Some Tanzanians living along Lake Nyasa, fearing for their safety following a border dispute between Tanzania and Malawi, have fled from their areas.
Speaking to this reporter, a resident, Silvanus Mayola, said he was thinking of fleeing to Mozambique as his life at Mbamba Bay was no longer safe.
“We really don’t know what to do and I am thinking of moving to Mozambique since this area is not safe. Some of my friends have already left and those who have money have bought pieces of land elsewhere to make sure they are far from the war zone,” he said.
When asked why he thought his area was a war zone, Mayola said: “This area will soon turn into a war zone because we have heard that Malawi claims the entire lake, yet we in Tanzania know that we share the lake on a fifty-fifty basis…”
He said he had never experienced any kind of war, apart from being told and watching a film on the Kagera war which was sparked by Idi Amin's invasion of the Kagera salient.
For his part, Jackson Njako said: “I was born and grew up here, my parents never told me that the entire lake belongs to Malawi. I have been coming here since my childhood. The lake has been a source of our livelihood, so I am shocked to hear such a claim from Malawi.”
He said the border dispute has put his life as well that of other fishermen in a dilemma as they fear going out to fish, which is their only means of earning a living.
“When we first saw the planes landing on the lake we thought that those were tourists. But we were shocked after we saw them coming closer to the shore. I remember one of the fishermen dived into the water to save his life,” he said.
He asked the government to protect them since many families in the area depended on the lake.
Richard Zephaniah, a resident of Malawian origin, said:“My father was from Malawi, though he married a Tanzanian and settled here. As for me I was born and grew up here and I'm married to a Tanzanian. I consider Malawians as my brothers and sisters and as such I don’t want to fight with them...”
Zephaniah said there have been intermarriages between Tanzanians and Malawians and hence there was no need to go to war fighting for the lake.
According to him, life had become hard. People had fears and they didn’t know what would happen next. This has led to a halt to fishing operations in their areas.
Zephaniah admitted to have seen two planes running on the water surface, which caused tension among the residents.
This reporter managed to sneak into Malawi where he met Elizabeth Kambambe, who told him that life on the other side of the lake was no longer normal.
“Frankly speaking, life here is not as it used to be and this is simply due to the possibility of a war breaking out with Tanzania. When you look at people’s faces you can see their worries,” she said.
However, she believes the entire lake belongs to her country and wonders why Tanzania is claiming the other half.
“Lake Malawi has been there for ages as part of Malawi and this is according to the Heligoland Treaty which gave us the entire lake. Tanzania should negotiate with our country to have a portion but not threaten us with a war…” Kambambe explained.
For his part, fisherman Jonas Ngoni said that they have been fishing on the lake for a long time and at times they do cross into Tanzania, but due to the dispute they fear going to the Tanzanian side.
“Our work depends on the availability of fish so we sometimes cross the border and fish on Tanzania's side. But now we cannot go there as we have been told that Tanzania has deployed its military along the lake and they are ready for war…,” Ngoni said.
According to media reports, Uladi Mussa, Malawian Home Affairs and Internal Security minister, has told the people to remain calm, assuring them that nothing would happen.
The report quoted him as saying: “…I should assure all the people in this country to remain calm. We are talking to the Tanzanian government and all will be fine. If push comes to shove we will take the matter to the International Court of Justice.”
However, Mussa reaffirmed that the entire lake belongs to Malawi, adding that the government has evidence to prove its point; therefore his government will not stop exploring oil on the lake as demanded by Tanzania.
Recently, when invited to a traditional Ngoni tribe festival, Malawi Prsident Joyce Banda declared that she was ready to die for Malawi's land, although she did not mentioned anything concerning the lake dispute.
On the other hand, the Tanzania government has assured residents along Lake Nyasa to stay calm as the government, through its security and defence forces, is more than ready to protect them and the country at large.
Accompanied by South Brigade commander John Chacha and members of the Regional Security and Defence Committee recently, Said Mwambungu, Ruvuma Regional Commissioner, said: “There is no need to panic. Just continue with what you have been doing because we know that we will not fight with Malawi.”
According to him, he is part of the Tanzanian delegation that has been engaged in talks and the matter would be settled diplomatically.
Mwambungu and his delegation visited Lituhi, Liuli and Mbambabay areas where planes from the UK’s Surestream Company, which Malawi has awarded a contract to conduct oil and gas prospecting, have been sighted.
Last month Bernard Membe, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, told Parliament that his government had requested firms conducting exploration of oil and gas in Lake Nyasa to stop to allow resolution of the border dispute diplomatically.
“We urge the government of Malawi to refrain from any action that may worsen the situation," he said.
"Malawi is disputing Tanzania's claim to half of the fresh water body, saying its borders are on the shores of lake Nyasa as part of the 1890 Anglo-German agreement…,” Membe said.
Basing her argument on common international law, which stipulates that when two countries are separated by a body of water, the border is at the middle of that body, Tanzania claims that half of the lake belongs to her as such Malawi cannot explore for oil in that part.