Reaction to Nyasa Times editorial on Lake Malawi in Tanzania Daily News: ‘War will not solve dispute’

ON February 28, The Nyasa Times of Malawi, an online publication that credits itself for publishing ‘breaking news’ about the country, published a ‘Special Editorial’ entitled: “Malawi – Stand up for what is yours.”

The article made sweeping, reckless and careless accusations against Tanzania as regards the border dispute between the two countries on Lake Nyasa. It started by saying: “Patriotism has been said to be an indispensable weapon in the defence of civilization against barbarism.

“Nothing defines barbarism better (than) the premeditated and the internationally unacceptable act of one country unilaterally assuming ownership of another sovereign state’s bequeathed property.”

Fishing families on Lake Malawi,  Many fisherfolk have said they have been beaten up and detained by Tanzanian police since the dispute over the lake began late last year. Credit: Mabvuto Banda/IPS - See more at:
Fishing families on Lake Malawi, Many fisherfolk have said they have been beaten up and detained by Tanzanian police since the dispute over the lake began late last year. Credit: Mabvuto Banda/IPS

The second paragraph stated: “Unfortunate as this is, this is what Tanzania is doing and worse (still) is now doing unorthodox means to annexe (annex) Lake Malawi, granted to Malawi via the July 1, 1890 Anglo-German Treaty, also known as the Heligoland Treaty.” Somewhere down the line it also said:

“In its efforts to wrangle the lake from Malawi, in blatant disregard of the Heligoland Treaty, the OAU resolution of 1964 and the AU resolutions of 2002 and 2007, it is leaving no stone unturned and if reports are true, special envoys armed with assorted inducements, promises and lies, are all over the place making nocturnal deals to buttress Tanzania bid.”

The border dispute between Tanzania and Malawi on Lake Nyasa is indeed an old one. Again, as stated in the article quoted above, neither Tanzania nor Malawi were represented at the signing of the Heligoland Treaty.

Furthermore, the conference that led to the signing of the treaty was never called specifically to demarcate the border between Nyasaland, as Malawi was then known and Dutch East Africa or Tanganyika, as Tanzania was known.

That conference was a follow up on unfinished business during the Berlin Conference of 1884 that carved Africa into European colonies and other spheres of influence. Nyasaland became a British Protectorate or colony while Tanzania became a German possession.

At the Heligoland conference and treaty, Germany was more interested in getting Heligoland, a rocky island to its north west that was occupied by Britain. It is true that Article l (2) of the Heligoland Treaty describes the border between Malawi and Tanganyika as being on the eastern shores of Lake Nyasa.

But Article Vl required the powers, that is Britain and Germany, to meet “as soon as possible” to demarcate the border on the ground in order “to meet local requirements.” Britain and Germany never met for the border to be so bounded on the ground because in 1914, the two powers went to war that ended with the defeat of Germany.

Tanganyika became first, a League of Nations and later a United Nations mandated territory under the trusteeship of Britain. It is obvious therefore that the border on Lake Nyasa could never be fixed as the Heligoland Treaty clearly stated in Article Vl because after the war, there were no two powers any more to meet! Such was the unfortunate scenario that Tanganyika and Malawi inherited at the time of their independence in the early 1960s.

If anything, it is now great opportunity for both Tanzania and Malawi to sit down together and fix a boundary that the colonialists couldn’t. But the problem is, Malawi does not want to hear at all about Article Vl of the same treaty that they almost hold as sacrosanct.

At least some individuals in Malawi’s current leadership for reasons best known to them insist that the country owns one hundred per cent of the lake, as given to them by the Heligoland Treaty, which is not true.

And it would appear that they are now hell bent also on a heinous trajectory to scuttle the mediation efforts by the SADC Former Heads of State and Government Forum to which the two countries decided to take the case last December for mediation.

Civilized conduct would have required that the media in both countries would have desisted from commenting on the case and worst of all, making unsubstantiated allegations against another country while the Former Heads of State Forum went through the case.

Forum chairman, former Mozambican president, Joachim Chissano has confided that a solution to the dispute would be found when both Tanzania and Malawi presented their cases to him in Maputo last December. The Forum was expected to work on the matter for four months beginning last January but it cannot do its work under a free and fair atmosphere if a parallel ‘trial’ were to run in the media.

In any case, trial by the media is unacceptable. With due respect, journalists would make the worst jurists, as the case of the Nyasa Times special editorial shows, they are often prone to making unsubstantiated claims, which in jurisprudence would amount to nothing but a travesty of justice.

The solution to the border dispute on Lake Nyasa will not be found through name calling or going to war. Even if the two countries were to go to war, still they would have to sit at a negotiations table to reach a mutually acceptable position.

There is nothing barbaric about two countries taking a negotiated path towards solving a problem between them or one country advancing its arguments. But it is extremely barbaric journalism for an editor not to demonstrate an iota of professional decency even if the objective is propaganda. Tanzania’s position is very clear. The country will not go to war with Malawi over the lake border dispute.

President Jakaya Kikwete has at least on two occasions, in Maputo and Addis Ababa, reaffirmed that position when he met President Joyce Banda. Unfortunately, some voices from Malawi are now calling for war. They say a negotiated solution is a waste of time. To them we can only say they do not know what they are talking about.

They are clearly people who have never seen the terrifying dust stirred by the bloody scenes of warfare. Similarly, it baffles the mind why people would not trust their own institutions set up to advance peace and stability, but place greater confidence in a more expensive course of action such as going to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as the Malawians seem to prefer.

In any case, Tanzania is not a signatory to the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction clause, which would have bound it to the court’s decisions. If the Malawians want to go the ICJ route, then they would have to wait as Tanzania too weighed the pros and cons of such a move, which would take years.

All the same, the ICJ is not a bullet train journey either. As at the time of writing, the court has more than 115 pending cases from Africa alone. If we were to join the waiting list, the border dispute on Lake Nyasa could take another century before a solution was found.

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