On the 15th of October, 2014, Mozambique held its fifth multiparty general election. Despite Renamo’s almost ritualistic accusation of fraud (not that fraud did not happen, but it would probably not change the outcome of the election) Frelimo once again appears to be heading towards a comfortable win, if not as overwhelming as the previous victory. This election has been seen as especially significant due to the growing challenge of the opposition MDM, Renamo’s ability to fight back (quite literally) from the political irrelevance that seemed to be its fate after its disastrous performance in the last election and the generational shift inside the ruling Frelimo party.
Armando Guebuza, the former president, is obeying the two-term limit and stepping down despite winning around 75% of the vote in the 2009 elections. He will remain head of the Frelimo party, a position with tremendous power and influence. His successor, Felipe Nyusi will be the first Mozambican president who did not take part in the liberation struggle.
Nyusi is a close ally of Armando Guebuza and his capacity to act independently of his patron is subject to much conjecture. While the relationship between Mr Nyusi and Mr Guebuza and questions over how the growing strength of the opposition dominate much of the discussion about Mozambique, major political transformations that have been occurring over the past few decades have attracted less attention.
While Guebuza may retain significant power behind the scenes, his presidency has been marked by turbulence. It is true that under his stewardship the economy is booming. Economic growth rates have been high since the 1990s and the recent mineral and natural resource driven economic boom is consolidating this trend. Mozambique boasted a 7% economic growth in 2013 and, according to the AfDB’s most recent statistics, is expected to grow to 8.5% this year.
The official rates for urban poverty, which stood at 53.6% in 2002/3, have dropped to 36.2% in 2008/9 and this has been coupled with improvements in social services in the capital. Additionally, Guebuza is widely credited with revitalizing party structures that had begun to stagnate under his predecessor Joaquim Chissano (1986-2005). In perhaps his most notable achievement, Guebuza more tightly bound rural power holders to Frelimo by providing an annual subsidy of seven million Meticais to each district, giving them a stake in Frelimo’s continued hold on power.
The Guebuza era is also notable for an ongoing transformation in the way Mozambique is governed; the steady personalization of power. This process began in the preceding Chissano era, with the adoption of a market economy. State assets were privatized and Frelimo grandees, disproportionately the winners of the privatization, began to become serious economic players in their own right. However, as a university professor explained to me: “There is growing discontent, Guebuza is eating (taking) everything, trying to centralize and control everything. Unlike Chissano who let people do what they wanted to, he (Chissano) obviously had his own interests, but he let others have theirs”. Even a Renamo cadre told me that “I respected Chissano, he tried to spread the wealth around instead of just taking it all, like now”.
The families of party grandees are becoming almost feudal in their power and ability to pass it on to their children, and factional and regional struggles gain in intensity (natural gas tends to be based in the north and Frelimo has long been accused of being a southern dominated party). The centralization of power gives a leader and their close associates tremendous power as everything has to go through them. The rewards of power in such a situation are obvious, but they may prove fleeting.
During Guebuza’s tenure as president his economic influence and that of closely aligned business leaders was considerable to say the least. Now that he has stepped down though, it is likely his influence will wane in comparison with a new configuration of party grandees and their associates, thus semi-permanent insecurity is present at even the highest levels of power.
The centralization of power and growing insecurity of the elite has been mirrored by spiralling inequality for the wider society. This can be seen most concretely in a series of bloody riots. The first broke out in Maputo on the 5th of February 2008. The specific causes were blamed on the rising price of transport, forcing many urbanites to spend half or more of their salaries just to get to work. Price hikes in transport and fuel also meant that the cost of food, much of which is imported, soared. As one newspaper editorial put it: “the inhabitants of the bairros (neighbourhoods, or poor suburbs) do not live, they survive”.
While these factors, combined with rising crime, gross inequality, growing urban poverty, an unpopular president and internal factionalism within Frelimo, were well-known, the violence seemed to catch everybody by surprise. Initially mobs attacked chapas, the mini-van taxis that are a ubiquitous feature of urban life, overturning and burning them. Wider frustrations soon came to the fore and rioters targeted luxury cars, the symbol of the new rich, and burned down a school named after the current president, Armando Guebuza.
One rumour that endlessly circulated claimed that rioters attacked a convoy of luxury cars, but when they found that the convoy contained the former president, Joaquim Chissano, they started cheering and demanded that he retake power. The riot spread and continued for two days and paralyzed the city. It was only quelled when the government deployed contingents of police who had permission to shoot on sight, and made a panicked agreement to subsidise the cost of transport. However, this did not stop riots from breaking out again in 2010 and 2012.
Inequality and growing social polarization are becoming major issues in Maputo. As a public transport worker explained to me: “Inequality is getting out of control. The rich keep getting richer but everyone else get(s) nothing. I have no faith with the government, I am sick of them, they only exist for themselves and they do not give anything to the people. When I see Guebuza’s face on the news, I just change the channel.”
Inequality has been accompanied by a plague of violent crime. The well-off and their families face a series of high profile kidnappings that the police are unable or unwilling to combat (in fact the police have been implicated in a number of kidnappings). Mozambique is becoming another expression of the paradox so often seen in Africa, political immobility coupled with radical uncertainty.
In March of 2013 I was speaking to ‘Tiago’at a popular restaurant in downtown Maputo. Tiago is university educated and has a good job at a government ministry. I asked him who he would vote for and he told me the MDM. I was surprised as he is a member of Frelimo, but he explained: “Yes I am a member of Frelimo, but the situation is terrible; things cannot keep going like this, we just really need a change.”
Frelimo dominates the machinery of state and will most likely continue in power for the foreseeable future. Even if the party lost power, it is not clear what, if anything, the opposition would do differently. While Frelimo is able to tighten its grip on the levers of the state and fend off those who would contest the party, the system is hollowing itself out and even the privileged are growing increasingly alienated. While the current focus in Mozambique will be on how the most recent electoral process was handled, how the outcome will effect on the practice of power or the growing fault lines in Mozambican society is uncertain.
Jason Sumich is a social anthropologist who has conducted research in Mozambique since 2002. He received his PhD, which examined nationalism, elite formation and democratization in Mozambique, from the London School of Economics and has taught at Universities in the United Kingdom, Norway and South Africa. He has published in numerous academic journals including Development and Change, Journal of Southern African Studies, Social Analysis and Ethnos.