The most visible sign of Mozambique’s long history of conflict is the war memorial opposite Maputo’s main railway station. It is designed in the fascist-deco style beloved of European dictators in the 1930s. Built in 1936, it was a belated commemoration to the Portuguese and Mozambican soldiers who died in the Great War—in clashes with forces from what was then German East Africa.
There is no such reminder of the hundreds of thousands who died in the more recent wars of liberation, which lasted from 1961 to 1974, or the 14 years of civil war that followed. After so much suffering most people want to forget these years rather than erect public monuments to their memory.
Unlike the on-again off-again nature of so many conflicts today, the peace agreement reached in 1992 by the two main groups, FRELIMO and RENAMO, marked the end of hostilities. ‘It had become a war of the protagonists, not of the people’, says Dr. Americo Jose Ubisse, Secretary General of the Mozambican Red Cross. When the guns fell silent, one million people had died and some 5 million were displaced.
During the intervening years Mozambique has made strides in turning around its fortunes, consistently posting growth rates of 8 percent in recent years—closer to Asian levels than to other African countries.
This performance has made Mozambique a kind of post-conflict poster child. So when I visited Maputo last month, the vibrant but run-down capital, I wanted to find out how Mozambique had seized these impressive results from the jaws of state failure and whether all is as rosy as the growth rate suggests.
The first thing going for Mozambique is its strong sense of unity. Although the war exacted a massive human and developmental toll, it left people with a desire to leave the past behind them and to pull together.
Mozambicans are fortunate that there are few of the ethnic and regional divisions that fan the flames of conflict elsewhere. This is partly because the Portuguese colonizers did not practice the ‘divide and rule’ policies pursued by other colonial powers that contribute to post-colonial divisions.
Also important was the long war of independence against Portugal and, later, the role of Rhodesia and later Apartheid South Africa in support of one side in the civil war. It allowed the country’s leaders to build a narrative around a national struggle against outsiders; a unifying message that continues to resonate.
Mozambique’s second advantage is the neighborhood which provides Mozambique with a muscular regional leg-up. The African Union’s peer review process is credited with providing both outside scrutiny and sympathetic advice on Mozambique’s strategy. More important is economic and political cooperation among the countries of southern Africa, which leverages Mozambique’s own progress.
International support is a key factor in spurring on the process of post-conflict renewal. UN peacekeepers were an essential presence in the period immediately after the peace agreement, providing psychological assurance and physical security. Many observers consider the program for the demobilization of combatants a model.
The transition from humanitarian to development assistance was characterized by the familiar hesitations and prevarications but, by the mid-1990s, the main donors rallied round a major reconstruction program, including the provision of significant levels of direct budgetary support.
But not everything is perfect. Income poverty has fallen steadily but Mozambique remains one of Africa’s poorest countries, ranking 172 out of 182 in the 2009 Human Development Index. Investment in agriculture, which provides the livelihoods for most of the population, has been low while aluminum production, energy and extractive industries, which provide fewer jobs, receive the lion’s share.
There was not much of a peace dividend for the majority of the population in the post-war years—except the end of fighting. In her study of the peace, Lucia van den Burgh writes about meeting a group of people in Gaza province who were dressed in bark. For people who had plumbed these depths, expectations were understandably modest.
But expectations have a way of changing and catching governments off-guard. In Mozambique they will be determined by whether the country can bring down high levels of absolute poverty, especially in rural areas. Equally important is addressing a growing sense of injustice as the rich reap the rewards of economic success while the poor struggle to see what’s in it for them.
Monuments to the dead can play a role in dealing with the aftermath of violence. But the best way to heal the wounds of the past is the prospect of a better future for all citizens.