Mozambique is an oft-neglected country in an oft-neglected part of the world. Flanked by Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and the powerhouse of South Africa, it tends to get brushed aside. But that isn’t right. It’s a beautiful country with a long, picturesque coastline, a relaxed pseudo-Mediterranean atmosphere, good food, good music, and interesting architecture and history. Its culture is a reflection of its myriad historical influences: Arab, Portuguese, Swahili, British, and of course, Bantu (the main ethnic category in southern Africa). It’s also an important country to keep an eye on as it recovers from one of Africa’s worst wars and struggles to rebuild a benign reputation and figure out a hopeful future.
So on the occasion of Mozambique’s 40th anniversary, I present to you my introduction to the Republic of Mozambique. Fair warning: As Mozambique is so overlooked, it’s hard to scrape up information on it, so any readers with more knowledge or experience are welcome to correct any flubs.
Mozambique, like many other African countries, is a rather artificial concoction. (Even the shape of Mozambique, as you can see on the map, is pretty wonky.) Its northern coastal area belongs to the “Swahili Coast,” a distinct cultural region that stretches from Somalia on down that was welded together in medieval times by Arab and Indian trading. Inland areas had more in common with the empires to the west (Zimbabwe and Mutapa). Both of them developed civilizations based on farming and iron-working, even though information on them is patchy.
The country was welded together by the Portuguese, who built forts in the north in the 1500s to supply their trade with India and East Asia (which went around Africa back in those days). The colonial era began with the Portuguese exploiting the area’s gold and ivory and enslaving the locals (and introducing Christianity to the mostly Muslim area), but colonization was limited at first. The Portuguese preferred small trading depots and forts to full-scale colonies (except maybe Brazil), and most of Mozambique continued under the rule of local empires.
The “Scramble for Africa” in the late 1800s changed that. Southern Africa rapidly became a British stomping ground, and Portugal was determined to hold on to its outpost on the Indian Ocean. Portuguese hopes of uniting Mozambique with Angola, their other colony on the opposite coast, failed, but Portugal managed to carve out a decent-sized colony before British diplomatic and military pressure penned it in. Discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa shortly afterwards, combined with an agricultural boom in Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe), made southern Mozambique much more important; railroads were built connecting these colonies, and the capital of Mozambique was shifted from the modest Mozambique Island in the north to Lourenço Marques in the south. Mozambique thrived from these transport and commercial links, along with exploitation of its own products (cotton, sisal, sugar, oil, coal)…. but as usual, most of the benefits only went to the Portuguese, leaving the vast majority of the colony poor, uneducated, and socially segregated from its master.
Portuguese colonial rule wasn’t that much different from other African colonies, but simmering discontent was never far from the surface. Poor education and ethnic disunity kept much of a resistance from organizing, but when Portugal, under the rule of a hard-line dictatorship, ignored the wave of decolonization around Africa in the 1960s, that changed. A bunch of anti-Portuguese resistance movements coalesced in Tanzania to become FRELIMO (the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique), which waged a guerrilla war for a decade against the intransigent colonists. Building a dam in the colony’s interior and trying to care more about the colony’s impoverished villages didn’t do much good; FRELIMO enjoyed wide support from the colony, its black-ruled neighbors, and the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, who welcomed a chance to gain an ally in Africa and stick a knife in imperialist ribs.
The war ended in 1975, when a coup in Portugal overthrew the dictatorship and led to a collapse in support for fighting to cling on to a distant colony of marginal interest to most Portuguese. Yet this was only the beginning of a new stage in Mozambique’s woes. Rhodesia and South Africa were still white-ruled, and were terrified of losing yet another neighbor to decolonization. Mozambique was only too happy to offer support to Rhodesian and South African resistance movements. What’s more, all that Communist aid had driven FRELIMO into the Commie camp; it threw out trained Portuguese businessmen, seized their assets, collectivized agriculture, stamped out Portuguese influences in Mozambican culture, and terrorized priests. Rhodesia & South Africa were not about to let overt Communists rest easy.
And so, within a year a new war had begun. Rhodesia & South Africa threw together an opposition movement, RENAMO (the Mozambican National Resistance), to hassle Mozambique. It blew up bridges and railroads and terrorized villages. FRELIMO fought back hard, herding villagers into armed camps to cut off any grassroots RENAMO support and sowing fields with landmines. The former guerrilla movement ironically found itself fighting back against another guerrilla movement. The fighting raged for 15 years, killing over a million and shattering Mozambique’s infrastructure. Internal transport and communication dwindled away. RENAMO sabotage and FRELIMO central planning ruined the economy. Rape, child soldiers, and wholesale plunder were commonplace. Food scarcity turned into famine, which aggravated the plundering. And still the war raged on.
As in other Cold War sideshows, the collapse of the Communist Bloc smothered the war at last. With Communism thoroughly discredited and no more Soviet funding, FRELIMO shed its Marxist ideology like an itchy coat. Meanwhile, white-ruled Rhodesia had reverted to black-ruled Zimbabwe and apartheid was coming down in South Africa. With the old battle lines fading away, both sides lost interest in fighting and came to peace terms in 1992. FRELIMO basically won, with RENAMO accepting a peaceful role as the opposition party.
Mozambique’s nasty civil war still lingers over the country like a receding storm. All that bloodshed and suffering has left a sinister afterlife in the form of amputees, PTSD victims, and gloomy memories. Mozambique still has plenty of minefields left over, which are slowly being cleaned up (sometimes by trained rats!). Buildings lie in ruins; roads are still under construction. The flag still has an AK-47 on it.
But it’s also been 2 decades, and the country is moving on. Mozambique has seen economic growth of about 7% a year since 1992, among the world’s best records. Maputo (the renamed Lourenço Marques) has revived since the dark days of the war, with busy traffic on the streets and ports, a construction boom, and thriving nightlife. A railroad once more crosses the Zambezi River, providing a vital link between the north and south of the country. Oil and gas discoveries have created a newly wealthy class. Biofuels, aluminum, coal and fishing are other key sectors.
Yet just like in colonial times, most of the people aren’t seeing this money. In part this is because foreign investors and the new rich take most of the profits from the resource boom. But it’s also a case of corruption and waste among FRELIMO, which has ruled Mozambique ever since independence and has developed the usual symptoms of political parties that stay around too long: distance from its constituents, greed, power hunger, apathy, and a sense of impunity. It’s a far cry from its egalitarian, Communist roots now.
As a result, Mozambique is still one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita GDP of a meager $650. Education, health, transport, and economic opportunity remain basic at best. Lots of southerners migrate southwest to South Africa for better jobs. Northerners border Malawi and a poor part of Tanzania and are pretty much out of luck. Mozambique is shaped kind of like a funnel, and northerners think of their money as sliding down the funnel into the mouths of fatcats in Maputo.
Politically, Mozambique has relaxed the rigid dictatorship of the civil war years, but FRELIMO’s monopoly on power for 4 decades indicates only partial progress on the democratization front. RENAMO still competes in elections, but gets poor results (16% in 2009). Afonso Dhlakama, the head of RENAMO (since 1979!), got frustrated with FRELIMO dominance in 2013, pulled out of the political process, and set up camp in the Gorongosa Hills in the middle of the country. There he refashioned RENAMO into an army and started a low-level insurgency against police stations and the national army. Nothing much was accomplished other than scaring away foreigners and killing a few hundred people; RENAMO only had about 400 supporters. But it was an unwelcome reminder of how bitter politics in Mozambique can still be — as was the murder in March of Gilles Cistac, a lawyer sympathetic to RENAMO. RENAMO gave up in 2014 and contested the elections, where it did better (37%), if still not good enough. (Its lack of a real political ideology doesn’t help.)
Mozambique’s travails are similar to its other African brethren. Abundant natural resources are gold mines (sometimes literally) for savvy foreign investors and managers and a local elite with connections and luck, while the vast majority remain off the grid — the power grid, the sanitation grid, the economic grid, the road grid. The decline of dictatorship has left a bloated, complacent party with a monopoly on power in its wake. Both of these feed crime and insurgency.
But Mozambique has assets, some of them unique to its location and history. Its Portuguese architecture, wildlife, and terrific coastline made it a favorite tourist destination for rich South Africans before the war; it could definitely reattain that status among the Third World backpacker crowd. There are new gas and coal discoveries in the north, which could improve that struggling area. Its president, Joaquim Chissano (1986-2005), won the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership for his efforts in cultivating democratic governance. The World Bank speaks very highly of Mozambique and lavishes it with money.
Probably the best omen for Mozambique are its demographics: Half of Mozambique’s people were born after the war, and the country has a vibrant, optimistic outlook. Young Portuguese, beleaguered by their country’s ongoing economic slump, are even heading to Mozambique now in search of jobs. The future seems bright — but only if the government can adjust its economy and politics to provide for the new generation.