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Mozambique: A Fading U.N. Success Story

From: Journal of Democracy
Volume 13, Number 1, January 2002
pp. 141-156 | 10.1353/jod.2002.0018

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Journal of Democracy 13.1 (2002) 141-156

[Figures]

As Mozambique enters its tenth year of peace following a brutal and destructive civil war, the signs of continued democratic transformation and pro-market economic reform appear rosy, at least at first glance. Donors and the international community have quietly lauded Joaquim Chissano's recent announcement that he is "not disposed" to seek a third term as president of this former Portuguese colony of 17 million on the southeast coast of Africa. Together with President Frederick Chiluba's similar announcement in Zambia a few months ago, it looks to many like an indication that these two African democracies are maturing and consolidating the gains that they have made in recent years.

Mozambique's continued place atop the list of the world's fastest-growing economies has been seen as another signal that commitment to the "Washington Consensus" will provide the funds required to bring infrastructure, schools, and health care to the rural majority. It is no wonder, then, that Mozambique finds itself highlighted as a success story for the United Nations in conflict-ridden Africa. Many credit Mozambique's remarkable transformation to the UN's efforts to sustain the drawn-out peace negotiations, demobilize more than 90,000 soldiers, rebuild a unified national army, and foster the rise of a legitimate, peaceful opposition. Donor investments continue to support Mozambique today, funding more than half of the government's annual budget.

On the ground in Mozambique, however, the continuation of this upward trajectory looks anything but guaranteed. The newspapers hint at trouble just beneath the surface: two major bank failures, the assassination of the country's most respected independent journalist, the continued depreciation of the currency, and stop-and-start talks between the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (or Frelimo, as the ruling party is usually called) and its main political rival, the Resist^encia Nacional Moçambicana (Renamo), about how to share power at the local level. In November 2000, when police in the city of Montepuez killed demonstrators challenging the government's claim to have won that year's national elections, tensions nearly exploded into large-scale violence.

The UN's work in Mozambique was unprecedented in scope, and the results have been dramatic. Two consecutive free elections and growth rates approaching 10 percent a year over the past decade cannot be ignored. Some might argue that the items of bad news cited above are merely "bumps on the road" toward lasting peace, as Mozambicans of all stripes learn to resolve problems through dialogue and democratic competition. But a deeper look at Mozambique's political and economic situation suggests a bleaker interpretation.

The truth is that a number of deep cleavages threaten the future of Mozambique's democratic transition. What are these fundamental divisions? And more importantly, how can the political system be reformed in order to prevent them from worsening or even erupting into renewed civil war? A search for answers should begin with some basic background on Mozambique and its troubled recent history.

The Social Geography of Mozambique

With a shoreline stretching more than 2,000 miles along the east coast of southern Africa, Mozambique has long occupied a strategic position. In colonial times -- and even before, as traders made their way up and down the Indian Ocean -- Mozambique's abundance of rivers and natural harbors held the promise of unparalleled access to the African hinterland. As colonialism went into decline and the Cold War took hold in Africa, Mozambique's proximity to Rhodesia and South Africa further consolidated its strategic importance, as the Soviet Union and the United States battled to maintain their spheres of influence in the region.

The physical geography of Mozambique also has had profound effects on the social and cultural landscape of the country. Three major rivers flowing west to east -- the Zambezi, the Save, and the Limpopo -- divide the country laterally into three "broad cultural and linguistic bands." The northernmost third of the country, above the Zambezi River, is home to matrilineal groups (the Makonde, Macua-Lowme, and Yao) with historic links to the Islamic influences of the East African littoral. A diverse array of smaller ethnic groups that...



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