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Oil Exploration Prompts Lake Malawi/Nyasa Ownership Dispute

News that Malawi is exploring oil on Lake Nyasa (also known as Lake Malawi, Lake Nyassa, Lake Niassa and Lago Niassa) has attracted hot debate over the ownership of the lake. While the Malawian government claims exclusive ownership of the lake, Tanzania is pressing for recognition of some earlier ownership of half of the lake.

The matter dates back to colonial times in 1890, when Britain and Germany shared boundaries in East and Central Africa. At that time hopes for any oil on the lake were far fetched.

According to journalist and blogger Mavuto Jobani, last October 2011, Malawi said it had awarded oil exploration licenses to UK-based company Surestream Petroleum to search for oil in the lake.

A map showing two different borders between Tanzania and Malawi. Image courtesy of

A map showing two different borders between Tanzania and Malawi. Image courtesy of

Quoting official Tanzanian sources, Jubani writes:

“Malawi claims that the whole lake belongs to the country according to colonial boundaries … But our stated position is that half of the lake belongs to Tanzania,” said Assah Mwambene, a spokesman for Tanzania’s foreign affairs ministry.

While some Malawians fear for the future, the government says things are under control as they have planned to deal with the matter appropriately.

Bloggers like Pearson Nkhoma have avoided giving their opinion on the new development preferring to present the facts as they are. For instance Nkhoma writes:

Lake Malawi is home to 1,000 endemic species of fish, an estimate to be more than any other place on earth. It is Africa’s third-largest, after Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania and Lake Victoria which is partly also owned by Tanzania. In Tanzania, Lake Malawi is called Lake Nyasa, a name derived from Malawi’s colonial name, Nyasaland.  In the early 1960s, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, then president of Malawi, also claimed that Mbeya in Tanzania were also part of Malawi.

Malawi media and social forums are awash with the debate about the ownership of the lake and potential wealth from the oil exploration. Most Malawians claim full ownership of Africa's third largest and fresh water lake.

Lake Malawi/Nyasa view from Likoma Island. Photo released under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) by Wikipedia user Worldtraveller.

The government of Tanzania ordered in 2007 that all maps that show that the border between Malawi and Tanzania running along the Tanzanian side of Lake Nyasa be impounded and set on fire, because they ‘mislead the Tanzanian public’ on the actual location of the border.

The two countries will meet in Malawi on 20 August, 2012, to discuss the matter.


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