Border Treaties and Interstate Disputes in Africa: An Extension of the Normative Theory in Explaining the Malawi-Tanzania Conundrum

James Zotto


The colonial project for the partition of Africa in the second half of the 19th century, which culminated in the 20th century, led to the disgruntlements among African countries in the post-colonial period. One discontentment manifests itself in the interstate border disputes. This paper is a critique to colonial scholarship which maintains that African borders were defined by colonial treaties with great precision. While I acknowledge the colonial border treaties as the foundations of the modern African states, this paper argues that most of the treaties were imprecise, incomplete, ill-defined, used vague documentation, routinely ignored ethnic composition of the territories and did not reflect realities on the ground, and, consequently staked interstate conflicts and wars in post-colonial period. To advance this argument, this paper is situated in the normative theory to explain the Malawi-Tanzania border dispute in the Lake Nyasa area, which reflects an ill-fated legacy of colonial boundary making process. Data for this paper are mainly drawn from the archival sources accessed from the British National Archives in the United Kingdom, Federal Archives in Germany, SOAS; and another documentary information accessed from various libraries – public and private. Findings divulge that the Anglo-German Agreement of 1890 which situated the boundary between Malawi and Tanzania contained some anomalies entrenched in the contradictions within the treaty, limits and exercise of sovereignty of the two powers and geographical realities. The paper sums up that the two countries cannot use the treaty as one and the only justification for situating the boundary either on the eastern shore or in the middle of the lake. The treaty may, however, provide the basis for the two nation-states to renegotiate and compromise their shared boundary and rectify the errors noted.


Border treaties, Lake Nyasa, Normative theory

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