Silence of cemetery: L. Malawi dispute, Africanism


It is almost four years now since some portion of Lake Malawi appears to have, forcibly, the third custodian. This third custodian has gone as far as publishing and promoting a new map on the same. The Malawi media was since warned by Malawi government to report responsibly on the matter. But why should we be afraid to speak on matters that concern us most? YOKONIYA CHILANGA engages the thoughts of one of Africa’s great minds – the Nobel Literature laureate, Wole Soyinka, on African boundaries.

A dispute is a dispute – who can pretend it is some wine party!

But a dispute that happens in the darkness of silence is the most dangerous. In silence, hearts break, burn and blast.


In silence, the inner voices of the soul talk to each in the rhythm of the warring ghosts. And who can trust the silence of a cemetery? Is the silence in a cemetery not worse than the cacophonous gunshots of the warzone?

At first, the Tanzania nationals, as it is with Malawians, knew that Lake Malawi has only water and its fish.

And for now listen from history:


There was an overzealously good chief of the Ndebele people of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Lobengula, who in the 1890’s, sold his land to Cecil John Rhodes, thinking, the whole land was only a stone.

After it got into the chief’s head that the land was not a stone but is full of gold down there, he went back fuming to Rhodes, to give back the 1,000 rifles, a steam boat and 100 pounds of money he received from this British investor. It was too late for Rhodes had already gone away with a certificate of the land’s ownership.

The chief felt a great loss because he had no idea about the richness of his land: that it had gold all over. So it is with the two countries of Tanzania and Malawi on the ownership of Lake Malawi. Some discoveries are pointing to that the lake’s bed keeps some oil for the poor Malawi.

It could be that the exploration of oil in the lake is the reason someone has awoken from deep slumber.

After all, they were only giving away fish in the 1890 treaty. But lately, it has got into their heads that they were not only giving away fish to their neighbour but the oil wells as well, which is now life for most African countries.

This is where heads start to spin for it is like Chief Lobengula giving whole land mass of gold to Rhodes confusing it for a mere stone.

But Wole Soyinka, Nigerian, in his new book, On Africa, has new thoughts. In this book, where he discusses Africa’s nationalism and pan-Africanism, he does not only sound prophetic; his thinking resonates well with developments surrounding the Malawi-Tanzania Lake Malawi dispute.

Two pertinent questions that arise from Soyinka’s book are: What is Africa? And what do we understand of Africa’s history, nationalism and boundaries?

The Malawi-Tanzania lake dispute, put in context, borders on wider topics of nationalism, natural resources and sovereignty which are the major causes of conflicts in the sub-Saharan African region. Above that, it is pinned on the resources in those boundaries.

Soyinka’s sentiments on Africa nationalism would apply in many of the conflicts emerging from African nations today. Soyinka attempts to provide thought-provoking insights in resolving the disputes dividing African nations such as the Malawi- Tanzania lake dispute.

Soyinka begins with analysing the very ‘construct’ of the continent of Africa.

He says that even the construct of Africa is false: “The simple idea of Africa as a collection of nations is total fiction. These nations are not real. The Berlin Conference of 1884/85 – where a continent was shared piecemeal amongst the Western powers is a good example of this.”

Soyinka further suggests that African nations are not real because the nations’ boundaries were not fixed accordingly to the boundaries between one tribe and another which formed kingdoms.

To illustrate Soyinka’s point, the creation of the British colony of Nyasaland (now Malawi) led to the division of the Maravi Kingdom of the Chewa people. The Maravi people suddenly and fatefully found themselves in the three new nations of Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi.

In another example, the Maseko Ngoni of Ntcheu also found themselves between the two new nations of Mozambique and Malawi. The Sena of Chikwawa and Nsanje also found themselves divided between Mozambique and Malawi.

So one can agree with Soyinka that African nations are a complete fiction by the nature of their false boundaries. In this context, the Malawi nation could also be fictitious in terms of its boundaries with the neighbouring nations.

Soyinka says the boundaries among Africans were only imposed by the Western powers. He says that the Western colonialists had a mash-mallow idea of the continent of Africa. The boundaries that were fixed served their own interests and not those of the people of Africa.

He puts the whole blame on the Western powers such as of Britain, France, Germany and Italy for sowing division among the people of Africa.

According to Soyinka, when a state is built upon a foundation of fiction, trying to maintain a semblance of stability is both farcical and illogical.

Maybe this is why Malawi and Tanzania are rocked in the dispute because each country is regarding its argument as logical.

“The intensity that these borders are often defended with – even at the expense of development, peace and humanity – always strike absurd points. It is surprising that most African states after attaining self-governance accept as sacrosanct, what has been bequeathed to them by others who had no interest in Africans,” Soyinka says.

For example, the Heligoland Treaty of 1st July 1890, which legitimatizsd Malawi’s ownership of the whole north-eastern part of Lake Malawi, was an issue between the two western powers of Germany and Britain and not between the natives of Malawi and Tanzania. The concerned Africans did not even know what was happening and were less represented.

The part of the lake which was exchanged for a peninsula overseas in the Heligoland Treaty was not an issue of the native Tanzanians. Now, if the people of Tanzania begin to wonder how that part of the lake was given to Malawi on an issue that did not concern them, who can blame them? And if Malawians also wonder why a very small portion of the lake should belong to another nation while it owns the larger part, who can stop them again?

It is reported that Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, first president of Tanzania, in the wake of the border misunderstanding on the waters of Lake Malawi, said: “There is now no doubt about this boundary”. But that was socialist and humanist Nyerere and no other.

Soyinka further sees as a contradiction the point that borders must never be tampered with. According to the context of Soyinka’s argument, the question of what makes a nation such as Malawi is very hard to answer and one wonders if such an entity called a nation exists in the true sense.

To begin with, one need not be sentimental about nations, he says. In terms of conceiving oneself as part of a nation, what does it mean to exclude others who share cultural values, and history of economic interaction, similarly and sometimes identity? Why should such people be cut off for purpose?

Inspired by Soyinka’s thinking, one would really begin to think that nationhood and nationalism are very suspect concepts.

In case of the Tumbuka of Tanzania who shares the same origin with the Tumbuka of Karonga, for example, why should they be cut off from enjoying all the benefits of living along Lake Malawi such as the fish and minerals?

This is where he thinks the African national boundaries are fictitious.

The dispute which is currently under Southern African Development Community Forum of former heads of state, chaired by the Mozambique former president, Joachim Chisano is still in the dark to make its ruling and now its meetings have turned to be rumours.

Malawi, at some point, alluded to that the case would be referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for a judicial review and final ruling, if it is dissatisfied with the ruling.

With the kind of patience that Malawians are well known of, the likelihood is that the lake border dispute would take decades before it is concluded.

Or is it that some few Malawians have Soyinka’s feeling that all these boundaries are fictitious-and therefore there is no need to waste time on fictitious matters? Let fiction ends in fiction.

Anyway, with Soyinka’s thoughts about African fictitious boundaries, Malawi has to think again to consolidate the arguments on the lake’s ownership.

If Malawi has chosen silence as an alternative way to win its case, let it be. But this will be silence of the cemetery – an awful silence of ghosts lurking in the deep of

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