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Oil fuels border disputes over Lake Malaŵi and Ilemi Triangle

Image: Lake Malawi border map


Oil and gas discovers in East Africa have re-ignited long-standing territorial disputes in areas believed to possess significant petroleum deposits.

This week, Malaŵi announced it would take Tanzania to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, over the disputed ownership of Lake Malaŵi, known in Tanzania as Lake Nyasa.

Tanzania claims that colonial era treaties between Great Britain and Germany demarcated the border down the middle of the lake but since independence Malaŵi has claimed sovereignty over the whole of its northern reaches.

For many years the dispute was unresolved, yet dormant, as the lake’s pristine waters were used only for artisanal fishing and for tourism, with very little economic development.

Last year, however, Malaŵi awarded oil exploration licences to UK-based Surestream Petroleum. This July, Tanzanian authorities asked Surestream to postpone any drilling on the lake, effectively reigniting the fifty year old conflict.

Tanzania has now further infuriated Malaŵi’s leaders by publishing a new map to support its claims.

In response, Malaŵi’s President Joyce Banda cancelled a scheduled trip to Tanzania for a fresh round of talks over the issue and announced the decision to seek international arbitration.

“The issue has gone too far and Malaŵi will seek international help to ensure that justice prevails,” Banda told a news conference on Tuesday. She said tensions were rising with reports that Malaŵi fishermen were being “abused and harassed.”

“It is serious now. We have been informed by Tanzania that our boats should stop sailing on the lake otherwise they will blaze them up,” said Banda.

Earlier talks between the two sides had ended in deadlock.

Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete has said that Tanzania is willing to present its case at the International Court of Justice if the dispute cannot be settled bilaterally.

In his monthly address to the public this week, Kikwete said the joint Malaŵi-Tanzania Commission had planned to meet to discuss the Lake Nyasa dispute back in September, but Malaŵi requested the meeting to be indefinitely postponed.

Ilemi Triangle

M eanwhile, Kenyan media have reported that the new Republic of South Sudan has opened a case against Kenya over the administrative control of the north-western tip of the country, popularly known as the Ilemi Triangle.

South Sudan was reported to have filed papers with the International Court of Justice and the African Union claiming sovereignty over the Triangle, which also borders Ethiopia, and has long been thought to have oil deposits.

Recent discoveries in Ngamia, Turkana Region, 100 kilometres south of Ilemi, appear to have escalated interest in the approximately 12,000 square kilometre area.

A 1932 treaty indicates that Sudan ceded administrative control over the triangle to Kenya although other treaties in 1902, 1907 and 1972 suggested that the land was Sudanese.

South Sudan’s Ambassador to Kenya, Majok Guadong, has however refuted the reports, saying that the Ethiopia and Kenya borders were yet to be demarcated “but everything would be done in a friendly way.”

Report by CM