A stitch in time: preventive diplomacy and the Lake Malawi dispute

A stitch in time: preventive diplomacy and the Lake Malawi dispute

A low-intensity dispute between Malawi and Tanzania threatens regional peace as the two countries contest the demarcation of their national boundaries at Lake Malawi. This long-standing dispute became more urgent when in 2011 the Malawian government issued licences for oil prospecting beneath the lake’s northern shoreline. Although tensions have waxed and waned in accordance with the respective countries’ election cycles, both seek a speedy resolution of this dispute. Potential oil revenues are a significant game changer for these two highly indebted poor countries – but perhaps more so for Malawi, which is less endowed with natural resources.
 
In the absence of a functioning SADC Tribunal to mediate the dispute, the task has been assigned to the Forum for Former African Heads of State and Government, but there are also other regional mechanisms that could assist with the task. In particular, it falls within the purview of the many early-warning mechanisms in SADC and the AU that already exist and whose raison d’être is to prevent the escalation of disputes.
 
This paper explores the failures and challenges that plague Africa’s preventive diplomacy institutions and advocates that the region would do well to empower these institutions. This would foster stronger and more legitimate regional institutions that would be better able to act decisively on dispute settlement.
 
It is apparent from this paper that there are a number of bodies that are concerned with the resolution of disputes such as the one posed by the Lake Malawi/Nyasa dispute. Although these institutions are aware of the problem to varying degrees, there is little to suggest that they are able to co-ordinate efforts among themselves, or in the service of the governments in question. Arguably, the fortification of these institutions at regional and sub-regional levels would depoliticise much of the process and inch the continent towards stronger, more transparent and democratic outcomes.
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