Malawi and Tanzania are once again at loggerheads over the ownership of Lake Malawi, or Lake Nyasa as Tanzanians prefer to call it. The dispute started nearly half a decade ago but it has been re-ignited by prospects of discovering oil and / or gas under the lakebed, which Malawi has already licensed European and Chinese firms to explore. It is important and it is my hope that the dispute is sorted amicably, once and for all.
Equally important are the benefits of oil exploration on a lake that the livelihoods of a lot of Malawians depend. The previous government led by the late President Bingu wa Mutharika licensed firms to explore for the aforementioned commodities without consulting Malawians on the issue. Likewise, Joyce Banda’s regime is determined to continue with the project.
Governments do not always have to consult its people when carrying out its duties – the assumption is that citizens support government action through their vote. However, the issue of oil is different. There are two main reasons why. First, the exploration endangers wildlife on which lakeshore populations, and society at large depend. Second, studies have indicated that the proceeds of the oil and / or gas does not “trickle down” to the masses, the majority of whom depend on the lake – it benefits the elite whose livelihoods is not solely dependent on the lake, as the bellow cases will show.
According to a 2007 Commonwealth Secretariat conference paper on fisheries (May 2-4) in Mauritius, fish in Malawi provides over 60% of dietary animal protein and 40% of the total protein supply in the country. The paper notes that much of the fish is consumed in rural areas thereby contributing significantly to daily nutritional requirements of the rural poor, who make up over 80% of the total population.
The paper further notes: “the sector is a source of employment, directly employing about 50,000 fishermen, and indirectly about 350,000 people who are involved in fish processing, fish marketing, net marketing, boat building and engine repair.” The paper added that fish generates local revenue of about MK2.6 billion annually and contributes about 4% of GDP. The existence of over 800 fish species in the lake has created ecotourism, and an expert trade for aquarium fish (Mbuna).
Needless to say, oil exploration on Lake Malawi puts all these vital livelihood activities at risk. Has the government done their homework on this? What is going to replace the nutritional value of the fish that this lake provides? Should oil be discovered, the oil drilling may create employment but it is an illusion to believe that this could replace the current activities people are doing on and around the lake to sustain themselves.
Contrary to common perception, a Knowledge@Wharton’s review of John Ghazvian book: “Untapped: Scramble for Africa’s Oil”, observes that countries with oil often grow slower than those without. It points out that “between 1970 and 1993, countries without oil saw their economies grow four times faster than those of the countries with oil.” The review quotes Ghazvian that this is due to oil exports inflating the value of country’s currency, thereby making its other exports uncompetitive. “At the same time workers flock to the booming petroleum business, which saps the other sectors of the economy. Your country becomes import-dependent…that decimates a country’s agriculture and traditional industries.”
Furthermore, it notes, oil corrupt politicians, as governments aren’t dependent on income taxes and therefore no longer have to remain accountable to its citizens but companies and corporation involved with the oil drilling. “The state isn’t an engineer of economic growth, but a gravy train. None of the money gets down to the people.” Ghazvian reportedly said.
The renowned historian and columnist, DD Phiri recently pointed out that he fears that if Malawi were to discover oil its neighbours will start demanding a share of the spoils, as Tanzania has already shown. Yet Malawi has international organisations to turn to should the need arise; international treaties such as the one by the Organisation of African Unity, the later day version of African Union, where independent African states agreed to observe and respect colonial boundaries in order to avoid disputes. United Nations and / or African Union could come to Malawi’s rescue.
What about poor Malawians whose livelihoods entirely depend on this body of water? As pointed out earlier, the lake ownership issue has to be resolved amicably but let us not ignore the fact that the oil exploration, whether it is found or not, holds nothing for the poor people of Malawi; they will pay the ultimate price for the gain of a few greedy Malawians – mostly politicians. The needs of the poorest in society must remain a priority for those making crucial decisions on the issue of both ownership of Lake Malawi and the possibility of oil exploration.
This article is also published by The Nation newspaper - Monday 20th August 2012