Foes from Mozambique's war spar as energy windfall looms

2016-01-27 21:32


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Johannesburg - A bronze statue of a former president looms in Mozambique's capital, but the likeness of Samora Machel - imposing in military uniform and with pointed finger - is a symbol of division for some in a resource-rich nation shadowed by a civil war legacy.

Far from history-steeped Maputo, dotted with faded Art Deco buildings made by Portuguese colonizers and streets named after Karl Marx and other revolutionaries, fresh reports of violence between old battlefield adversaries suggest a 1992 peace deal never quite took hold.

Several thousand people in Mozambique's Tete province, which has large coal reserves, recently fled into neighbouring Malawi, alleging violent persecution by government troops - a charge that the government denies. Last week, Manuel Bissopo, general secretary of the main opposition movement Renamo, was seriously injured when gunmen fired on his car in Beira, Mozambican media reported.

The backstory is the rivalry between Frelimo, a former Marxist guerilla movement led by Machel that took power after independence from the Portuguese in 1975, and Renamo, the force that fought Frelimo for more than 15 years in a conflict that killed up to 1 million.

They are now rivals in the political arena, with Frelimo coming on top in national elections.

A return to war seems remote: the two sides have engaged in dialogue, and Renamo is no longer a formidable military power. Yet the fact that Renamo, once backed by then-Rhodesia and South Africa, still has weapons unsettles a country expecting a financial windfall in coming years from natural gas finds off the northern coast.

The tension between Renamo (the Portuguese acronym stands for Mozambican National Resistance) and Frelimo (Mozambique Liberation Front) partly reflects jockeying for cuts of the fledgling energy industry, according to some analysts.

"Everybody is lining up to figure out how to get it," said Brigit Helms, who advised on trade policy in Mozambique for the US Agency for International Development. Before leaving her post, she said in an interview in her Maputo office in October that the benefits of an expected "tsunami of money" in a decade or so could be undercut by corruption, poor planning and protectionist policies that hurt free trade.

Italian energy firm Eni SpA and Anadarko Petroleum of the United States are developing the Rovuma reserves in Mozambique, which could become the world's third-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas after Qatar and Australia, according to the International Monetary Fund. Total investment is projected to exceed $100 bn, the IMF said.

Political power

Poor infrastructure and lower commodity prices hamper Mozambique. Poverty is widespread among the 27 million people even though the economy is one of the fastest-growing in Africa, averaging seven percent annually. Maputo is a magnet for investors in a country whose long Indian Ocean coastline also draws tourists to sun and sand.

"The system is so centralized that it somehow forces the companies to be here, close to political power," said Walter Tembe, a guide who gives walking tours of the capital. One itinerary includes a swing by Mozambique's foreign ministry, built with a traditional curving roof by China, a major investor.

Part of Maputo's easygoing appeal lies around the Machel statue in Independence Square. There are botanical gardens, a French-Mozambican cultural centre and a major hotel where people gather at a patio eatery opposite a Catholic cathedral.

Yet a few blocks away, across the street from the ministry of public works and housing, a visiting Associated Press reporter saw a mob beating a man, possibly a suspected thief, until police eventually pulled up in vehicles to rescue him, dazed and bloodied.

Maputo has experienced kidnappings for ransom and occasional high-profile assassinations, including those of journalist Carlos Cardoso in 2000 and constitutional lawyer Gilles Cistac last year. Most political violence has happened in central Sofala province and other opposition strongholds.

Renamo, which alleged fraud after losing elections in 2014, wants a bigger role in the government and economy, as well as more autonomy in areas it dominates. Longtime Renamo chief Afonso Dhlakama, now 63 and with white hair, has periodically retreated to rural hideouts, recalling his tactics as a guerilla during the civil war.

Last year, Mozambique triumphantly declared that it had, with international help, removed all known landmines. Even in peacetime, mines inflicted casualties in rural areas.

In an interview with the AP, Alberto Augusto, Mozambique's demining director, summarized the new relief of Mozambican villagers: "'When my son leaves home with a cow, I know that he is going to come back. But before, I would never know if my son is coming back or my cow is coming back.'"

Despite that psychological leap, reminders of conflict linger.

Mozambique's national flag includes an image of an assault rifle and is similar to the old Frelimo banner. A decade ago, Renamo campaigned for a flag change, but failed.

Read more on:    frelimo  |  renamo  |  mozambique  |  southern africa

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