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Mozambique: a country plagued by corruption, poverty, and violence

Our guest editor for this article is Nuno Sousa. He is a Portuguese UvA alumnus who used to be an editor and Head Columnist for Rostra Economica. He is fascinated by politics, economics, and International Affairs. With this article, he intends to inform the readers about the grave humanitarian situation in Mozambique, an issue that requires greater awareness and more meaningful action.

Mozambique is an East African country with ca. 30 million inhabitants. Despite its natural beauty and natural resources, Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world with a GDP per capita PPP of only $1,292 and ranks 181st out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index ranking. Corruption in the country is widespread, private interests overcome the public good and war is never far away. Like most African nations, it is not an ethnically and culturally homogenous country. Its borders are a colonial heritage, resulting from the division of Africa by European powers. Portuguese, the language of the former colonizer Portugal, serves as the lingua franca and constitutes a factor of unity in a country where several ethnic groups and religions live side by side.

Map of Mozambique

The Portuguese first arrived in what is now the country of Mozambique in 1498 during Vasco da Gama’s voyage past the Cape of Good Hope into India. They soon installed trading posts in ports such as Sofala and the Island of Mozambique (which gave its name to the country). However, the presence of the Portuguese was small and limited to a few coastal outposts until the late 19th century when the Portuguese asserted their power in the entirety of the territory, defeating local leaders such as the famous King “Gungunhana” of the Gaza Empire, and shifting the seat of government to the city of Lourenço Marques (modern-day Maputo) in the south of the country.

In the 20th century, Mozambique experienced some economic development, with the construction of significant infrastructures such as the Cahora Bassa dam – the fourth biggest dam in Africa – and the emergence of the first organized liberation movements. While imperialism declined in the post-WW2 period and most African colonies became independent in the 1950s and 60s, Portugal became isolated on the global stage in its attempt to keep its colonial possessions. Thus, Portugal combatted a long war of attrition (from 1961 to 1974) against liberation movements in its African colonies, including Mozambique, where the FRELIMO nationalist movement was the main opponent.

The situation changed with the Carnation Revolution on 25th April 1974 when a group of Portuguese militaries overthrew the authoritarian regime known as “Estado Novo” and put Portugal in a path towards democracy and decolonization. Subsequently, Mozambique got its independence from Portugal in June 1975. However, the situation in the newly independent Mozambique quickly deteriorated. Violence against people of European-descendent was rampant (the majority of the 250,000 Portuguese left) and a civil war broke out between the Marxist FRELIMO government, which was supported by Cuba and the Soviet Union, and the anti-communist RENAMO supported by neighbouring Rhodesia and South Africa. It is estimated that over a million people died, and four million people were displaced during the Mozambican Civil War, which only finished in 1992 with the Rome General Peace Accords.

With the 1992 peace accords and the 1994 general elections, Mozambique started a path towards democracy, peace, and the construction of a market economy. Unfortunately, that path has not been easy as corruption is rampant, unemployment is high, and living conditions are poor – according to the WHO, the average life expectancy is only 58.1 years, about a quarter of the population does not have access to sanitation and an even higher proportion does not have access to a basic water source.

Despite significant economic reforms, rebounding economic growth in the 1990s and 2000s, an abundance of natural resources such as aluminium, coal and natural gas, and a high agricultural potential, Mozambique continues to be one of the least developed countries in the world, and its government lacks the resources and capacity to successfully install an efficient bureaucracy and tax collecting system, and to execute much-needed investment in education, healthcare, and transportation. The country has had a significant share of its foreign debt forgiven or rescheduled due to efforts made by the IMF’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative (public debt accounted for 119% of the country’s GDP in its peak in 2016), but it still lacks access to international funding, being highly dependent on institutional investors, such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank, for investments in essential infrastructures.

Destruction caused by Cyclone Idai in the city of Beira

Mozambique has also suffered from natural disasters in recent years. In 2019, two large-scale tropical cyclones, Idai and Kenneth, struck Mozambique very hard. Cyclone Idai affected mostly Northern and Central Mozambique, causing major floods in the Sofala Province, and destroying up to 90% of the city of Beira, Mozambique’s 4th largest city and 2nd largest port. An estimated 1.85 million people were affected by this cyclone, 111 thousand houses were destroyed, 100 thousand people were reported as needing rescue, and at least 600 people died. In addition, approximately 700 thousand hectares of crops were destroyed, causing a significant risk of famine in a country where most people live off subsistence farming. Cyclone Kenneth, though not as destructive as Idai, destroyed 2,500 houses in Cabo Delgado Province and caused at least 45 deaths in Mozambique.

Politically, the situation has deteriorated in the last years. In 2013, RENAMO claiming a lack of political inclusion and bad distribution of economic revenues, took up arms again and started a low-intensity armed conflict centred in the Gorongosa region in Central Mozambique. In May 2018, RENAMO’s long-time leader Afonso Dhlakama died, and a year later, on the 1st of August 2019, a peace agreement was signed between RENAMO’s new leadership and the Mozambican government.

However, the most serious situation that endangers peace and security in Mozambique and East Africa is the one that has been developing in Cabo Delgado Province in Northern Mozambique since October 2017. The Islamic terrorist group “Ansar al-Sunna” (associated with the “Al-Shabaab”, the East African faction of Al-Qaeda, and with the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) has been terrorizing the population of the province of Cabo Delgado, and has declared the territory that it controls as a part of the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (IS-CAP). This group is estimated to have around 3,000 members (mostly Mozambicans), and although it does not appear to have a centralised leadership, it has been recently scaling up its operations.

This terrorist group originated in Cabo Delgado Province, the northernmost province of Mozambique, which borders Tanzania and is located 2,000 km north of the capital Maputo (which is in the south of the country near the border with South Africa). This distance results in Northern Mozambique being neglected by the Mozambican government, which is concentrated in the country’s South. In addition, Cabo Delgado is one of only two provinces where the population is majority Muslim in a country that has a Christian majority.

In 2011, the Mamba South gas field was discovered off the coast of Cabo Delgado Province, which meant that Mozambique could become one of the world’s largest producers of natural gas. Thus, in the last decade, investments have been flowing into the region, which have yet to benefit the majority of the population. Natural disasters continue to ravish the region, poverty is widespread, investments in education and healthcare are scarce, hundreds of families were displaced to make way for natural gas projects, and government authorities are often a source of oppression and violence instead of security and justice (see the cases of violence against journalists and local populations carried out by Mozambican soldiers reported by NGOs in an Al Jazeera article). Therefore, this terrorist group has managed to radicalise young people and to assert itself in a very unstable region. Since 2017 its actions have mainly consisted in attacking small groups of soldiers and policemen stationed in the region, terrorising local populations and funding themselves through ivory trade, drug trafficking and contraband.

Military opposition by the Mozambican armed forces has been very ineffective and dependent on private military groups, such as the “Wagner Group” and “Dyck Advisory Group”, which have been protecting private interests in the natural gas explorations in the region and, according to Amnesty International, have alsoindiscriminately shot against unarmed civilians. The terrorist group has been more ambitious and successful in the past year, successfully capturing the city of Mocímboa da Praia in August of 2020. Attacks on local populations are frequent, with reports that the terrorist group has been beheading both adults and children.

Map of the territories occupied by the terrorist insurgents

In late March 2021, the situation worsened with a battle for the control of the city of Palma, the centre of the liquified natural gas industry in Northern Mozambique. The number of casualties is unknown, but an attack on a hotel where many of the foreign workers employed by oil company Total had taken refuge resulted in several fatalities. This battle has led to thousands of people leaving the area around Palma and fleeing through land or sea to the city of Pemba, capital of the Cabo Delgado Province, or to the border with Tanzania. By the 5th of April, Mozambican authorities successfully retook the city of Palma, and terrorist forces retreated after destroying large areas of the city, including government buildings, banks, stores, and hotels. Despite the city being controlled by the Mozambican military for the time being, further attacks are likely, as terrorist forces have not been defeated. This instability has led Total to abandon operations in the city of Palma, and to many local residents deciding not to return to Palma. In summary, in the last years, this terrorist insurgence in the North of Mozambique has led to several thousand deaths and several hundred thousand people displaced, with estimates varying between 400,000 and 700,000 people who have fled their homes.

At the moment, both humanitarian and military help is needed in Northern Mozambique. While the Mozambique government has already accepted Portugal’s and the United States’ help in training Mozambican armed forces, the government led by President Filipe Nyusi continues to downplay the severity of the situation and refuses to receive military help, either from the US, the EU or the African Union. Some have accused this attitude of the Mozambican government as an irresponsibility towards the population of Cabo Delgado and an admission that it does not want the international community to know the extent of the Human Rights violations perpetrated not only by the Islamic terrorists but also by the Mozambican military and its mercenary allies.

In conclusion, the situation in Northern Mozambique is truly worrying. A military conflict is increasing in scale in one of the least developed areas of the world, where the incompetence of a corrupt government is joined by the greed of international oil and gas companies, and by the fanatism and barbarism of Islamic terrorists. Unless a stronger military action is executed and humanitarian efforts doubled, the situation in Cabo Delgado Province can get out of hand, causing a greater number of deaths and displacements, and creating a new stronghold for global radical Islamic forces that would endanger the stability of the whole of Mozambique and East Africa.


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