Mozambique: A history of struggle

Mozambique: A history of struggle
  • PublishedSeptember 18, 2013

The story of Southern Africa’s liberation movements, from both colonialism and apartheid, is complex and intertwined. Mozambique was just one part of the jigsaw but, nonetheless, a pivotal influence on the course of the region’s struggle, as Stephen Williams explains.

The history of the liberation struggle in Mozambique, it can be argued, extends over four broad periods. The first of these began in the 16th century when what later became modern Mozambique was colonised by the Portuguese, but from the outset there was what might be termed a popular resistance against European rule – the Portuguese limited their activities to building fortified ports along the Indian Ocean coast.

It was not until the 1920s that Portugal attempted to impose real control over the region, through military campaigns of subjugation to impose Lisbon’s wishes upon it. Portugal’s wishes were simply to exploit the colony’s agricultural resources, principally in the growing of sugar and cotton, using a Mozambican forced-labour system.

The colonisers were both brutal and crude – as well as being particularly incompetent. Because they had failed to establish administrative control, the Portuguese encouraged their companies to take concessions to develop sugar and cotton plantations and take control of their particular areas of operation.

This gave rise to different parts of the country being subjected to different colonial experiences – but in general, the colonial experience was truly terrible.

The settlers had little loyalty towards the country, and many were simply there to get rich quick and return to Portugal. And remarkably, a large proportion of them, around one-third, could neither read nor write. But it was these settlers who forced the Africans to use their land to grow crops for the state before they grew their own food. It was a type of taxation system similar to the hut-tax imposed by neighbouring Southern Rhodesia – to force Africans into virtual forced labour.

This dreadful system intensified under the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar, who tightened Portugal’s stranglehold over every aspect of Mozambique’s administration, demanding ever-greater production of agricultural products, especially the export of cotton that underpinned Portugal’s textile industry. Production of this crop was tightly controlled and African farmers received pitifully small wages to grow it. The Portuguese companies that had operations in Mozambique prospered, particularly during World War II when Portugal’s neutrality meant the colony could trade raw materials with both the Allies and the Axis powers, although half of all exports were still shipped to Portugal.

After the War, what can be seen as the second era of the country’s struggle began. African workers were becoming increasingly angry at the conditions being imposed upon them by the colonisers.

By the 1960s, there had developed a strong popular sentiment to rid the country of the exploitative Portuguese colonialists. Protests in the Makonde cotton-belt were directed at the appalling living conditions and slave-labour wages. Police opened fire at a large demonstration in Muende, in the Makonde cotton-belt region, massacring about 500 people. This is considered a watershed of Mozambique’s history.

New resistance movements, headquartered in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam, were formed both in Mozambique itself and amongst the country’s migrant workers. These movements coalesced into a single, unified national political front, Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, or FRELIMO) under the leadership of Dr Eduardo Mondlane.

Within two years, FRELIMO had instigated an armed struggle against the Portuguese. As Mondlane himself was to report: “In 1964 FRELIMO had only 250 trained soldiers, operating in small units of 10-15 men. By 1965, FRELIMO forces were already operating with units of company strength, and in 1966 the companies were organised into battalions. In 1967 the FRELIMO army had the strength of 8,000 men and women … in other words FRELIMO increased its strength 32 times over those three years.”
The Portuguese responded by deploying 50,000 troops and unleashing its secret police (PIDE). Despite PIDE having some early successes, using assassination, kidnapping and brutal torture, FRELIMO gathered strength in the northern and central provinces of the country, wresting control from the colonisers and establishing communal farms, health clinics and schools for the people.

PIDE’s headquarters in Mozambique’s capital Maputo, the notorious Villa Algarve where captured FRELIMO fighters and sympathisers were incarcerated, interrogated and tortured, still stands, but only just. It would seem FRELIMO made a conscious decision that rather than bulldoze it flat, they would leave it to collapse in its own time. The many victims of the unspeakable barbarity that had taken place within the Villa’s ornately tiled walls, would no doubt approve.

Machel’s leadership

A huge blow was suffered by the liberation movement when, in early 1969, FRELIMO’s leader, Mondlane, was killed by a parcel bomb delivered to the house where he was staying in Dar es Salaam, believed to be the lethal handiwork of PIDE. Eventually, following an initial triumvirate leadership, Samora Machel took over the FRELIMO leadership.

Under Machel, by the early 1970s, FRELIMO had posted significant gains and had struck south, attacking railways and other economic infrastructure. The Portuguese, ever more desperate, attempted to establish camps in which to relocate the population (to deny FRELIMO the people’s support), and began calling up Africans for military service.

However, before the independence war intensified even further, in April 1974 the rightwing regime in Portugal was toppled. The new socialist Portuguese administration signed a ceasefire with FRELIMO and ushered in independence. Machel inherited an economy that was intricately tied to that of apartheid South Africa. Despite his opposition to South Africa’s odious racism, he retained links with Pretoria – trapped by the necessity of continuing to supply migrant labour to South Africa as remittances were one of the few sources of foreign exchange that his economy so desperately needed. Mozambique now entered the third era of its struggle: the immediate post-independence years.

By now, the Zimbabwean war of independence was intensifying following Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1965. When, in 1974, Ian Smith released many African nationalist prisoners, Robert Mugabe led a Zimbabwe African Nationalist Union (Zanu) delegation to all the frontline states – Tanzania, Angola, Mozambique and Zambia. But Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere refused to meet with Mugabe as he was secretary- general of Zanu (the leader was Ndangabini Sithole, who Mugabe was challenging for Zanu’s top post).

Furthermore, Nyerere was suspicious of Smith’s motives in releasing the prisoners, fearing it was a conspiracy to sow division within the liberation forces.

It was symptomatic of the power struggles that were taking place within the liberation forces. Furthermore the liberation movements had to contend with assassination attacks, instigated by Pretoria and Rhodesia. Notably, in 1975, Herbert Chitepo, a senior founder member of Zanu, who led the Dare reChimurenga (the central council for the armed struggle), was killed by a car bomb sent to his house in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, by Rhodesian agents.

Mugabe declined attending Chitepo’s funeral and instead tried to enter Mozambique. But Machel was also suspicious of Mugabe, and first had him detained and then effectively rusticated to the central Mozambican city of Quelimane, where he taught English for about three months. However, Machel was to finally relent and recognise Mugabe as the Zanu leader who would eventually lead the party to power in Zimbabwe’s first inclusive elections in 1980.

The RENAMO terror

But prior to that, in 1976, Ian Smith’s intelligence chief, Ken Flower, decided to establish the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), as a means of destabilising Mozambique, which was providing bases and sanctuary for Rhodesia’s freedom fighters (as well as the ANC of South Africa) and was broadcasting messages of solidarity to the fighters and the people of Rhodesia. RENAMO had some success in persuading rural Mozambicans working in communal farms that they were being exploited by FRELIMO in the same way as the Portuguese had done. But, generally speaking, RENAMO relied on intimidation to build its support. It was also responsible for a number of atrocities against civilians, as it often resorted to banditry and destroyed infrastructure.

Machel confronted this insurgency, and a bitter civil war raged. This intensified following Mozambique’s decision to comply with UN sanctions against Smith’s rebel Rhodesian government.

The Mozambican leader is also credited with persuading Mugabe to attend the Lancaster House talks that led to Zimbabwe’s independence. Nigeria, it is said, twisted the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s arm to agree to the Lancaster talks, by threatening to cut off Nigeria’s oil and nationalise the assets of British Petroleum (BP), if Britain refused. After Zimbabwe’s independence, RENAMO received funding and direction from apartheid South Africa and continued to destabilise Mozambique. The cost to the country was horrendous. This brought independent Zimbabwean forces to fight on the side of FRELIMO against RENAMO, in a gesture of solidarity with Machel’s government for the help it gave to Zanu in Zimbabwe’s liberation war.

Joseph Hanlon, a Mozambique specialist academic, quotes UNICEF figures suggesting the RENAMO war cost Mozambique half of its potential GDP. “The number of health posts had been increased from 326 at independence to 1195 in 1985, but 500 of those were closed or destroyed by Renamo,” Hanlon writes. “More than 60% of all primary schools were destroyed or closed,” he adds, “and more than 3,000 rural shops were destroyed or closed, and most never reopened.”

Pressure on Mozambique’s leadership built to such an extent that President Machel, surely with the greatest reluctance, agreed to a non-aggression pact with South Africa – the so-called Nkomati Accord. It was honoured by the Mozambicans but did little to change South Africa’s brazen attempts at using RENAMO to undermine both the FRELIMO and Mugabe governments. The two African governments were viewed as an “ungodly Marxist threat” by Pretoria and its Western allies.

In 1986, Mozambique suffered the loss of its second post-independence leader when Machel was killed in an air crash. He was returning from meetings in Malawi when, it is believed, South African agents deliberately lured the plane off-course with a decoy radio navigation beacon, causing it to crash.

The fourth era

Before he died, Machel had already been making first steps towards creating a market economy, but this was accelerated by his successor, Joaquim Chissano, who, it can be argued, heralded the fourth era of Mozambique’s struggle. Not only did Chissano succeed in all but stopping the war, signing a peace deal with RENAMO and supporting a multi-party democratic system, but he was also to agree to one of the biggest industrial developments in Africa, the building of the MOZAL aluminium smelter just outside Maputo.

Hanlon is critical of the deal that led to this development, suggesting that the tax breaks enjoyed by BHPBilliton (then Billiton) and its partners in the smelter project were unreasonable. Yet, undeniably, MOZAL kickstarted the country’s economic renaissance as other investors realised that Mozambique was a glittering proposition. But Mozal was just the beginning for the country as it gradually discovered and exploited huge mineral resources, including one of the largest coal deposits in the world.

In 2005, Chissano stood down and Armando Guebuza (a millionaire businessman) came to power as the new leader of FRELIMO. Five years later, there was a huge discovery of natural gas in the offshore Rovuma Basin in northern Mozambique. With subsequent discoveries, it has been estimated that Mozambique has gas reserves approaching three trillion cubic metres, making the country the third largest gas province in Africa (after Algeria and Nigeria).

But Mozambique must ensure that these God-given resources are competently exploited and future economic growth drives an equitable distribution of the wealth they will generate. That, as they say, is Mozambique’s current struggle – Aluta Continua!

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