Malawi, Tanzania and lake boundary


When the High Commissioner for Tanzania was recently interviewed about the dispute over Lake Malawi (to us) or Lake Nyasa (to Tanzania), she said Tanzania was aware of Malawi’s programme to drill oil in the lake. Some columnists thereafter made comments which smacked of ignorance, jingoism and lack of diplomacy.

I lived and worked in Tanganyika from 1952 to 1964 first for a company called Smith Mackenzie and company, then as a civil servant rising from a junior clerk to a senior commercial officer. I had many friends among Tanzanians who were good to one another and showed no xenophobia. I have written on the lake dispute before but because I very much cherish the friendship the Tanzanians showed Malawians during the struggle for independence, I feel duty-bound to enlighten some people both on the Malawi and Tanzania side who are prone to use disturbing phrases.

The independent Tanzania government started taking interest in Lake Malawi as a result of two incidents. In the year 1962 or 1963, the Federal and the Nyasaland governments undertook constructions on the lake which pushed water northwards and caused flash floods in the Tukuyu District of Tanzania. The two governments had given no warning to the Tanganyika government which protested naturally. When constructing the Liwonde Barrage, the Malawi Government invited the Tanzania Government to send its engineers to come and inspect the work with a view to ensuring that no more damage was done to Tanzania. I was the official who went to welcome the engineer at Chileka Airport and later drove him to Liwonde to meet the Malawi engineers.


The second occasion was when in 1966 or 1967, president Hastings Kamuzu Banda decreed that the SS Ilala should not call on Mozambique and Tanzania ports in case it was boarded by rebels who were plotting to come back to Malawi and overthrow the government. This directive meant that Tanzanians from Songeya and Tukuyu districts who were commuting the Ilala would be deprived of the water transport. They asked their government to put its own ship on the lake. President Banda said Tanzania should not put a ship on Malawi’s lake. He hired a South African boat that patrolled the eastern side of the lake. Fortunately, president Julius Nyerere did not carry on his programme. Instead, I understand, he contacted the British government to find out whether Malawi was justified in making exclusive claims to the lake. The dispute virtually dropped.

The recent Tanzania interest in the lake, as the High Commissioner has candidly said, has been aroused by Malawi’s exploration of oil in the water.

There are some Malawians who are upbeat about the oil exploration but there are others who fear that the oil might damage lake life. I am not very keen for the exploration myself because oil has in other countries been the source of trouble and I fear it might do the same here.


First, the problem is purely economics. A sudden boost of exports of the oil would make the currency to appreciate to the extent that it might cause what economists call the Dutch disease. An appreciating currency makes export of commodities uncompetitive. We might find it difficult to sell our tea, tobacco, sugar and so on.

But even more worrying, oil has created political problems in some countries. When the Igbos revolted against the Nigerian government to set up Biafra, one Nigerian, a Hausa, told me that the discovery of oil in their part of the country had motivated the Igbos to revolt and that they wanted to reserve all oil revenue for their region. Biafra came and went but problems connected with oil drilling are still there in Southern Nigeria.

It was when oil was discovered in the sea north of Scotland that Scottish nationalists intensified their demand for Scotland’s secession from the United Kingdom. They felt Scotland could do without subsidies from England. The late John Savimbi of Angola continued fighting even international opinion was urging him so seek reconciliation. He wanted exclusive access to the Cabinda oil wells.

Saddam Husein, president of Iraq, invaded Kuwait in order to lay his hands on oil there. Western countries sent armies to Kuwait and pushed Iraq out. The later invasion of Iraq by the USA and UK was partly motivated to lay hand on Iraq’s oil according to some observers. The fight between the leaders in South Sudan had partly to do with the sharing of oil. There are countries in the world where disputes over boundaries started after the discovery of oil. … to be continued.

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