One of the original 'China in Africa' memes that still endures today among many people on the continent is that the “Chinese want to colonise ... Africa” and want to “invade” the continent using a mix of debt traps, trade dependency, and immigration.
Mozambicans go to the polls today in a largely two-horse election that pits the ruling party, Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Frelimo), against its erstwhile foe, Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (Renamo).
The 2019 elections take place against a difficult backdrop: a new religious extremist conflict, a fragile peace accord with Renamo, a crippling economic crisis exacerbated by a devastating grand corruption scandal by the ruling party, and public disenchantment over the government’s handling of Cyclone Idai and its aftermath.
High stakes, high expectations
After many decades of war between the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Frelimo)-led government and the apartheid-backed rebel movement Renamo – then led by enigmatic guerrilla leader Afonso Dhlakama – the Roman Catholic church successfully brought the parties together and pushed them to make peace.
Peace ushered in elections in 1994, in which Renamo shocked the country and the world by garnering almost 40% of the vote.
The result put paid to the notion of an unpopular rebel movement sustained only through the financial and material support of the Boers. It suggested the popularity not just of Renamo but of what it stood for.
The resource curse
For years the peace held. Then the country discovered minerals. Lots of them and all in the north, Dhlakama’s stronghold. With minerals came foreign investors –large ones including Brazilian coal giant Vale and Australian equivalent Rio Tinto, who swooped in on coal concessions in Tete Province.
In Wild West style, mining deals were cut with little regard to the welfare and benefit of local communities, who were forcibly moved hundreds of kilometres away without infrastructure or adequate compensation. More discoveries brought further dispossession and exploitation, driving resentment and in time a resurgence of the conflict.
As avaricious politicians in Maputo grew stronger, cutting deals for mining and large-scale agricultural investments with the Chinese, so too did the resentment. It was no surprise, therefore, when the war restarted. By then Dhlakama was sick, old and dying, but the sense of injustice and exploitation remained fresh.
In 2014, the elections reflected growing resentment and frustration with Frelimo, which lost in the northern province of Tete and western province of Sofala – but still retained its majority in what some observers called fraudulent elections.
It was therefore always a question of time before Frelimo faced a far more acid test. In 2018, Dhlakama died in the jungle – igniting a succession battle within his movement.
Despite this wrangling, following months of negotiations another peace deal was struck early this year. Although it was immediately denounced by a faction of Renamo, it was welcomed by many as an opportunity for peace. It was seen as crucial to secure peace, as a larger and more ominous enemy had emerged in the north: violent Islamic extremism.
Driven south by Tanzania’s war on terror, extremist groups started attacking people and villages in the north in 2014.
Ignored and unacknowledged by a government with historically little interest, desire or presence in the north, the attacks grew in number and scale until they could not be ignored.
By this time, they also threatened financial and economic interests in mining and tourism. A largely absent government and security sector flailed, with two wars in the north and two different, archetypal enemies.
The 2019 elections also take place in the backdrop of a devastating corruption scandal in which ruling party officials in the previous government corruptly borrowed and siphoned off more than $1bn.
Masterminded by bankers at Credit Suisse and VTB, the deal enabled the country to borrow money it did not need, which, instead of benefiting Mozambique, ended up in the private bank accounts of senior government officials and connected relatives.
The scandal sparked an international criminal investigation which has resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of the Swiss bankers and prosecution of a Lebanese fixer.
At the request of the United States of America, the former Mozambican minister of finance, Manuel Chang, was arrested by the South African authorities and faces an extradition trial this week in the High Court in Johannesburg.
Implicated in this dirty deal is the son of the former president and other unnamed senior government officials. The scandal has led to the withdrawal of external financing for the country and triggered an economic crisis amidst a commodity bust which set it in motion several years ago.
Cyclone Idai’s bitter taste
Compounding this is the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, which devastated the eastern and northern part of the country in February.
The government faces accusations – which it argues are false – of not having been ready for the storm despite some advance warning, not taking timely preventive action to save lives and property or acting to help communities recover, especially from the equally devastating health crisis and cholera outbreak that ensued.
It does not help that the most devastated regions also happen to to be those where the opposition is most popular.
Ghost voters in Gaza?
The first major signs of trouble in these elections came during the voter registration process. When the national electoral commission, the Comissão Nacional de Eleições (CNE), announced the registration results for Gaza province, Mozambicans were shell shocked.
The voter numbers far exceeded those of the national census board, prompting it to challenge and then denounce then. But the electoral commission stood fast in defending its figures. The Gaza registration sparked fears of widespread manipulation of the voter registration process to load numbers in favour of Frelimo, which the CNE denied.
The denials failed to assuage concerns about the credibility of the voter register. Left with no choice, local electoral observers developed counter-measures. They would carefully monitor elections in these red-light provinces to ensure that these were real voters. It was this approach that triggered a devastatingly violent response by the security services.
Murder in Gaza
Last Monday, whilst leaving a training session for electoral observers in Gaza Province, the head of the local observer group Sala da Paz (Peace Room), Anastácio Matavel, was gunned down by an elite police unit in broad daylight.
The assailants would have got away with it had they not failed to manoeuvre their vehicle and been involved in an accident which killed some of them and injured others, enabling their capture.
The point of this brutal attack was all too clear: to prevent electoral observation in Gaza. The deadly warning and fatal attack on Matavel seems to have been calculated to mask the evidence of the grossly fraudulent voter’s roll in Gaza.
With panic having set in amongst observers and many having fled, polls in Gaza will now likely proceed unmonitored. This will ensure – to the advantage of Frelimo – that all the questions and suspicions regarding the dubious voter numbers remained unresolved.
The cowardly murder of Matavel is not the only attempt to manipulate the election using violence or threats of violence.
Opposition candidates and supporters in Gaza and elsewhere have been intimidated and sometimes beaten. In the northern province of Cabo Delgado – a hotbed of religious extremist violence – the CNE has not been able to make arrangements for people to vote.
As polls open today thousands of people there have no idea not only of where they can vote, but whether they will vote at all.
The high cost of flawed elections
Despite the challenges, elections will proceed in most parts of the country. Aided by a range of factors including the questionable voters’ roll, an incumbency advantage, fractures in Renamo and the powerful effect of violence, Frelimo is likely to win.
But the way it wins will generate questions and challenges about the legitimacy of the outcome.
These questions are likely to haunt the government going forward. As we speak, Malawians remain on the streets protesting an outcome from May’s elections. Zimbabwe continues to spiral into deeper political and economic crisis stemming from electoral legitimacy questions. Lesotho is unable to find stability due to shaky electoral coalitions.
All these examples show that it matters how an election is conducted and won. Unfair, flawed and fixed elections come at a very high cost to countries. This is a lesson Mozambique should have learnt from its neighbours.
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