A love letter to Dar-es-Salaam
The opening of the "Nsanje World Inland Port" was quite a lavish affair and I remember someone from the Reserve Bank of Malawi announcing rather blandly, a few weeks after the last drop of whisky had been quaffed and the festivities over, that the country was facing a crisis: there was little foreign currency left to purchase fuel with.
I immediately wondered aloud what kind of government would spend taxpayers' hard-earned cash on what, in the end, was just a shindig for personal pride, when they must have known, having looked at the books, that there would be very little cash left in the kitty.
But then this Nsanje project was someone's wet dream and it would be unconscionable to deny him a grand opening party. We even put a show-boat on Mozambique's territorial waters without their consent but the abrasive tactic backfired badly and we weren't on speaking terms with them for a long time after that.
Well, the fuel shortage followed shortly after this and there was a terrifying transport crisis. The loss in productivity everywhere was incalculable. There was much gnashing of teeth among the same people who had held this grand Nsanje party and insulted Mozambique.
Like most things the government had been doing, the decision to be rude to Mozambique and go on with the Nsanje Port project was based on emotion, not reason. A reasonable decision would have been to scale down on this project, on the logical grounds that Mozambique's concerns needed to be addressed—however illogical they might have been.
Moreover, a reasonable decision would have taken account of the fact that the Beira Port and its corridor in Mozambique is our lifeline in all spheres and there was no need to be brazenly confrontational with our neighbour.
So the origin of the bad blood between Malawi and Mozambique was steeped in the government's emotional attachment to one man's dream pet project.
But had the politicians curbed their emotions and decided on a step-by-step programme of engagement with Mozambique, there would have been much less disruption than there was. My theory has always been that emotion is not like passion, which some of our politicians claim is what drives them to do what they do ostensibly for the good of their country and their people.
Emotion is, as defined by the dictionary: disturbance of mind, mental sensation or state; instinctive feeling as opposed to reason.
The latest wrangle with Tanzania over ownership of Lake Malawi has some people finding the same emotional drive irresistible: "we own the lake; the oil in it is all ours. Tanzania can go to hell. If its war, we are ready for it". Really?
Any account of who has the right to explore for oil on Lake Malawi, especially given by those who have more nationalist zeal than is good for the average person, is bound to be emotional. Unfortunately, they seem to bring the same volume of emotion into discussing the pros and cons of drilling for oil.
Now, it is possible to dismiss Tanzanians as being silly but it's quite possible they have a point—maybe several points—and for that they have to be heard.
Should there be oil found, the fact is that the environmental and public impact of exploration, pollution and contamination will affect Tanzania too, whether we like to admit that or not.
Where it's not handled well, prospecting has meant death to communities—oil spills are devastating, farmlands are destroyed, water and air quality severely compromised, aquatic life is incinerated, plants die and there are grave consequences all round.
And not many of these oil explorers are philanthropists. Ken Saro Wiwa died fighting them for the devastation wrought on his Ogoni people in Nigeria. Many years later, Shell Oil was forced to set up an environmental restoration fund to deal with the ecological and public health problems in Ogoniland but even then, experts say it will take no less than 30 years and US$1 billion to restore the ecosystem and address other problems.
These explorers want a return on investment, a good return at that, often at whatever cost. There are risks to oil exploration and if you are not clever you will end up with investors who will take and take and take and not put anything back to help communities affected by their activities.
This explains why, in part, Tanzania was flabbergasted in 2010 to see oil prospecting had started, planes flying into their airspace and yet their concerns had not been addressed. They protested but our leadership then didn't want to hear. They were keen to do to Tanzania what they had done to Mozambique—respond with insolence. But now it's clear that some of this mischief cannot continue.
Thankfully, the present leadership isn't as hawkish as the previous one, so President Joyce Banda has to be trusted to bring the country to sanity and give astute direction over this. She has so far kept her powder dry and—in one masterstroke of ingenuity on her part—hasn't said a thing to inflame the volatile situation.
This is her golden opportunity to manage this crisis and assure all our neighbours that her government will not ride roughshod over their concerns or belittle them in any manner. Good Neigbourliness, 101.
Which is why both ourselves and Tanzanians urgently need to stop this nonsense talk of going to war. Wars are not pretty skirmishes but are real megadeath confrontations in which there are no winners. People's rights will simply not exist anymore and the armies will be free to crack open as many skulls as they feel like without the fear of disciplinary action. The hard reality of war is not a pleasant prospect so we need to put aside this belligerent jingoism and think of the greater good of our countries.
Now, the antagonist will undoubtedly say that we have a right to go on drilling the lake without even consulting Tanzania but, truth is, we don't.
The 1890 Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty is itself a complex arrangement so it would be naïve to believe that Tanzania is just being harangous for the fun of it.
Jakaya Kikwete is an intelligent man, whose mentor was Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, and one of the African leaders—along with Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Samora Machel of Mozambique—without whom the liberation struggle in Southern Africa would not have started and succeeded.
He, I hope, can be trusted to be reasonable.