Mozambique and the Crisis of Climate Change

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In Mozambique, cyclone Idai hit with devastating impact, killing at least 750 people, though that is surely an underestimate of the number of victims. More than half a million people in a population of 29 million have been affected by the disaster, and pushed 110,000 into temporary camps. Many more people displaced from their homes are yet to be sheltered. The coastal city of Beira took the brunt of the storm, wiping out 90% of the city. Heavy rains are combined with heavy winds, which destroys many buildings and cities, and the latest concern is the occurrence of water-borne diseases like cholera, malaria and typhoid. Hospitals and roads are destroyed making it difficult for the impacted people to seek needed medical care. People are also hungry and thirsty, as they can’t really return to the flooded land where they grow their food, thus relying on foreign food and medical assistance and humanitarian aid. In addition to Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi had also been affected by the cyclone.

At the same time, the country is already quite impoverished and the institutions suffer from corruption, making it difficult to re-establish things to normal. So let us analyze the history of Mozambique, which may help us explain the current difficulties the country is finding itself in (aside from climate change and cyclones).

The first humans in Mozambique were the San hunters and gatherers, the ancestors of the Khoisan people. Between the 1st and 5th centuries AD, Bantu people migrated from the north through the Zambezi River valley and into the plateau and coastal areas. Similar to other places in southern Africa, the Bantu farmers were successful in pushing out and diminishing the habitat of the hunter/ gatherer Khoisan people. The biggest Bantu tribes are the Makua, Sena, Shona, Tsonga, Makonde and Swahili people. In total, they make up over 98% of the present Mozambican population (smaller groups are multiracial, Portuguese, Indian, Chinese and Arab).

Beginning in the 9th century, the coastal areas linked up with Indian Ocean trade networks, which resulted in the creation of port cities. These cities adopted Swahili culture and Islam via the Arab Muslim traders that settled there. The port cities received gold and ivory from Zimbabwe and the Kingdom of Mutapa, and exchanged these to larger port cities in Kilwa (Tanzania) and Mombasa (Kenya). Mozambique is named after the Arab sheikh, Mussa Bin Bique, who ruled a city called Sofa.

The Portuguese set foot in Mozambique in 1498, drove out the Arab rulers, and created their colony, which they ruled until 1975, Mozambique’s independence. Portuguese traders first took over the coastal city of Sofala, and then moved to the interior along the River Zambezi hoping to get exclusive control over the gold and ivory trade. The Portuguese could extend their political control via prazos (land grants) to Portuguese settlers. While originally designed for white Portuguese settlers, these prazos were extended to African Portuguese and African Indians via intermarriage. Prazos were territorially defended with African slaves, which were called Chikunda. Slaves were acquired by tribal chiefs, who conquered neighboring warring tribes and sold their captives to prazeiros (owners of prazos). Slavery did not end until the end of the nineteenth century.

Arab influence was pushed back until 1698, when they took the port city of Mombasa (today in Kenya) from the Portuguese. Portugal increasingly focused on the India trade, and devoted most colonial acquisition resources on Brazil. In the nineteenth century, the British and French made increasing incursions in the Portuguese-held prazos, dominating the trade routes and political affairs. In the early 20th century, the Portuguese shifted administration to three large private companies, including the Mozambique company, the Zambezia Company and the Niassa Company. They built the vital railroad infrastructure to connect to interior trading networks to South Africa, which was a British colony. The British provided the loans to the Portuguese companies.

In the 1940s, the corporatist regime under Oliveira Salazar decided to wrest direct control back from the chartered corporations, whose concessions ran out. The corporations continued as influential private companies, but the administration of Mozambique was transferred back to the government of Portugal, which became overseas provinces.

After World War II, independence movements grew all over Africa with many British and French colonies declaring their independence especially around the early 1960s. The Portuguese insisted on keeping hold of their colony. The native Mozambican population (various Bantu tribes) was discriminated against by the Portuguese ruling class, and did not receive substantial economic benefits. Nationalist pro-independence ideology was mixed with communism in the context of the Cold War. Beginning in 1964, the FRELIMO (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) organized guerrilla warfare against the Portuguese colonizers, who had to garrison more troops in the cities. The countryside was much harder to control, and that is where FRELIMO concentrated their resources, taking rural and tribal areas in the north and west.

In the Mozambican War of Independence (1964-74) there were no decisive battles. Rather, it was Portugal’s return to democracy via a leftist military coup, the Carnation Revolution in 1974, which resulted in an end to the war in Mozambique. The Portuguese were tired of funding an expensive foreign war in Mozambique. 250,000 Portuguese living in Mozambique were expelled from the country. Because they were only given little time to pack up and depart, the returnees to Portugal were often penniless.

Independence did not bring more political stability to Mozambique. On the contrary, it plunged the country into civil war. The new government under president Samora Machel built a one-party state based on Marxist principles, receiving support from Cuba and the Soviet Union. The new government implemented universal health care, literacy and infrastructure building programs, and nationalized the vital farmlands. There was astounding social progress in the early years of FRELIMO rule, which were undermined by the civil war described below. Another problem was that collectivization of farmland antagonized farmers, who reduced their cooperation. De-controlling of farmland began in the mid-1980s.

The US, and the white-led regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa supported the anti-communist RENAMO (Mozambican National Resistance), which promptly struggled against the government for supremacy. South Africa especially became concerned about FRELIMOs explicit support of anti-regime forces in Rhodesia (which was white-controlled until 1980) as well as Mozambique harboring ANC activists that opposed the South African apartheid regime. Mozambique also harbored ZANLA insurgents, which fought for Zimbabwe’s dislodging of white rule. Civil war, sabotage from Rhodesia and South Africa, ineffective central planning, weak infrastructure and brain drain to Portugal resulted in an economic collapse. When economic resources are scarce, it tends to further fuel warfare.

The FRELIMO government retained control of the large cities, and used executions and re-education camps to bring the rural people under control. RENAMO, in turn, used terror and indiscriminate targeting of the population to ensure their support base and prevent switching to the government side. RENAMO had a foothold in the countryside, but lacked a coherent ideology and a strong, charismatic leader. It was further weakened by the collapse of white rule in Zimbabwe, when Robert Mugabe’s government became ardent backers of FRELIMO. From 1980 onward, South Africa provided the key backing for RENAMO. The Mozambican Civil War lasted a full 15 years (1977-1992), and resulted in the death of one million Mozambicans and the flight overseas of 1.7 million. Several more million people were displaced from their homes. Interruption of food supplies and starvation were causes of death in addition to fighting.

At one point, RENAMO proposed a peace agreement based on the secession of RENAMO-controlled regions in the northern and western territories, but the FRELIMO government rejected the proposal. On October 19, 1986, president Samora Machel died in a plane crash, which the Soviet Union claimed was the fault of the South African government. Another theory is that the Soviets instructed the Soviet pilots in Machel’s plane to crash the plane, as the Soviets feared that Machel was beginning to turn away from the alliance with the Soviets.

Machel’s successor Joaquim Chissano introduced capitalist economic reforms, adopting the “Economic Rehabilitation Program” of the World Bank and IMF. These reforms came with pressure from these institutions, which provided the crucial loans for Mozambique to pay for vital imports like food and industrial goods. By 1989, the FRELIMO party congress dropped any references to Marxism-Leninism and spoke of democratic socialism as ruling ideology. Hardline Marxists like Sergio Viera, Jorge Rebelo and Marcelino dos Santos were removed from positions of power and the party. The US and UK rewarded this about-face and granted economic aid to Mozambique. Beginning in the second half of the 1990s, economic growth and investments began to take off with GDP per capita quadrupling from $160 to $623 from 1995 to 2014 (though there has been a decline to $415 by 2017). Important drivers of the economy have been tourism and the export of coal, coke and raw aluminum. Chisanno negotiated debt forgiveness from the G8, which wrote off 22 billion pounds in debt in 2005.

Chissano also initiated peace talks with RENAMO beginning in 1990. In that year, the apartheid regime in South Africa was nearing its end and the Soviet Union collapsed. These were the two primary supporters of the two factions in Mozambique. Now that the external funders stopped pouring in their money, both sides’ political leaders were forced to negotiate a peace agreement. In 1992, the civil war ended with the Rome General Peace Accords, which would be overseen by a UN peacekeeping force.

Chissano implemented a revised constitution in 1990, which created a multi-party system and ended one-party rule. The first elections were scheduled in 1994. Both the civil war parties campaigned vigorously in the first elections. However, FRELIMO has never lost an election and RENAMO never won one. The first election turned 53.3% of the votes to FRELIMO. Many RENAMO party leaders accused FRELIMO of committing election fraud, calling for a resumption of the civil war, which they gave up on after external pressure. Foreign election observers agree with the assessment of electoral fraud.

Chissano’s successor in 2005 was Armando Guebuza, and Filipe Nyusi in 2015. Guebuza, a general during the independence struggle and interior minister under Machel, became a wealthy businessman after the liberalization reforms of Chissano before he was picked as Chissano’s successor in the 2004 presidential elections. Nyusi received training as a mechanical engineer in Czechoslovakia and England. He worked in the state-owned port and railroad authority, where he became the president. He also became the president of Clube Ferroviario de Nampula, a top division football club. In 2008, he became minister of defense, and in 2012 he was appointed to the central committee of FRELIMO before becoming president.

RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama repeatedly threatened to re-establish RENAMO armed forces and “make the country burn”. RENAMO demands political control of the six provinces at the center of the country, where they hold electoral majorities. In 2013, RENAMO militants attacked police headquarters in Muxungue and a military patrol near Gorongosa. The government responded with crackdowns. A 2014 peace deal put an end to the violence, but RENAMO dissatisfaction with the presidential election result led to the quitting of the peace deal. In 2016, Manuel Bissopo, the secretary general of RENAMO was injured in a shootout. In May 2017, RENAMO agreed on a continuation of the truce. Dhlakama died of a heart attack in 2018. His successor Ossufo Momade went into hiding, presumably concerned about government crackdowns. The insurgency drove 12,000 Mozambicans into exile from 2013 to 2016. Most of them end up in camps in neighboring Malawi.

Given the damage of the cyclones one cannot expect the truce condition to prevail. Mozambique is very prone to cyclones and floods, lying exposed along the Indian Ocean. Floods regular affect hundreds of thousands either every year or every couple of years. In recent memory, a 2000 cyclone affected 2 million people and killed 700, which is quite reminiscent of what we have seen in this year’s cyclone. Mozambique finds itself in the eye of global warming with the rising intensity of floods and cyclones that are linked to warmer ocean temperatures. At the same time, it lacks the stable political institutions to alleviate the worst of the suffering for the people. Surely, the end of the civil war has brought substantial social progress as infant mortality continues to decline, which coupled with a high rate of fertility (5.24 per woman in 2016) means a rapidly expanding population, which has doubled since the mid-1990s.

Mozambique relies on foreign aid for much of its annual budget, and 52% of the population live below the poverty line. Subsistence agriculture employs most of the population, which is especially devastating during floods where the land becomes uninhabitable. 80% of the population is employed in agriculture. Recent oil and gas discoveries could benefit the Mozambican economy, though with unstable oil prices they might not benefit from it. In addition climate change makes a pursuit of fossil fuels quite reckless. The biggest export item is coal, the primary pollutant of the air.

Corruption remains an endemic problem, where judges, tax officials and police officers need to be bribed to get things done. This has deterred foreign business investments. Basic indicators like access to safe water is also still quite uncertain with people being forced to collect water from highly polluted wells. Only 47% of the Mozambican population has a basic water source and 24% has access to basic sanitation. Lack of access to clean water often means poor health. The World Bank and some western countries provide development assistance, but it clearly has not solved the water problem in Mozambique.

Mozambique forms a microcosm of the political economy of climate change, where natural disasters and territorial destruction are superimposed on a growing population with scarce desirable land and water, rampant corruption in the political institutions, and political and military infighting between two political factions.

Further readings:

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