Lake Malawi/Nyasa row: Time to show strong leadership

At around the time of independence quite a few people in Tanzania wanted to claim a huge part of Lake Malawi or Lake Nyasa . Cool heads eventually prevailed, as most Tanzanians, including the legendary President Julius Nyerere, understood the importance of respecting boundaries emanating from colonial times.

During most of Dr Kamuzu Banda’s rule, Tanzania never really pushed this crazy idea of dividing up the lake. The issue was almost forgotten during the rule of Dr Bakili Muluzi and thereafter. In fact, Dr Bingu wa Mutharika commissioned a company to start exploring oil in the lake. Tanzania said nothing at that time.

Now we have a new president and all of sudden the Tanzanians are demanding that our government stop all exploration activities in the lake until all border issues have been clarified. Why now?

Folks, there is a reason why we have tradition. Tradition may appear useless and outdated but it is important because it usually become established after a long experience. In politics there is what is known as ‘presidential protocol’. These are small things which over the years have proven to be niceties a president must or must not do in order to represent his/her country correctly.

Test for President Joyce Banda to diplomatically manage the dispute on the boundary

You would think some of them are not important but they are. Here are a few of them – presidents never bow for other presidents in public; presidents never escort anybody to their car; presidents walk with their arms spread outwards apparently projecting power and being in control; presidents usually put on a solid color (one color) necktie because it portrays power; when two presidents greet each other while facing the camera, each of them jostle to be on the right side so that his palm will face the camera- another sign of power, apparently; when in company of other presidents, they try to be the last one to enter the door – a fatherly gesture; there is an interesting video clip of Chairman Yassier Arafat and PM Ehud Barak jostling to be the last one to enter a room at Camp David. The sight of President George W Bush gently pushing PM Gordon Brown into Number 10 Downing Street before himself angered some British political experts.

Statesmanship is a game because image is everything in international politics. A country’s image depends a lot on the demeanor of its leader. President Barak Obama likes to pat other leaders on their back after greeting them; you thought that was an unplanned coincidence? Just remember, how your father used to pat you on the back when you were a good boy!

It is said that Bill Clinton failed to get a good deal at his summit with Boris Yelsin in Moscow because President Clinton having sprained his ankle arrived in Moscow on a wheelchair. The sight of a sick American president is said to have psychologically emboldened Boris Yelsin. Ghana is said to have regained its respect in West Africa when President J.J. Rawlings arrived at the 25th Organization of African Unity meeting in Togo in July 2000 in a military uniform portraying a very youthful image.

The presidency is acted on a world stage. What a president says and does is very important!

When Joyce Banda took over the presidency, she made it appear like Malawi will now be doing everything the donor community tells her to do. In fact some British newspapers were so pleasantly surprised with this that they called us ‘a donor fearing nation’.

President Joyce Banda went to London and even bowed before Queen Elizabeth, a very strange gesture considering that both are heads-of-state. Well, all these words and actions have now collectively given an image of a weak leadership in Malawi. The world has sensed blood. Now Tanzania has decided it is time to split up the lake. Notice that they did not bring up this crazy idea when Muluzi or Mutharika were in charge.

If we dignify Tanzania’s unreasonable request, one wonders what the next thing will be. Are they now going to claim Chitipa? Will Mozambique now claim Mulanje Mountain?

Government must make clear that no part of Malawi is up for discussion – full stop! It is time to show strength. Tell Tanzania that Lake Malawi was, is and will always be Malawian.

Surprisingly, after all these arrogant statements by the Tanzania government, our government’s response is at best a whimper. The minister of foreign affairs has issued a statement saying the issue will be settled ‘amicably’. Really, Mr. Minister? What could be an amicable statement? Are you planning to even dignify Tanzania’s unreasonable demand? Do you plan to divide up the lake? How can you have an amicable settlement to an unreasonable demand?

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