by Garth Cilliers

Old border disputes reignited

Oil exploration reignites old border disputes

Lake Malawi
Lake Malawi.JPG

With no apparent end to large natural gas discoveries, estimated as the biggest in the world in the last decade, many of the international oil companies are moving into east and central Africa to share in the bounty. Where natural gas is found, they know, oil is most of the time not far away. With these developments comes the potential for disputes – among others about borders.

It is also understandable that all the countries in the region, especially those that have not yet registered any finds, are going to do their utmost to try and join their fortunate neighbours.

This is especially true of Malawi, not only one of the smallest and poorest countries on the African continent, but with a population of 16 million also among the world's most densely populated and least developed.For nearly 40% of its annual budget the government of Malawi relies on hand-outs from foreign donors. Under the leadership of  the late president Bingu wa Mutharika, a former senior World Bank official, for a while Malawi seemed to be well on the way to becoming an African success story.

From a country experiencing famine and starvation, over a short period of time Malawi  became an exporter of food to its more affluent neighbours as a result of  Mutharika’s economic and agricultural policies.

Unfortunately, in a not to unfamiliar manner, late president Mutharika lost the plot. Like so many before him, he transformed into a leader showing dictatorial tendencies. At the time of his sudden death earlier this year, Malawi was once again facing ruin and despair with almost all donors withholding much-needed support and assistance.

Under these trying circumstances Mutharika’s successor and the second female president in Africa, Joyce Banda, is doing her best to improve conditions in Malawi.


With Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda an even war-torn Somalia planning to cash in on their gas and oil discoveries, Malawi is also eager to become owner of a commodity the world cannot do without.


Exploration in Lake Malawi


The most dominant physical feature in the country is Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa which covers nearly 30 000 sq. km.

Also located in the same Rift Valley but further north lies Uganda’s Lake Albert where it is all systems go to start pumping an estimated 3 billion barrels of oil.

It is without doubt with this in mind that Malawi decided in October 2011 to issue a licence to British firm Surestream Petroleum to prospect for oil in Lake Malawi.

The decision reignited an old border dispute.

The partition of Lake Malawi’s surface area has been under dispute for a long time and when Malawi unilaterally issued an exploration licence Tanzania demanded an immediate stop.


Tanzania’s reaction is sensible considering the enormous consequences should oil or gas be discovered while a dispute over territorial ownership is still unsettled.

Citing the 1982 UN Convention on Law of the Sea that stipulates where nations are bordered by a water body the border between them will always be the middle of the water body, Tanzania refutes Malawi’s claim that the whole of Lake Malawi belongs to Malawi.

The foundations of the dispute can be traced back to the signing of the Heligoland Treaty of 1890, also known as the Anglo-German Agreement, at the height of the colonial scramble for Africa. This treaty placed all of Lake Malawi under the jurisdiction of Nyasaland (today Malawi) without a separate administration for the north-eastern Tanzanian portion.

This dispute has led to conflicts in the past, mainly over the fishing rights of Tanzanian fishermen. In recent years Malawi has declined to attempt to enforce any claims to the disputed portion.

Colonial baggage

The latest dispute once again brings to the fore the inherited problem of Africa’s borders when the continent was carved up during the colonial period without any respect or consideration for the indigenous people.

When African states became independent during the era of decolonisation in the 1960s they mostly agreed to maintain their colonial borders in the 1963 Treaty and Agreement of the Organisation of African Union (OAU) and its successor the African Union (AU) in 2002. It states that "member states should recognise and accept the borders that were inherited at the time of independence".

The debate whether these decisions were correct or not will probably continue forever.

Border disputes unfortunately occur far too often in Africa. Sudan, Somalia, Mali and the on-going instability in the DRC are some current examples where arbitrary borders drawn a long time ago continue to play a role in destabilising relations.

Seeking a peaceful solution

Despite some belligerent voiced in both countries, the governments of Malawi and Tanzania have sensibly asked for calm and declared their willingness to meet and seek an amicable solution. Both prime ministers are also on record that they will never go to war on the matter and would turn to international arbitration to settle the dispute if talks fail.

Both Malawi and Tanzania are historically peace-loving countries and developments will be followed with keen interest. Africa cannot another conflict.


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