Mozambique Is a Failed State. The West Isn’t Helping It.

Donor countries and international organizations are propping up a corrupt government rather than criticizing it—leaving millions of Mozambicans mired in poverty.

Children play in front of a house destroyed by Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique, on March 27, 2019.
Children play in front of a house destroyed by Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique, on March 27, 2019. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 15, 2020, Filipe Nyusi was sworn in for his second term as the president of Mozambique following his reelection in October. Elections have been held every five years since 1994, soon after the country ended its decades long civil war and embarked on a democratic path. On the economic front, Mozambique has an opportunity to tap into its rich energy resources in natural gas, coal, and hydroelectric power, which are set to attract billions in foreign investment. Unfortunately, the prospects for political stability and wealth don’t look promising.

While some observers have seen it as an African success story, Mozambique has become a borderline failed state, its democracy a sham, and its energy riches won’t guarantee that its security or governance will improve in the future. And Mozambique is not unique. It is an example of how rich countries say they want to improve the lives of people in poor countries, but through their failure to insist on better governance inadvertently wind up ­­­­ensuring that their poverty will endure.

This gloomy prediction about Mozambique is due to several factors. First and foremost is the government’s corruption. It has been run by the same small group of politicians since independence in 1975. They have succeeded in abusing their power because of the lack of the countervailing forces such as an independent legislature and judiciary, a free press, and a strong civil society sector.

As a country where the per capita gross domestic product is less than 1 percent of that of the United States, Mozambique is simply too poor to afford the necessary trappings of democracy that could provide a check and balance on the power of the ruling elite. And these rulers have been aided by the complicity of some countries, energy companies such as ExxonMobil, and aid organizations such as the U.N. Development Program and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the indifference of others.

When Mozambique abruptly gained its independence in 1975, it was totally unprepared for self-government because Portuguese colonial authorities had invested nothing in the education of the local population. As a result, when the Portuguese departed, they handed the government over to Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group that had been fighting for independence from Portugal for over a decade.

The leaders of Frelimo have been running the country ever since. There have been regular elections since the civil war ended, but the government has continually used its power to rig them. The European Union sent observers to the October election that Nyusi won, but they did not issue their final report until mid-February. When it did come out, the observers did not mince words. Among the multiple problems they found wereballot-box stuffing, organised multiple voting, intentional invalidation of votes for the opposition, altering of polling station results with the fraudulent addition of extra votes, unlikely turnout figures, [and] major results deviations between polling stations in the same polling centre.”

The EU found irregularities in every province that were made possible by the complicity of local election authorities, the police, state officials, and Frelimo sympathizers. In major opposition strongholds, the observers noted an astonishing reversal of resultsfrom those in the 2018 municipal election results, giving further evidence of fraud.

Yet Nyusi supposedly won a second term with 73 percent of the vote when he garnered only 57 percent in his first election. That is even more implausible given the poor record in his first five years as president, on which he had to run. One independent report found the countrys position in a number of important social welfare indicators had deteriorated significantly compared to its neighbors during his first term.

In part because of that poor performance, Frelimo took no chances that its grip on power might slip in the election and even employed intimidation and violence against those that it perceived as a threat. The worst example of this was the murder of a civil-society activist, Anastacio Matavel. He was killed on Oct. 7, 2019, after he attended a training session for local observers for the presidential election that was only a week away.

A report in the weekly newspaper Savana, based on court documents, made clear his assassins were not the most professional of hit men. They crashed their getaway car, which was owned by the local mayor, less than a mile from the scene of the crime, which is the only reason they were caught. About two weeks earlier they had murdered by mistake someone else, who they thought was Matavel. That person, ironically, was a former police officer—the irony being that the five assassins who later pumped 10 bullets into Matavel are also police officers.

It is unclear who ordered the hit on Matavel, but four of the five policemen were members of an elite unit called the Rapid Intervention Force. In many poor countries, the police are a national force under the control of the central government and are neither accountable to nor under the control of local officials. In many of those countries, the main mission of the police is not to protect the people from criminals; it is to protect the government from the people.

The most glaring recent example of government criminality in Mozambique has been the case of the “hidden debts.” In 2016, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced the government had admitted that Credit Suisse and the Russian bank VTB Capital had secretly lent more than $1 billion to three government-owned companies. The loans had not disclosed to the parliament of Mozambique, as required by law, or to the IMF or international donors. Various court cases have revealed that hundreds of millions of dollars in “commissions” were paid for these loans. Twenty people, including the son of former President Armando Guebuza, have been charged for their roles in the scheme.

Among those in legal jeopardy is the former finance minister who arranged the deal. He was arrested while traveling through South Africa in December 2018. Competing requests for his extradition from the United States, where he is wanted on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit fraud, and Mozambique have left the minister in a South African jail since then and it is unclear where or whether he will face justice.

Mozambique requested the former minister’s extradition even though at the time he had not been charged with any crime and still had parliamentary immunity. That request has been dropped in an attempt to speed up a decision, but the Mozambican government still claims it wants him back  to stand trial even though he is likely to implicate other former and current high level officials.

Another indicator of the corruption in Mozambique is Transparency International’s ranking on its Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2019, the country came in 146th out of 180 nations ranked, meaning that only 34 countries in the world were considered more corrupt. Ten years ago it ranked 130th; it has slipped 16 places in a decade.

Corruption is made easy in a country as poor as Mozambique, where the vast majority of the people are subsistence farmers trying to scratch a living out of the ground. Because civil society is weak, the parliament and judiciary are fully under the thumb of Frelimo, and the press is largely government-run or thoroughly intimidated, leaders face little pressure to govern democratically or honestly.

Because of this lack of opportunity to obtain some share of political power, elements of the main opposition party, Renamo, have once again begun attacking transportation routes in the center of the country even though a peace agreement was signed with the party last year before the elections. In the extreme north of the country, an Islamist terrorist group is running amok and has killed hundreds, though its origins and goals are unclear.

Since the north is where much of the nation’s energy resources lie, Russian mercenaries have been sent in to help the Mozambican army, but they have suffered casualties and failed to restore order. As in other parts of Africa, many of the so-called Islamist terrorists appear to be unemployed youth who see no hope in the future because of the corruption and indifference of their government.

Since there are no internal constraints on the government’s power in Mozambique, the only hope is that the international community might try to impose some. But that would elicit charges of infringement of sovereignty and neocolonialism from Frelimo. It is unlikely to happen because, given the number of truly failed states in the world to worry about, rich countries care more about stability in those that are partial failures than they do about democracy.

Last year’s clear case of election fraud in Mozambique is one example. It only elicited the mildest criticism from abroad. When the results were finally certified on Dec. 23, 2019, the U.S. State Department congratulated the Mozambican people for their participation, but noted that opposition parties, civil society groups, and election observers have made credible allegations of significant election-related fraud and intimidation.” The statement then went on to urge Mozambican authorities to fully address the serious concerns by observer missions.In other words, the State Department was suggesting the government ought to investigate itself for the tactics it has widely employed to ensure it wins elections.

Rich countries care more about stability in countries that are partial failures than they do about democracy.

Such mild rebukes did not deter donor organizations. The U.N. Development Program announced in December a five-year, $60 million project to help the government decentralize governance and encourage digital participation in democracy. Only 21 percent of Mozambicans have Internet access, however, and one thing Frelimo has made clear over the years is that it does not intend to loosen its grip on power by giving local officials, who might not be Frelimo loyalists, any measure of authority.

Also in December, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) announced a new five-year grant to Mozambique. The MCC, a U.S. Government agency, supposedly gives funds to developing countries “that meet rigorous standards for good governance, from fighting corruption to respecting democratic rights.” Its new CEO is a former Republican party operative, and advisor to President Trump, who had no experience in development and had never previously set foot in any of the countries where the MCC operates.

As with many such organizations, the primary objective of UNDP and the MCC seems to be shoveling money out the door and that is impeded if they make demands on recipient countries beyond asking for a receipt. They and other donor agencies have so far refused to place any limitations on the Mozambican government’s abuse of power even though they provide half the governments budget.

Energy companies are another group that ought to be concerned with the long-term stability of the country, but they only pay attention to their short-term profits. To protect those profits, ExxonMobil and Total have asked the government to send hundreds of more soldiers to defend their projects. So the energy companies will harvest Mozambique’s resources and provide hundreds of millions of dollars to the government, creating new opportunities for corruption and millions of reasons for it not to lessen its monopoly on power.

Some of the money that does not find its way to bank accounts abroad will go toward paying for more weapons and more mercenaries to maintain Frelimo’s dominance. As a result, the insurgency and terrorism in the north will remain. And the Mozambican people will be left to wonder which is more destructive, the cyclones which have frequently struck the country or their own government.

The donor community ignores corruption and continues to offer humanitarian and development aid that is little more than a Band-Aid. Treating the basic cause of the country’s ills—bad governance—rather than the symptoms of the problem seems beyond the attention span of the rich countries and at variance with their commercial interests. And so the people of Mozambique are left with the options of armed resistance, Islamist terrorism, emigration, or resignation.

Dennis Jett is a professor of international affairs at Penn State University and a former career diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru.

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