Malawi, Tanzania open oil talks

2012-08-20 16:36


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Mzuzu - Malawi and Tanzania on Monday opened five days of diplomatic talks about their border, a long-ignored dispute that has taken new importance as oil exploration gets under way in the region.

"The people of Tanzania and Malawi have every confidence that the meeting will clear the misunderstanding on the border once and for all," said Malawian Foreign Minister Ephraim Mganda Chiume.

He said the two countries "are full of expectation that an amicable solution can be found out of these discussions".

His Tanzanian counterpart Bernard Membe did not attend the opening ceremony, but he is expected to come for the final meeting of ministers on Saturday in Malawi's capital Lilongwe.

Lake Malawi

The dispute stems from colonial-era border lines around Lake Malawi, Africa's third-largest.

At issue is a largely undeveloped swath of the lake, where Lilongwe has awarded a license to British firm Surestream to explore for oil in north-eastern waters near Tanzania.

Malawi has carefully watched Uganda's developments around Lake Albert, where oil firms are pouring in billions of dollars to exploit reserves estimated at 2.5 billion barrels.

Lake Malawi lies in the same Great Lakes system stretching along the African Rift, and Malawi is hoping for a similarly large payout - which could transform the fortunes of a country whose economy depends on small farmers and foreign aid.

But Tanzania wants a halt to the oil exploration in the 29 600km² lake to pave way for talks, in the hope of getting a slice of any discoveries.

Surestream is currently carrying out an environmental assessment.

Differing views

Malawi bases its claim to the lake on a colonial-era agreement dating from 1890 that stipulates that the border between the two countries lies along the Tanzanian shore of the lake.

However, Tanzania claims the border runs along the middle of Lake Malawi, home to more than 500 species of fish and a major tourist attraction for Malawi.

When African states became independent, they agreed to maintain their colonial borders. Tanzania was a German colony that Britain took over after World War I. Britain then placed all the lake's waters under Malawi's administration.

Both nations say they could turn to international arbitration to settle the dispute if their talks fail.

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