Mozambique’s 44 years of freedom: Communism, corruption, heroin

If you want to get an idea of just who Barry Wood is, you have to check out his profile video. It just puts everything he writes into perspective. And with nearly 50 years in the game, and a travel map that is overloaded with visit pins, he brings a personal history to a lot of what he writes about. In his latest rendition, he points his pen at Mozambique, and takes a stab at the country’s 44 years of independence interspersed with his visits to the Southern Africa nation. It’s a long piece but if you’ve got the time, it’s well worth a read. History teaches us all a few lessons. – Stuart Lowman

By Barry D. Wood*

In December 1974 I made my first visit to Mozambique and was smitten by the relaxed Afro-Portuguese culture so different from South Africa. In Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) soft Latin-style Portuguese was gentle on the ear, a welcome change from the guttural Afrikaans to which I had become accustomed. Jo’burg and Maputo were different worlds despite being separated by only 300 miles.

Contrasts to South Africa were everywhere. Near the airport people in a vast shanty town lived so basically that the paved streets and sturdy brick dwellings of Soweto appeared luxurious by comparison. In the centre a Mediterranean veneer overlaid the city – wide boulevards, mosaic tile sidewalks, green spaces, pleasant views of Delagoa Bay. Blacks were seated in the outdoor cafes that would have been whites only in South Africa. Motorbikes whizzed past, barefoot vendors threaded through gridlocked traffic selling newspapers and trinkets. Sea breezes wafted in, ripe melons were stacked high at corner stands, the hibiscus and bougainvillea were in bloom. My senses were treated to the crackle of roasting corn, the aroma of cooking prawns. I witnessed none of this in apartheid South Africa. Unlike Jo’burg, Africans neither turned away nor stepped off sidewalks as a white person approached.

Just being in Mozambique lifted a heavy psychological burden. I felt as relaxed as the people I observed. Taking this in, I remembered that it was the coup in Portugal the previous April that propelled me to this distant third world location. I had been riveted to the TV pictures of Portuguese citizens celebrating the end of dictatorship, placing carnations in the barrels of soldiers’ rifles. Surely, I thought, the Portuguese coup was a death knell for apartheid and minority rule in southern Africa. It was also my chance to jump from academia to journalism, to chronicle a seismic shift.

My time in Maputo was exciting because this was my first revolution. But it was also unnerving, particularly observing  chartered aircraft taking fleeing families to new lives elsewhere.

The April 25, 1974 coup in Lisbon overthrew a dictatorship that had been in power since 1932. For a decade tiny Portugal, the poorest land in western Europe, had been waging un-winnable guerilla wars in Guinea Bissau, Angola and Mozambique. To end the madness, junior officers seized power and the old order collapsed like a house of cards. Euphoric citizens poured into the streets in celebration.

Five thousand miles away in Mozambique, the coup was less popular. Most of the Portuguese who were now fleeing had migrated to Africa in the 1950s and 60s, escaping the poverty of their homeland. There were as many as 250,000 whites in Mozambique – the territory’s middle class – and among them uncertainty reigned. What would happen, they wondered, when a Marxist/Leninist guerilla band took power in an independent Mozambique?

The exodus gathered force only two months after the coup, in July, when foreign minister Mario Soares called the communist-backed Front for the Liberation of Mozambique – Frelimo – the “legitimate representative of the Mozambique people.” June 25th, 1975 was set as independence day. There would be no election, no constitution and only a short transition. The newly installed socialist/communist government in Portugal acceded to all Frelimo demands. Frelimo had liberated considerable territory in the far north and had become active in the middle of Mozambique but it had virtually no presence in the cities.

In downtown Maputo that December there were unmistakable markings of what was coming. Portraits of guerrilla leader Samora Machel were everywhere. Posters of Marx and Lenin gazed out from shop windows. Notices on windows exhorted the public to be vigilant, work hard, and guard against reactionaries. Occasionally joint patrols of Portuguese regulars and bush fighters sitting awkwardly together in jeeps trundled by.

In the time leading up to the June 25 I made four more visits to Lourenço Marques and also to Beira, the second city, and to the oppressive heat of Tete in the interior. I visited the under-construction, South African financed Cahora Bassa hydro-electric dam – Africa’s 2d largest – and traversed its entire width, the foaming Zambesi river far below.

With additional knowledge, I learned that Portuguese rule was far from benign. Ninety-five percent of Mozambicans could not read or write. In 300 plus years the Portuguese had not built a proper north-south highway. They were complicit in a forced labour system in which South Africa paid Portugal in gold for an annual quota of African mine labour. Transport lines ran east and west from the African interior to the sea. Cecil Rhodes and the Pioneer Column settlers in the 1890s essentially created Beira, building the rail line to Salisbury (today’s Harare).

When guerilla leader Samora Machel made his triumphant arrival in the capital, I was among the thousands at the airport. When the plane with Machel and his party came to a halt the pilot leaped to the tarmac and raced to the red carpet where he stood at attention as the fatigue-clad Frelimo leader emerged to sustained cheers.

In the days prior to independence, Radio Mozambique each day instructed citizens on the words and tune off the martial air that was to be the national anthem of the People’s Republic of Mozambique. It was a stirring melody whose words made startlingly clear what Frelimo intended to do. 

Viva, viva FRELIMO,
Guia do Povo Moçambicano! …etc.

(English translation)

Long live FRELIMO,
Guide of the Mozambican people!
Heroic people who, gun in hand,
Toppled colonialism.
All the People united
From the Rovuma to the Maputo,
Struggle against imperialism
And continue, and shall win.

Long live Mozambique!
Long live our flag, symbol of the Nation!
Long live Mozambique!
For thee your People will fight.
United with the whole world,
Struggling against the bourgeoisie,
Our country will be the tomb
Of capitalism and exploitation.

Mozambique would indeed, for a time, be a tomb for entrepreneurial capitalism.

During the independence festivities my friend Fernando Fernandez, a journey-man correspondent who was every news agency’s Mozambique stringer, was the man of the hour. Disheveled, an artist and lithographer as well as journo, Fernando spoke English and lived in a middle-class home in the northern suburbs. He kept a telex machine in the living room and brought in another to accommodate the flood of reporters using his services. Fernando had a dependable phone line with a direct connection to the overseas operator. The lowering and hoisting of flags would be at midnight but foreign correspondents, most in de rigueur khaki flak jackets, began arriving at six pm.

Fernando Fernandez and ships at anchor in Delagoa Bay

At 11pm a sub-tropical storm swept through. I like other journos was conflicted, whether to go to the stadium for the ceremony or remain at Fernando’s to get my story out ahead of the rest. This was my first radio assignment for NBC News and more than anything I required a clear phone connection to London. When midnight arrived, we heard the crackle of celebratory gun fire and the thump of larger guns coming from Machava Stadium. Charlie Mohr of The New York Times, a big man fresh from Vietnam, rushed into the rain and called out the calibers of the various weapons.

There was no television, only radio. When the sodden reporters returned from the stadium they spoke of the placement of dignitaries on the dais. Had Frelimo put the Chinese or Soviet communist representatives closest to their own leadership? In fact, Frelimo would be scrupulously neutral, not taking sides in the ideological contest between the Maoists and Russians.

Sadly, for the people of Mozambique, Frelimo’s red revolution turned out badly. Within weeks land, homes, education, health services and businesses were nationalised, scaring away even more Portuguese. Over the next year 50,000 would depart, taking their skills to Portugal, South Africa or Brazil. As the Marxist-Leninist grip tightened, East Germans were brought in to organise security. Re-education camps were set up and Portuguese associated with the old order were punished. Eventually 15,000 Mozambicans would be sent to East Germany for training.

At a party congress in 1977 Frelimo reaffirmed that it was the vanguard party of revolution. Opposition was outlawed in the one-party state. Propagandists told the newspapers what to print. Frelimo and government were indistinguishable, the president of Frelimo was the president of the country. Frelimo made promises it couldn’t keep: like Mozambique – one of the world’s poorest countries – becoming a developed economy by 1990; its economy, said Frelimo, would grow by 14% annually.

Frelimo spoke of a revolutionary alliance between workers and peasants. But there were few urban workers and the peasants – 90% of the population – were unwilling to abandon their traditional ways and abolish tribal chieftains. They resisted “villagisation,” forced relocation into collective farms.

Things got worse. In 1979 President Machel decreed that Mozambicans should no longer greet one another with the fraternal, “camarada.” This egalitarian communist appellation was to be reserved to party leaders. Despite a 1977 friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, disillusion was taking hold. In 1980 Russia rejected Mozambique’s application to join Comecon, the Soviet bloc’s trading organisation. Set up to promote the socialist division of labour with Moscow’s satellites in eastern Europe, Cuba and Vietnam had recently been allowed to join. Miffed at being turned aside, Frelimo refused what it perceived as second-class associate membership.

Privately Moscow complained that Frelimo misinterpreted Marx and Lenin. Not only was there no working class in Mozambique, there had been no class struggle. The best the Russians could say about Mozambique was that it was a developing country with a socialist orientation. Moscow was concluding that orthodox Marxist Leninism wouldn’t work in Africa, particularly in agriculture.

Samora Machel’s Africanist credentials were bolstered by his unwavering support for freedom fighters in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia. During the five-years culminating in Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Robert Mugabe’s guerilla fighters were supplied from and based in Mozambique. Ian Smith’s Rhodesian army exacted a heavy toll on Mozambicans, operating almost at will inside the territory. Thousands died. At the same time, Smith’s security services set up and supplied anti-Frelimo fighters, Renamo – the Mozambican National Resistance – that waged a brutal war against Frelimo.

In 1984 a weakened Machel was forced into a humiliating non-aggression pact with apartheid South Africa. The agreement called for Mozambique to expel ANC (African National Congress) militants from the country while South Africa pledged to halt its support of Renamo. Two years later Machel died under still mysterious conditions when his Soviet TU-134 jet returning from Lusaka crashed in South Africa on its approach to Maputo.

Joseph Hanlon, an American scholar and writer with long experience in Mozambique, says Marxism/Leninism drove Frelimo policy for only six years. By 1981, he says, Frelimo was less rigid and opening to the west. Mozambique joined the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank became a major supplier of credit. In 1990 Frelimo dropped the term “People’s Republic,” the country was rechristened Republic of Mozambique. By 1992 Nelson Mandela was out of prison, apartheid was history and South Africans were writing a constitution that would lead to full democracy in 1994. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the USSR loosened its grip on eastern Europe and then in December 1991 the Soviet Union itself imploded into 12 separate republics. In the wake of these epochal events Frelimo and Renamo agreed to end the civil war that by some accounts left more than half a million dead. In 1994 Mozambique held its first multi-party elections.

That Renamo, a shadowy party whose pedigree shouted illegitimacy, could win a third of the votes in that poll reveals the extent to which Frelimo was out of touch with the peasantry. Eighty percent of Mozambique’s population of 25 million live in rural areas, speaking two dozen languages. Most practice traditional agriculture. In 1999 Renamo’s leader won 48% of the votes in a presidential election.

By the late 1990s Mozambique had evolved into an economic success story. The biggest recipient of foreign assistance in Africa, Mozambique was a star student of market-based reforms championed by international lenders. Starting from a low base, its economy achieved rapid growth, averaging over 7% annually. Guided by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Mozambique undertook macroeconomic reforms, closing the fiscal deficit, opening up to trade, a market-based exchange rate. Money flowed in. Progress was registered in poverty alleviation, the number living below subsistence down to 54% of the population in 2003. The IMF was so pleased that it convened its 2014 Africa Rising conference in Maputo.

China is a big winner in Mozambique. It is the country’s third biggest trade partner, most dependable ally and partner in development. Maputo’s modern airport terminal was built by the Chinese. The biggest downtown hotel is Chinese and the new high-rise Gloria on the Costa do Sol beach north of the city is Chinese. China’s highest visibility infrastructure project is a suspension bridge connecting Maputo with the southern suburb of Katembe. That billion-dollar span, completed in record time, opened in October 2018.

But while its economy expanded, Mozambique became aid dependent and corruption exploded. Joseph Hanlon believes there was an implicit deal between lenders and the Frelimo elite – “in exchange for faultlessly implementing donors’ demands on the economy, corruption would be allowed.”

Transparency International puts Mozambique near the bottom of its corruption perception index, ranking it 158 out of 180 countries surveyed. In Africa only Somalia, Zimbabwe, Angola and seven smaller economies score lower. The US embassy in Maputo reported in 2009 that corruption was generalised and endemic, perpetrated at the highest levels of government. Corruption, it said, “is broad-based among employees of the state, particularly members of the police and customs.”

This matched my own experience. Returning to Mozambique in 2012, staying at the Tivoli Hotel in downtown Maputo, I was stopped by Kalashnikov-carrying soldiers at the corner of 25th of September and Karl Marx. They demanded my papers. When I informed them that my passport was a block away at the Tivoli Hotel, they said my choice was giving them money or going to jail. Luckily, further distress was avoided when the soldiers were distracted by a disturbance at a nearby café.

In 2011 huge offshore gas deposits were discovered in the Indian Ocean near Mozambique’s border with Tanzania. It was the biggest natural gas discovery in at least a decade with the potential to elevate Mozambique into the top tier of gas exporters. The gas is valued at $350bn or more than ten times the country’s GDP. The gas would complement coal, already being exploited by Brazil’s Vale at Moatize in the centre of the country.

Being among the world’s poorest countries, Mozambique’s substantial foreign debts were written down. But people with experience in third world finance seized an opportunity for personal enrichment from Mozambique’s credit worthiness. According to a charge sheet from US prosecutors, a conspiracy was hatched by bankers at Credit Suisse in London, middle men in the middle east, and the Mozambican finance ministry. In 2013 they – in league with a Russian bank – organised a $2bn loan for fishing boats and maritime patrol craft. The prices were greatly inflated and the bankers paid themselves exorbitant fees. Unfortunately for the alleged conspirators, the loan guaranteed by the Mozambique state was kept secret, a violation of international practice. When the fraud was discovered in 2016, outraged creditors stopped lending. Mozambique’s currency lost 40% of its value and economic growth was stymied.

Because money connected to the Tuna or Hidden Loans scandal passed through New York banks, US authorities in December 2018 issued indictments against the Credit Suisse bankers, the middle east fixer, as well as Manuel Chang, Mozambique’s finance minister from 2005 to 2015. That same month South African police honoured an Interpol warrant, arresting Chang as he passed through Johannesburg en route to Dubai. He has been held ever since while the South Africans decided what to do. On May 21st the South Africans shocked the Americans by saying that despite an extradition treaty, Chang would not go to New York but instead be sent to Mozambique where he is a member of parliament. The US embassy in Pretoria deplored the decision, saying that Chang was likely to go free despite having stolen $700m from Mozambique.

For months there was fear in Maputo that if tried in America Chang would spill the beans and implicate both current president Filipe Nyusi and his predecessor Armando Guebuza. Nyusi was defense minister when the secret loans were agreed. Guebuza, with large business interests in Mozambique, is reputed to have links to organised crime.

Adriano Nuvunga of Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo calls the hidden loan affair the biggest crisis in Frelimo’s history. Frelimo insists Chang will go on trial but that promise is not taken seriously as Mozambique law grants immunity to members of parliament. In addition, Mozambique’s legal system is weak with the respected Global Anti-Corruption Network saying it is “completely under the control of the ruling party.”

Probably the most disturbing current reality is the nexus of corruption and narcotics. Joseph Hanlon, now at the London School of Economics, wrote in 2018 that Mozambique has long been a major transit route for heroin headed for Europe. Operated by Mozambique-based South Asian drug lords, heroin comes by dhow from Pakistan through the Indian Ocean, is off-loaded onto smaller vessels off the Mozambican coast in the area rich with natural gas, and landed in the northern cities of Nampula and Nacala. The heroin goes by road to Maputo, then to Johannesburg, then by air to Europe.

In a March 2019 article, Hanlon wrote:

“…licensed through payments at high level to Frelimo, heroin often arrives (in the north) in branded 1 kg packets. And at least some of the trade is now organised via WhatsApp with drivers hired by mobile phone like Uber taxi drivers.”

Hanlon says heroin has become Mozambique’s biggest export after coal.

Well-connected Mohamed Bachir Suleman, owner of Maputo’s largest shopping mall, has been linked by the US embassy and others with the illicit drug trade.

With presidential and parliamentary elections due in October, security in the Muslim-populated north has become a major problem. Earlier this year convoys contracted to Anadarko, the big American company building an onshore liquefaction plant, were ambushed, allegedly by Islamist terrorists linked to al-Shabaab in Somalia. Several people were killed, including at least one who was beheaded. Frelimo has declared the far north off limits to journalists.

During my 2012 visit to Maputo, an aid official wondered how Mozambique would cope with the windfall from natural gas. Not wanting to be named, he was unsure if Mozambique would clean up corruption and emulate well-managed, relatively corruption free Botswana, or become like notoriously corrupt Angola. Regrettably, it seems to be the latter.

Returning to Maputo this past February, a visitor witnesses the increased Chinese presence. Downtown Maputo is more prosperous. There are new high rises, fashionable shops, and far more traffic winding around the Praca do Independencia with its oversized, North Korean statue of Samora Machel. Main thoroughfares in Maputo comprise a pantheon of communist heroes – Vladimir Lenin, Kim il Sung, Mao Tse Tung, Karl Marx.

Then on Avenida Julius Nyerere, past the elegant Polana Hotel, you come to the huge, newly Chinese built presidential palace. It occupies an entire city block. Pedestrians must keep their distance, walking only on the far side of the street. Here the communist time warp becomes modern Africa. Behind the sweeping stainless steel and fortress-like walls, I imagine, is classic big man African governance. And you walk wondering if Frelimo, like the ruling parties in Zimbabwe or Namibia and even South Africa, will ever surrender power.

  • Barry D. Wood writes about the global economy from Washington. He began journalism at the Financial Mail in 1974, was the Voice of America correspondent in Prague for three years, and has been returning to southern Africa regularly since 2010.