails.
Anna Mghwira, a political analyst, said while the situation on Lake Nyasa remains calm today, the complexity of the boundary disputes between the two developing nations is a time bomb. “The two countries ought to conclude the issue once and for all, otherwise this wrangle will escalate into unnecessary skirmishes in future,” Ms Mghwira noted.
Lake Nyasa, Africa’s third largest lake at 580km long and up to 80km wide in spots, has been named among the most beautiful places in the world by tourism and travel experts.