Possible oil and gas in Lake Malawi strains Tanzania-Malawi border feud

Malawi and Tanzania are scheduled to hold a high level meeting on the 20th of August on a standoff over oil and gas exploration as well as on the ownership of Lake Malawi. The 50 year old border feud between the two nations escalated last year when Malawi’s late president, Bingu wa Mutharika, granted British company Surestream Petroleum rights to explore the lake for oil and gas. Surestream is currently conducting an environmental impact assessment. The move infuriated Tanzania which claims 50% of the lake and its government is demanding a halt to all exploration activities until the question of ownership is resolved.

Lake Malawi is located at the junction of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. Photo by Yoni Lerner

Scientists who have studied the geology of the lake for the last 30 years say that its conditions are ideal for harbouring hydrocarbons. Ibibia Worik, legal advisor at the Commonwealth Secretariat said, “There is enough geological evidence suggesting the existence of thick sedimentary rock sequences and structures capable of trapping oil under Lake Malawi.”

The potential for an oil find reignited a dispute that had taken a backstage with consensus giving ownership of the lake to Malawi, notwithstanding the fact that Tanzania and Mozambique are also being positioned along its shores.

Malawi bases its ownership of the entire lake to an 1890 treaty between former colonial powers Britain and Germany and says the treaty was later reaffirmed by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) as Malawi was gaining its independence in the early 1960s. Malawi also states the treaty, known as Heligoland, was further reinforced and adopted by resolutions of the African Union in 2002 and 2007.

Simbarashe Mungoshi, a history and political science lecturer in Malawi said, “By this treaty it is clearly stated that the eastern boundary of Malawi and Tanzania is on the shores of Lake Malawi. However the treaty allowed Tanzania to use the waters for fishing and even for transportation.” He also alluded to the fact that OAU stated upon Malawi’s independence that the existing boundaries should be respected.

Tanzania rejects colonial era agreements as permanent and argues most international law supports sharing common bodies of water by bordering nations. Chairperson of Tanzania’s Parliamentary Committee for Defence, Security and Foreign Affairs, Edward Lowassa, is quoted in a Tanzanian online publication, The Citizen, as telling reporters this month that the country is ready to wage war against Malawi if the issue “reaches the war stage”.

On the other hand, Malawi’s Minister of Home Affairs and Internal Security, Uladi Mussa, dismissed those statements reassuring Malawians that they have nothing to fear as discussions are underway to resolve the issue.

Home to about 1,000 endemic species of fish, Lake Malawi is located at the junction of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. It already sustains nearly 10 million people in these three countries and will possibly positively transform their lives if oil or gas is discovered. Malawi, like its fellow sub-Saharan Africa neighbours, stands to benefit immensely as previously unexplored mineral wealth is discovered. Like many, we live in the hope that the Tanzania-Malawi 20th August meeting produces an amicable solution and helps cement the trend of Africa’s wealth benefiting its citizens, rather than cursing them to unending wars. Assuming, of course, there turns out to be anything to fight over.

Imara is an investment banking and asset management group renowned for its knowledge of African markets.