The history of Mozambique varies like that of Cuba or Vietnam, even Venezuela. It depends on the teller’s point of view.
Some say Mozambique was “liberated” on 26 June 1975 when it gained independence. A more objective view is that it went from dictatorial rule under Portugal to tyranny under Frelimo and its then leader, Samora Machel.
“In 1962, Mondlane and his American-born wife, Janet Rae Johnson, managed to unite enough of the factions to form a single movement known as Frente de Libertação de Moçambique or FRELIMO.”
Machel had been a male nurse, and was not expected to take over the party. He was more hard line than his predecessor, Dr Eduardo Mondlane, the anthropology professor who gave up his tenure at Syracuse University to lead Frelimo.
The party was a coalition of political groups, all seeking some level of autonomy from Portugal.
Moderates wanted a relationship with the motherland similar to that enjoyed by Jersey or Gibraltar.
Others were for outright independence, but they too had factions: there were Russian-trained radicals who sought an immediate handover and others who talked of a 20-year transition.
Portugal’s colonial army was predominantly black, and opposed to independence.
In Lisbon, the dictatorship under Antonio Salazar refused to recognise even the most passive lobby, insisting that colonies were an integral part of Portugal.
In 1962, Mondlane and his American-born wife, Janet Rae Johnson, managed to unite enough of the factions to form a single movement known as Frente de Libertação de Moçambique or FRELIMO.
The couple had met at a church camp in Wisconsin when Eduardo was 31 and Janet just 17.
Eduardo Mondlane with his wife, Janet, and with Samora Machel
From his time in the US, Mondlane had contacts in Washington but mostly with Democrats who spoke out against Portugal’s record on human rights. The Republicans, led by Richard Nixon, were more concerned about Moscow taking over the east and west coast of Africa and, ultimately, the Cape sea route.
On 3 February 1969, Mondlane was killed by a parcel bomb in Dar es Salaam where Frelimo had its headquarters as guest of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere.
The murder remains a mystery.
What evidence there is points to Samora Machel, aided by the Party-left who sought a Marxist one-party state, nationalisation of business and property, and eviction of local-born whites. In their view, the war for independence was pointless without Marx and Lenin at the centre.
Pinning the murder on Machel was peddled by Lisbon and rival groups within Frelimo. Others blamed the PIDE, Portugal’s secret police modeled on the Gestapo, but no one has been able to prove who killed Mondlane.
“The povo were caught between Frelimo and the government, and harassed by both sides.”
Portugal was more successful in Mozambique than anywhere else in its colonial wars.
This was largely due to support from like-minded regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa.
Angola had three guerrilla movements fighting for independence while Guinea Bissau was a small wedge of land between a hostile Senegal and Guinea Conakry (both former French colonies).
In the early ‘70s, Portuguese forces pushed Frelimo out of Mozambique almost entirely.
The guerrillas had used a campaign of murder, intimidation and night-long rallies (known as pungwes) to win support. Parents were forced to withdraw their children from school and cease dipping cattle for sleeping sickness or having dogs inoculated against rabies since all these services were carried out by government and deemed “counter revolutionary”.
This brought enormous suffering to the peasants or “povo” as they were termed in Portuguese. Thousands of cattle died, rabies became epidemic in some areas, but anyone who complained was tortured as “entertainment” at one of the pungwes, then beheaded.
When colonial forces retook an area, they were often welcomed, but also took reprisals on those deemed to have supported the guerrillas. The povo were caught between Frelimo and the government, and harassed from both sides.
In the capital, Lourenço Marques, moderates had been spurred by Rhodesia’s UDI in 1965 and planned a similar break to create a government run by those born in Mozambique. However, the PIDE quickly put down any dissent.
In Angola, government troops had also taken back rebel territory. Not so in Portuguese Guinea where, by 1972, Lisbon controlled little more than the capital, Bissau. The jungle was thick, broken by rivers and swamps, and the rectangular shape of the country with guerrillas infiltrating on three sides, made victory difficult.
Field Marshall António de Spínola who led colonial forces in Guinea (and went on to become president of Portugal) wanted to let go the territory and focus on winnable campaigns in southern Africa.
The ghost of Goa
Salazar (who stepped down after a brain haemorrhage in 1968) and his successor Marcelo Caetano would have none of it. But their reason had nothing to do with Africa.
On 18 December, 1961, as the Portuguese in Goa were winding down for Christmas, 45 000 Indian troops invaded the enclave and quickly overpowered a colonial force of 3 500.
The humiliation led to riots in Lisbon. Officers who failed to die at their posts were cashiered while others moved to Brazil. Portugal broke off relations with Delhi, only restored after the revolution of 1974.
If India had not taken Goa, the leadership in Lisbon might have listened when generals talked of abandoning Guinea. But the wound was still too raw.
More than half of all Portuguese soldiers and conscripts at war in Africa were based in Guinea-Bissau. Releasing them would have set back the rebels in Angola and might have wiped out Frelimo.
“Frelimo set up a chain of “re-education camps”. In one case, on a Saturday afternoon, army trucks pulled up outside a cinema in Maputo and, as patrons came out, they were arrested and taken to a camp.”
In April 1974, the army overthrew Caetano, installing a socialist interim government that quickly dismantled the empire. Rather than holding elections, they simply handed over to the most left-leaning movement in each territory.
On 26 June 1975, Frelimo was given Mozambique without so much as a nod from the povo.
Machel and his radicals banned all political parties aside from their own. Portuguese nationals were given 24 hours to leave the country with 20 kilos of luggage (known as the 24-20 law). Most had seen this coming and moved to South Africa, Rhodesia, Brazil or, as a last choice, Portugal.
Like Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, Machel saw the middle class as his enemy. Despite his education as a nurse, anyone not active within the Party — and who was lucid or had aspirations to better their lot — risked being labeled a “counter revolutionary”.
The PIDE were replaced by a party intelligence service trained by the Stasi from East Germany.
Frelimo set up a chain of “re-education camps”. In one case, on a Saturday afternoon, army trucks pulled up outside a cinema in Maputo and, as patrons came out, they were arrested and taken to a camp.
A film about the abuse that took place at these centres focused on a women’s camp where those accused of prostitution were beaten and tortured. Virgin Margarida was praised at showings in London, New York and Lisbon with graphic images of prisoners buried up to their necks for days at a time.
More than 300 000 were interned; an estimated one-in-10 died of malaria, dysentery, beatings or starvation. And it was escapees — mostly former Frelimo fighters fallen out with the regime — who formed the Mozambique National Resistance or Renamo.
At a camp close to the eastern border, detainees overpowered their guards and crossed into Rhodesia. Some wore shorts, others were naked when they entered a police camp and begged asylum.
Machel was giving sanctuary to Robert Mugabe and his ZANLA guerrillas who were fighting for majority rule in Rhodesia. In a tit-for-tat, Salisbury helped the newly arrived Mozambicans to set up their own force and Renamo was born.
Renamo demanded free elections and an end to one-party rule.
In their push for a Marxist state, Frelimo seized all land (buildings could still be owned), shut down private media and turned the world-leading cashew and sisal farms into state companies run by commissars. Local banks were nationalised along with schools, pension funds, and rented property.
“The state shall be your landlord,” Machel said at a rally. And when a window broke, or a pipe leaked. occupants waited for the state to fix it. Apartments were abandoned as tenants crowded into buildings that were still habitable.
Private practice in law, accounting, medicine and veterinary were abolished and, within a decade, the economy had collapsed.
Some writers point to the lack of doctors, lawyers, vets, accountants at independence. But what skilled population there was, black and white, had either fled or were in the camps.
The Portuguese are also accused have having abandoned the country is an act of sabotage. Rather, they were expelled under the policy of 24-20.
Machel took an aggressive stance against both Rhodesia and South Africa, allowing guerrillas from each territory to train and operate in Mozambique. The resultant wars, bombing of bridges and railway lines (to prevent Soviet and Chinese arms moving from the coast) and ongoing battles with Renamo — tacitly supported by the Reagan administration — laid waste to the country.
Maputo refused to negotiate with Renamo leader, Alfonso Dhlakama and by 1986, Frelimo held the towns and cities while the rebels controlled most of rural Mozambique.
Machel announced there would be a shuffle of both cabinet and the military leadership on 19 October, 1986.
The day prior he attended a meeting in Zambia and, as his plane flew over South African air space, it crashed.
His death is talked about openly in Maputo as an inside job between moderates in Frelimo and the apartheid South African government.
“Chissano ranks with Gorbachev and South Africa’s FW de Klerk in risking a move to democracy, and is remembered as one of the continent’s great statesmen.”
The Western-leaning Joaquim Chissano took office, arranged peace talks with Renamo and reversed the Marxist theme of the economy, opening up to private banks, tourism and business.
A new constitution was introduced with a two-term presidential limit. Supervised elections were held in 1994 under UN supervision, Frelimo won 53% of the vote, but subsequent polls (every five years) showed clumsy signs of rigging. Renamo returned to war and appears set to do so again in 2020.
Chissano ranks with Gorbachev and South Africa’s FW de Klerk in risking a move to democracy, and is remembered as one of the continent’s great statesmen.
His successor, Armando Guebuza, who had conceived the 24-20 policy against the Portuguese, continued to open up the economy, but with himself and his family at the centre of deals, hence his nickname, Mr Guebusiness.
Just as Machel and Chissano had done, Guebuza consolidated his hold by replacing members of the civil service and armed forces either with supporters or extended family.
His financial backer was Mohamed Bachir Suleman, a drug warlord banned from entering the US under Obama’s “Kingpin” legislation that identifies known criminals, especially those who undermine governments by funding the ruling party.
Northern Mozambique became known as “the Heroin Coast”, a name it still retains.
“But Nyusi marked a change. Where all previous leaders had served as commanders in the war against Portugal, Nyusi was taken for military training in Tanzania aged 14, less than a year before the coup in Lisbon.”
But where Chissano let go completely when he left office, Guebuza has tried to maintain his influence in the government of his successor and former defence minister, Filipe Nyusi.
And Suleman still funds Frelimo.
But Nyusi marked a change. Where all previous leaders had served as commanders in the war against Portugal, Nyusi was taken for military training in Tanzania aged 14, less than a year before the coup in Lisbon.
And he comes from the country’s northern-most province, Cabo Delgado. Mondlane, Machel and Chissano were all Shangaan from Gaza Province near Maputo.
Guebuza was born in Nampula in the north-east but with strong links to Maputo.
Nyusi is viewed as a true northerner. This is important in such a long and thin country with the capital in the extreme south.
In 2019, Filipe Nyusi won a disputed second term. Frelimo achieved a two-third majority, enough to alter the constitution. Under a new rule, the party winning the most vote in each of the 10 provinces was allowed to pick the governor: Frelimo won all 10, despite Renamo’s popularity in the middle and north of the country.
Writing in the Washington Post, Dr Anne Pitcher of Minnesota University who was an observer at the election said Frelimo’s massive budget, and divisions in Renamo, played a part.
But she also described widespread intimidation, rigging and how the electoral commission — controlled by Frelimo — added more than a quarter-million names to the roll of people who were either dead or had never lived.
A final report, published in January 2020, estimated that more than 600 000 fake votes had made it impossible for anyone by Frelimo to win.
Two police officers who murdered an election monitor were promoted.
Smuggling and Frelimo
Mozambique has become a hub for contraband. Counterfeit cigarettes are smuggled into South Africa sans duty. Fake Jack Daniels and Johnnie Walker distilled in Gambia, Djibouti and India is warehoused in Cabo Delgado (allegedly under the eye of al-Shabaab) and exported around the world.
Drugs, sunglasses, ivory, rhino horn, even fake cans of Coca Cola are stored in Mozambique for shipment abroad or sale in African capitals.
1 Gaza is named for the Zulu general, Soshangane Gaza, who fled from King Shaka to southern Mozambique where he founded a new tribe, the Shangaan, named after himself.
Mozambique has become a hub for contraband. Counterfeit cigarettes are smuggled into South Africa sans duty. Fake Jack Daniels and Johnnie Walker distilled in Gambia, Djibouti and At the centre of the trade is Suleman who is protected as chief donor to the Party.
Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau could both be termed narco-states, though the latter has almost no other economy and serves as a port for contraband from Boko Haram in west Africa.
Anecdotally, in the recent election, almost every one of the ±30m men, women and children across Mozambique received a red Frelimo cap, T-shirt or both.
The party held rallies in every city, town and village, usually with food and soft drinks. Convoys of vehicles carried supporters to meetings where speakers arrived by plane or helicopter.
No audits are available for party expenditure or source of funds.
Portugal was neutral in World War ll, with Salazar sympathetic to the Nazis but not to their persecution of Jews. And Luanda, Beira, Lourenço Marques, Goa and Macau became listening posts for the Allied and Axis powers.
No surprise that rumour remains part of the culture. It is difficult in both Angola and Mozambique to separate fact from scuttlebutt.
But at the core of politics in Mozambique, everything links back one way or another to Frelimo.
Renamo was formed mostly by Frelimo fighters who had fallen out with the party. Opposition candidates of all persuasions will rarely be found not to have once been members of Frelimo, if only because for the first 20 years after independence it was an offence to back a rival group (or even to call for democracy).
And, difficult as it may be to comprehend, the al Shabaab insurgency has links to factions within the party.
“Nyusi is finding it more difficult than expected to prize the fingers of Guebuza off the national windpipe.”
- Northern Mozambique and southern Tanganyika were marginalised in colonial times. Too far and nothing there.
- This continued after independence until four billion tons of coal was discovered in southern Tanzania and rubies in northern Moz. However, locals say they have not benefitted.
- At the ruby mine in Montepuez near the border with Tanzania, the concession went to Gemfields, listed on the Jo’burg and London stock exchanges. And when solo miners from the area, and some from Tanzania, dug tunnels to get stones for themselves (away from the main shaft), Gemfields brought in bulldozers and buried them alive.This set up a grievance in the community, stoked by al-Shabaab. The bulldozer episodes (it happened more than once) and the campaign of terror were a clear case of cause and effect.Locals say money from the mines ends up outside the country or in Maputo.
- Radical Islam has been growing along the coast of Tanzania and in Mozambique, but it’s thriving in areas where punters say no one else listens to their lot.
- The beheading-in-public tactic (shades of the guillotine), used by al-Shabaab was a trade mark of both Frelimo and Renamo in their war days.
- Nyusi is finding it more difficult than expected to prize the fingers of Guebuza off the national windpipe.
- Al-Shabaab took off in Cabo Delgado — Nyusi’s home province — when Armando Guebuza left power.
- In a country with 70% unemployment where only one-in-three are on the grid, the war and the distraction it gives from economic news is useful to the ruling party
- Guebuza was careful to include senior officers in his various enterprises (as defence minister, Nyusi as always in shadow of the president).
- A coup in Maputo, while unlikely now, was rumoured at the start of Nyusi’s first term, and having the bulk of the army deployed 1600 miles north of the capital is not a bad idea as government tries to unravel the Guebuza empire. Victory against al-Shabaab could be drawn out by design.
- Both Mozambique and Tanzania actively try to cover up the extent of Islamic terror in an effort not to damage tourism or fall out with donors.
“Government has used the excuse of terror to clamp down on opposition parties and freedom of speech in rural areas.”
“The courts are fair in civil cases but anything that impacts on Frelimo is likely to have a biased judgement.”
A dream the size of freedom
One of the US human rights groups raising money for Frelimo during its war with Portugal came up with the slogan, “A dream the size of freedom.”
So is Mozambique free?
Renamo claims that liberation is still its goal. Al-Shabaab says the same.
The country is more free now than at any time in history. There is a strong private media, though self-censorship is common and the secret police, while still evident, no longer prowl the bars listening for “counter revolutionaries”.
The courts are fair in civil cases but anything that impacts on Frelimo is likely to have a biased judgement.
Foreigners, even those who have lived in Mozambique for decades, are careful not to criticise the state for fear of being deported.
Elections are nowhere near to free and fair, and Frelimo is funded by organised crime.
Some academics talk of Samora Machel as the man who liberated his country from colonial rule.
But those who knew Eduardo Mondlane, say he would have been Mozambique’s Nelson Mandela.
“Under the constitution this is Nyusi’s final term and he has yet to make an impact on any of the country’s problems.”
Nyusi’s second term
On Monday 20 January, the BBC Panorama program claimed that, Isabel dos Santos, daughter of former Angolan president, Eduardo dos Santos and his Russian wife, had looted the country with her father’s help, skimming billions off oil revenues and land programmes.
Isabel dos Santos is accused to stealing billions
Isabel denied the claims, but her assets in Angola have been frozen and current president, João Lourenço, has moved to claw back money allegedly stolen by his predecessor.
In Mozambique, Armando Guebuza’s son, Ndabi, has been arrested and prosecutors say he played a key role in a $2bn scandal over the purchase of a fishing fleet where funds have gone missing.
But while Angola is corrupt and has elections observers say are neither free nor fair, the country is at peace after years of civil war.
More than 200 000 Portuguese have moved to Luanda, creating a community similar in size of the colonial days.
By contrast, Mozambique is at war with al-Shabaab and the north is in the hold of organised crime.
At the 2019 election, Nyusi promised to clean up corruption and negotiate with the terror group, but it’s not easy.
In the army, senior officers are said to be involved with both al-Shabaab and the smugglers.
Guebuza still has supporters within Frelimo, his deals involved many in the current cabinet including Nyusi, and investors have shown a reluctance to engage.
Under the constitution this is Nyusi’s final term and he has yet to make an impact on any of the country’s problems.
Filipe Nyusi (left) and Armando Guebuza
“The danger is that, as in colonial days, some believe freedom can only come through violence.
For now, Mr Nyusi is doing little to change that view.”
Ghosts of the past
Mozambique is not the disaster it was under Samora Machel, but the jury is still out on whether it can join the boom in Africa that has brought hope to Ghana, Botswana, Kenya and Somaliland.
The government has taken legal action against, Privinvest, the winning tender in the fishing fleet deal, claiming the country was defrauded.
But at a New York court in December 2019, when the US Department of Justice tried to prosecute Jean Boustani — a Lebanese manager of Privinvest — with charges of corruption, he was acquitted on all counts. However, in evidence it emerged that Frelimo and Nyusi had benefitted from the project.
The new case will go before a court in London, with a risk of more testimony against both Nyusi and his party.
Where Samora Machel had the media under state control, Mozambicans now use Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook, and stories can spread in seconds.
Frelimo remains at the hub of power, but scandal and poverty have damaged the brand.
The danger is that, as in colonial days, some believe freedom can only come through violence.
For now, Mr Nyusi is doing little to change that view.