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Africa Today 48.4 (2001) 125-126

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Bowen, Merle L. 2000. The State against the Peasantry: Rural Struggles in Colonial and Postcolonial Mozambique. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 256 pp.

It is unusual for an academic book review to use such terms as "hard-hitting," "frank," "accurate," and "compelling," but Merle Bowen provides us with such a study. She examined Mozambique during the turbulent period 1950-1993 and concluded that the colonial administration, and then the independent government of Mozambique, were pursuing policies inimical to the peasantry. She maintains, "While their reasons differed, the effect was the same: to inhibit an independent and prosperous peasantry" (p. 4).

While her account of colonial Mozambique was very good, it is outstanding in summarizing the transformation from centrally planned socialism to a more market oriented system during 1984-1993. It was not a pretty picture. By joining the Bretton Woods Institutions in 1984, Mozambique agreed to the Economic Rehabilitation Program, a typical IMF-backed structural adjustment package (austerity program, and privatization). Bowen suggests that Frelimo basically reinstated colonial policies, especially in the areas of labor (for example, by enforcing cotton production), and in administration (for example, by restoring indirect rule.) In her view, Western NGOs, international financial institutions, and South Africa, dictated the terms of the transformation to the Frelimo government. She argues that "the Mozambican regime has continued to follow policies antagonistic to peasant farmers in the name of capitalism and with the approval of international financial capital. It is unlikely that the IF and World Bank-dictated policies will, at least in the short to medium term, improve the lives of ordinary peasants" (p. 3). While many share this assessment, it is perhaps a bit harsh. It totally ignores some of the hard bargaining Frelimo carried out, particularly with the IMF during some of the early stages. Nonetheless, generally it is an accurate account.

Bowen does a good job of dispelling some conclusions that many observers, including this reviewer, had of Mozambique in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, one interesting theme Bowen draws was that while most scholars in the 1980s and 1990s believed that the South African-backed Renamo forces caused the collapse of socialism, she maintains that Frelimo should shoulder more—if not most—of the blame (p. 46). Also, while many observers concluded that Frelimo's policies toward rural development could be categorized as "benign neglect" (p. 11), Bowen stresses that the new government pursued active interventionist policies that [End Page 125] caused the country's dismal performance. Indeed, she argues that, "Even if there had been no war of destabilization, the government's strategy was fraught with inherent contradictions that heralded political difficulties" (p. 12).

Another noteworthy point is that no alliance of peasants and workers ever really existed. Frelimo's final abandonment of Marxism-Leninism terminated the official alliance, more myth than reality (p. 200). Bowen believes that the real gain from land reform efforts fell to ". . . the foreign-owned multinational corporations, foreign private capital, and Frelimo party members . . ." (p. 188). She concludes her study by suggesting that in the end, independence did not result in meaningful land reform, and indeed the new state did not return Portuguese-confiscated land to the peasantry (205). Finally, perhaps her most important point is that "the exclusion of the rural population from the political discourse cast doubt on whether Mozambican leaders will seriously address their various concerns in the future" (p. 202).

From reading this study one can only conclude that the Frelimo economic programs were failures, at least with regard to the peasantry. Bowen makes this conclusion based upon the study of Frelimo policies at the local level, in her case a small island 130 kilometers north of Maputo. She also reminds us that in 1989 the government admitted that about ten million people, or two-thirds of the population, were living in absolute poverty. This is a serious admission, and indeed one that even in 2001 is only slowly being reversed.

This book contains only a few downsides. I would like to...


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