Geopolitics, Energy and the Great African Lakes

Sunday, 16 June, 2013

The Berlin Conference on Africa held in 1884-1885 exemplified European colonial ‘divide and rule’ policies implemented in the non-industrial world, dictating the political future of the African continent.  The conference, initiated by the German Chancellor Otto Bismarck and convened by Belgian King Leopold II, effectively cut the African continent into arbitrary pieces on the basis of colonial spheres of interest, allocating resources between the European powers.  The geopolitical impact of these colonial divisions as an indirect source for regional conflict has been evident in the continent’s post-independence phase.  Intrastate conflicts in Saharan Africa, the Congo Basin, the Gulf of Guinea and the African Great Lakes have been influenced by the entrenched colonial legacies left behind by the rule of the industrial powers.

Now in the 21st century, regional divisions and related territorial disputes have re-emerged as flashpoints of instability and conflict in the East African Great Lakes, albeit in a different manner.  An unresolved territorial dispute between Tanzania and Malawi regarding the border line along Lake Malawi/Nyasa has recently attained prominence as a regional issue due to the commencement of hydrocarbon exploration by British corporation Surestream Petroleum in blocks awarded in the disputed area by the Malawi government in September 2011.

Without sufficient indigenous capacity in terms of both technology and capital, the development of hydrocarbon industries has been subject to foreign investment not only in these East African nations, but across the continent as a whole.  Through participation in Malawi’s hydrocarbon sector, international oil and gas corporations, in this case Surestream Petroleum, have re-ignited sparks causing diplomatic uncertainty between the two nations in question.  The dispute over Lake Malawi/Nyasa could have broader geopolitical ramifications for the East African region, an emerging hydrocarbon frontier in Africa.