Mozambique: the long road to recovery

Anver Versi

As the country finds itself in a period of political stability, President Armando Guebuza has pledged to pursue dialogue, rather than armed response, in answer to threats from opposition party RENAMO and its formidable guerrilla arm 

It seems that Mozambique, a huge country straddling Africa’s south-eastern seaboard between Tanzania and South Africa, just cannot shake off the black dog of misery that has dogged its steps since the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama first set covetous eyes on its pristine beaches back in 1498. After five centuries of living under the whip during Portugal’s brutal colonial reign, followed by 16 years of a devastating civil war, it seemed that Mozambique had at last driven away the malign beast when a peace accord, between the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) government and the opposition, Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), was signed in 1992. 

The two decades that followed allowed the shattered country to begin the slow and painstaking task of reconstruction and the closing of deep wounds. With a ruined infrastructure, a million killed in the civil war and several times that number scattered either in neighbouring countries or internally displaced, Mozambique remained one of the poorest countries in the world. 

Attempts by the country’s majority, who still make their living farming small plots in the vast hinterland, to return to normal were severely hampered by millions of land-mines scattered at random, during the civil war, by the RENAMO guerrillas and their partners in crime, apartheid South Africa and the former state of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Two further plagues – floods of Biblical proportions early in 2000 followed by equally punishing droughts two years later – hammered an already prostrate people. 

“When calamity follows calamity until you think it cannot get any worse and then yet another calamity comes along, you only survive by learning to laugh in the face of disaster,” the country’s President, Armando Guebuza, told me when he was raising investments in London two years ago. 

True enough, tempered, hardened and strangely mellowed by their long ordeal, the people have made a remarkable recovery. Over the past decade, Mozambique has been one of the fastest growing economies in Africa – albeit from a low base – and is now primed to become one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of coal and natural gas (see article on Mozambique’s economy

But just when it seemed that Mozambique had finally shaken off its malignant companion and was about to step into the promised land, a dark shadow from the past reared its ugly head. Late last year, RENAMO and the remnants of its guerrilla fighting force declared that the peace accord had ended. Several soldiers, police and civilians have been killed by RENAMO fighters in the central region and reports indicate that fighting has moved south, closer to the capital Maputo. RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama has threatened to initiate a campaign of violence unless its demands on electoral and other reforms are met. 

RENAMO’s threats have caused panic among the population in some areas, as memories of the civil war are still fresh in the minds of many adults. And until a resolution is found, investors may hold back on some commitments. However, while RENAMO is spent as a fighting force, it has potent nuisance value especially if it decides to increase its sporadic attacks, particularly those targeting the railway line that carries the country’s coal from the Tete province to the port of Beira and on road transport corridors. 

RENAMO emerged from the chaotic early years following Mozambique’s independence in 1975. Earlier, Armando Guebuza, alongside Samora Machel and Joaquim Chissano, was part of FRELIMO’s bitter armed struggle against Portuguese rule. The Portuguese withdrawal from the country was a messy affair. It came about following the 1974 Carnation Revolution – a military coup in Portugal which ousted the regime of Estado Novo and, as a consequence, the earlier policy of retaining colonial possessions at all costs was abandoned. Having lost its Indian enclave of Goa, the Portuguese did not have the stomach for protracted and financially draining wars in their African colonies. 

When Mozambique declared independence the hundreds of thousands of Portuguese settlers, who had made a comfortable life for themselves in the country, were given their marching orders by Guebuza, then the Interior Minister. The country, under Samora Machel, adopted a Marxist policy, instantly making enemies of the USA and Britain. Machel’s support of the freedom movements in Rhodesia and South Africa brought down the wrath, and fire power, of the two southern African states. RENAMO was set up as an anti-FRELIMO movement and white officers from Rhodesia and South Africa ran the military wing. 

With the collapse of the Rhodesian regime, RENAMO relied heavily on apartheid South Africa for military and logistical support. There was a short-lived peace accord in 1984 when Machel agreed to drop support for the ANC if the South Africans withdrew their support for RENAMO, but it was not until 1992, when the writing was on the wall, that the apartheid regime was no longer tenable and a lasting peace accord was signed between Joaquim Chissano, who took over from Machel when the latter was killed in a mysterious air crash, and Dhlakama. 

By this time, the government had dropped its Marxist-Leninist stance and changed the constitution to allow for multiparty democracy. RENAMO laid down its arms and built a substantial political party but lost to FRELIMO in the 1999 elections. Since then its political influence has been on the wane and over the last few years it has been losing ground to a relative new political player, the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM). 

The new threat by RENAMO to take up an armed struggle is likely to backfire as it is now seen as having little more capacity than to cause trouble by sabotaging a promising economic revival. 

So what is behind the new flare up by RENAMO? “It is the old resource curse showing its evil character yet again,” says Eric Charas, one of Mozambique’s most unorthodox and charismatic entrepreneurs. The burly businessman, who runs Africa’s highest circulating free newspaper among other enterprises, says the latest upheaval is political positioning to take advantage of the business opportunities that are expected to flow from the gas and coal windfall. By demonstrating his ability to disrupt the economy, Dhlakama is creating a negotiating position for himself and his core supporters. Guebuza, on the other hand, has gone out of his way to avoid, so far, taking a hard line. He has said his government would “willingly take part in talks to try to resolve the problems facing the country”. 

“Despite the dangerous provocations by RENAMO, Mozambique will continue to live in peace and the government will continue to participate in dialogue with RENAMO,” says Guebuza. So far, talks between the two have amounted to little. 

In the meantime, Guebuza has two other problems to contend with. The first is the spate of kidnappings for ransom that has swept the country over the past two years. The prosperous Asian community has been perhaps the hardest hit, but the sense of insecurity has been such that a rare demonstration, demanding better security and an end to abductions, was staged by several thousand people in Maputo last year.

Guebuza’s second problem is to choose a successor to lead FRELIMO when he steps down before the next elections scheduled for October. 

Mozambique is on the brink of rewriting its hitherto woeful destiny and it will have the financial means to do so once the gas comes on stream, but it will not entirely banish the ‘black dog’ unless more of its people can share in the new wealth now waiting to be exploited.


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