Billy Banda, executive director of human rights group Malawi Watch, said this week that the people most affected by the country’s dispute with Tanzania over Lake Malawi should be part of the ongoing talks to resolve the issue.
The Malawi government has only consulted opposition leaders, not the people affected by the territorial dispute, Banda said in an interview carried by local radio. He said those who depend on the lake for their livelihoods must have input in the mediation effort currently being carried out by former heads of state of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Banda also said the discussions should tackle other boundary issues, not just the lake, in order to ensure there are no future disputes.
Malawi and Tanzania also have a long-standing disagreement over the Songwe River, which empties into the lake. The river forms the border between the two countries. During the rainy season, the river changes course, shifting the border.
Cosmas Chimaliro, a journalist from the Lake Malawi area, agreed with Banda that people living near the lake should be involved in negotiations over its ownership.
It could become a human rights issue if the people who are directly affected are not involved in talks, he said. He said local residents are now afraid to venture out onto the lake, after Tanzanian authorities arrested some Malawian fishermen for doing just that.
A local resident in the Songwe River area, Robison Mwangobola, said there had been some progress on the border issue there, as evidenced by a planned dam to stabilize the river's flow. But he agreed that a permanent solution must be found on the issue.
Malawi claims the entire northern part of Lake Malawi (known in Tanzania as Lake Nyasa), based on colonial-era treaties between Great Britain and Germany. Tanzania claims that the border between it and Malawi runs through the middle of the lake, which Tanzanian officials say is a shared water resource.
This long-standing dispute resurfaced in 2011, when Malawi granted British petroleum company Surestream permission to explore for oil and gas in the lake. Tanzania said it should have been consulted before the permits were issued.
The Malawian government is now holding public hearings on an environmental and social impact assessment report by Surestream on the proposed oil exploration activities.