What is happening in Mozambique?


American helicopter flying over flooded Limpopo River in Mozambique – via Wikimedia

Not long after Sir John Chilcot’s long expected 2.8 million-word report on Tony Blair’s involvement in the Iraq war was made public, it was confirmed that the ex-U.K. premier had agreed to help mediate the Mozambican political crisis alongside retired Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete. At the time of the announcement, Voice of America quoted Mozambican government officials as saying the two former leaders had been chosen for the job due to the “good reputations” they had both managed to maintain in their home countries since leaving office – a sentiment that will have raised many eyebrows in the U.K. and elsewhere after the unveiling of the Iraq Inquiry.

Although it will be likely that Blair’s legacy will be wholly defined by his contentious decision to follow the U.S. into Iraq in 2003, his critics are all too quick to disregard his many achievements during his time in office, not least of which was the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. While the negotiating skills he displayed during the peace process talks will be among the reasons he was offered the mediation role in Mozambique, the two crises are very different in nature.

More than two decades after the end of a brutal and bloody civil war that claimed the lives of a million people, tensions between the opposition former rebel movement Renamo and the Frelimo government appear to have reached boiling point once more in Mozambique. Renamo was established in 1975 by white Rhodesians looking to limit the support a newly-independent Mozambique could offer black guerrillas who were attempting to overthrow the Rhodesian government, and was then funded by apartheid South Africa.

After a UN-brokered peace deal ended fighting in 1992, the country’s first multi-party elections were held in 1994. Frelimo won the vote, and has remained in power ever since, with a reformed Renamo party taking second place in every poll since the official cessation of hostilities. Renamo has remained incredibly popular in central regions of the country, thanks in part to the perception that Mozambique’s democratic transformation has mostly benefited a few, while leaving much of the nation’s population in poverty.

The peace agreement was revoked in 2013, resulting in renewed battles between government forces and Renamo fighters. Despite the brokering of a new deal the following year, relations between the two parties broke down again after Renamo claimed – without supporting evidence – it was cheated in the elections won by Frelimo. Since then, Renamo has claimed control of six northern and central provinces, resulting in growing tensions with Frelimo that have led to increased fighting. An IMF report published in January said the “failure to find a permanent solution to the growing tension” between the two parties is the biggest risk Mozambique faces.  Since the middle of last year, some 12,000 Mozambicans have been forced to flee to neighbouring Malawi in fear of their lives, triggering a regional refugee crisis.

On top of that, Mozambique is currently locked in a tussle with its creditors after the MAM state agency missed a payment for the coast guard vessels it had bought with state-guaranteed loans to safeguard its territorial waters. Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the region, sought to increase its overall food security by cracking down on the hundreds of vessels that were illegally fishing in its territorial waters. MAM’s logic was to use the favourable investment climate, after massive gas fields were discovered and oil majors were queuing for a seat at the table, and pay back for the vessels with tuna proceeds. Indeed, at the time Mozambique was among the ten fastest growing economies on the planet. But MAM was unlucky: the renewed prospect of civil war, coupled with crumbling oil prices and the investors’ own profit-driven business model have left Mozambique in a tight spot.  The country is now trying to persuade investors that the investment was sound and necessary in order to feed its population.

Such is the extent of Blair’s task. If he can mediate a lasting settlement between the two parties, Mozambique and its people could look forward to a bright future. Mozambique has recently fostered a positive relationship with India, signing an extremely advantageous deal with Delhi to export pulses and legumes after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the country. The gas fields hold some 150 trillion cubic feet, making Mozambique the 8th biggest country in the world according to reserves. For that, some analysts have speculated that the country could become the Qatar of Africa if political stability can be achieved and maintained.

Whatever he does on the world stage from now on, Blair’s reputation at home will likely unchanged. But if he can help achieve lasting peace and stability in Mozambique – as he once did in Northern Ireland – there will be a chance that the number of countries where is viewed in the same high regard in which he appears to see himself may begin to recover from a very low starting point.