THE simmering diplomatic spat between Zambia and Zimbabwe over the fishing rights on Lake Kariba can easily spiral into an embarrassing border incident and row if not given the international diplomatic importance it deserves.
So far at least 45 Zambians and Zimbabweans have been arrested, are on trial or have been sentenced to long jail terms by both countries for allegedly straying into each other’s territory while fishing on the lake, which is jointly owned by both countries.
Last Saturday 18 Zambian fishermen were rounded up on the lake by Zimbabwean authorities and taken to Kariba to face instant justice following that country’s decision to set up fast track courts at Kariba to deal with what the Zimbabwean government sees as a deliberate and dangerous ploy by Zambia to harass its nationals fishing on the lake.
The 18 Zambians bring the total number of fishermen arrested by Zimbabwe to 24 after six others were arrested and taken to Kariba town in that country accused of allegedly fishing illegally on the Zimbabwean side of the lake.
So far one Zambian has died in unclear circumstances on the lake after he and others went to the Zimbabwean side with money to try and buy the freedom of six of their colleagues.
We totally agree and wish to highlight here the timely warning by Vice President Inonge Wina when she visited Siavonga recently. The Vice President warned Zambian fishermen to observe international obligations and avoid straying into foreign waters, a situation that could spark a border conflict between the two friendly neighbours.
It is quite clear that that important Government caution has been ignored and the results are that more Zambian fishermen have been apprehended on the lake and taken to Zimbabwe to face justice. This kind of border incidents should not be allowed to continue because they could easily sour relations between the two countries.
We are concerned by the belligerence of the ruling ZANU party senior official who was sent by the Zimbabwe government to observe the trial of its 21 citizens in the Siavonga Magistrates Court. The official was heard outside court remarking, after his fellow nationals were sentenced to prison terms, that Zambian fishermen who will be caught fishing in Zimbabwean waters will be ‘‘punished without mercy’’.
Now erring Zambian fishermen, including the 18, face summary trial and long sentences not at Kariba but in the notorious Karoi Maximum Prison, the home of Zimbabwe’s hard core criminals and political detainees.
We urge Zambian authorities to initiate dialogue with their Zimbabwean counterparts to try and find a solution to the impasse over fishing rights on Lake Kariba. It appears the Zimbabweans feel that some Zambian officials have been overzealous by arresting and jailing the first group of Zimbabwean fishermen who are currently serving prison at Chimbokaila prison in Lusaka.
In response, Zimbabwean police have intensified day and night patrols on the lake, looking for Zambian fishermen they suspect might have crossed the invisible border line between the two countries. Once caught or dragged forcibly from Zambian waters they are whisked away to the Zimbabwean side and thrown into police cells.
What is a fact is that there is no boundary in the middle of Lake Kariba separating Zambia from Zimbabwe. People of the two countries have been jointly exploiting the resources of the lake for all these years without a single complaint from either side.
What is also a fact is that the ruling Patriotic Front in Zambia is a Siamese twin of Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU PF. President Edgar Lungu and his mentor President Robert Mugabe are the best of friends and comrades.
It is for this reason that the two countries cannot allow a non-issue and a small economic itch to drive a wedge between two most friendly neighbouring states on the continent.