The discovery of oil under Lake Nyasa (known as Lake Malawi in Malawi) holds great promise for one of the poorest countries in the world. With an economy dependent on agriculture and one of the world’s lowest GDP per capita, oil wealth could revolutionize the fortunes of Malawi’s economy. It is important to mention here that the ownership of Lake Nyasa remains a crisis between Tanzania and Malawi.
Whilst, oil can fuel prosperity in Malawi, the experiences of some other oil rich nations on the continent point to a different possible ending, courtesy of the so-called ‘resource curse’ whereby instead of contributing to a stronger economy and prosperous society, the valuable asset facilitates the rise of fat cat oil barons, institutionalized corruption and environmental catastrophe while the general populace is left in the same, if not greater, poverty as before.
On one hand, Ghana provides one relatively positive example Malawi could follow. In Ghana, awareness of oil management best practice alongside international scrutiny of the fledgling industry has afforded civil society a loud voice. A report released by Ghana Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas, for example, addressed holes in Ghanaian oil law and was trumpeted as “a big milestone” for Ghanaian civil society by Moussa Ba, Oxfam America’s West Africa regional coordinator for extractive industries.
Unfortunately, however, even tentative success stories like the Ghanaian case are few and far between on the continent. In West Africa, the roads travelled have been varied, but the ultimate destination for many countries has been the same: The enrichment of a few at the expense of development for the many says Emma Vicker of Think Africa Press.
In Nigeria, exports of around two million barrels per day has been accompanied by endemic and institutionalized corruption: oil governs politics, rewarding petroleum “playboys” while the average Nigerian can expect to earn $2000 per year before dying at the age of 52. Not to mention the environmental catastrophe in the Niger Delta (Ibid).
Yet Africa’s tyrants are not the only ones to blame. High up in glittering office buildings in Lagos, London and Houston sit oil executives exploiting legal loopholes and corporate social responsibility rhetoric to operate in high risk zones without damage to their reputations, and enormous benefits to their bank balances.
As Vicker of the Think Africa Press points out, the oil under Malawian territory does not belong to politicians, oil executives or militia men, but to the people of Malawi. Banda and her government have a duty to ensure ordinary Malawians see the benefits of this wealth, but the buck does not stop there. The international community must also shine a spotlight on Malawi, show no tolerance for opacity around its oil dealings, and support its leaders to allow oil wealth to be a blessing and not a curse.