Irish researcher visits Mozambique in advance of a defining election

Though Mozambique is one of the world's fastest growing economies, most of it's population still live in poverty. This week's elections show that pressure is rising on its government to make sure that the country's newfound prosperity benefits those who need it most, writes Ruairi Casey.

Irish researcher visits Mozambique in advance of a defining election

Though Mozambique is one of the world's fastest growing economies, most of it's population still live in poverty. This week's elections show that pressure is rising on its government to make sure that the country's newfound prosperity benefits those who need it most, writes Ruairi Casey.

Wednesday's presidential and parliamentary elections marked a defining moment for Mozambique.

It has been the first major challenge at the ballot box for Frelimo, the party that has governed the country since it achieved independence from Portuguese rule in 1975.

Preliminary results from the presidential race suggest that Frelimo will win with about 60 per cent of the vote, though opposition party Renamo have rejected the result, flaming that the result is fraudulent.

Frelimo’s long standing leader, Armando Guebuza, has been constitutionally prevented from running for a third term, and so the face of former defence minister Felipe Nyusi adorned Frelimo's innumerable and inescapable red campaign posters, which promised to continue the party's work to date.

Though his election is a certainty, Frelimo’s popularity has diminished considerably, especially among the young and those living in cities. The younger, progressive Movimento Democrático de Moçambique (MDM), led by Daviz Simango, won three of the four largest cities in last year's municipal election, and will slightly improve their parliamentary representation this time around.

The campaign has seen a resurgence from Alfonso Dhlakama, who last month signed a peace agreement to end a campaign of sporadic violence centred around Sofala province. After two years spent in the remote region of Gorongosa, Renamo have agreed to concessions that would include them more in decision making and give them fair representation on electoral bodies.

Dispelling rumours of serious illness, Dhaklama has made some spirited appearances on the campaign trail, drawing surprisingly large crowds for a figure who has been considered increasingly irrelevant.

Along with MDM, Renamo have campaigned for a more open Mozambique, and a change from a government which they claim excludes the majority of citizens from the country's economic success.

Though neither party was ever likely to defeat the seasoned electoral machine of Frelimo, when results are finally counted they may provide a functional opposition, which could end Frelimo’s comfortable dominance of Mozambican politics.

Two weeks ago, in Mozambique's second city Beira, Nyusi declared that he would “take revenge” on poverty. Once a student in the city, he described the hardships suffered during the civil war days of the 1980s: “There was nothing on sale in the shops. There were no buses. We had to go on foot everywhere we wanted to go, including going to school (All Africa).”

Today's Mozambique is a nation completely transformed. It is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with GDP expected to grow by 8.1 per cent this year, and to rise by even more in 2015 (World Bank). Discoveries of some of the world's largest mineral reserves have seen billions of dollars in international investment, and the capital Maputo is the epicentre. Roads are expanding, new hotels and luxury apartment blocks push the skyline higher, and foreign investment continues to bring skilled expatriates, largely from China and Portugal, to the city.

But outside Maputo's historically Portuguese centre, in suburbs like Mafalala and Laulane, signs of economic the boom are not so easily seen. Here small concrete houses sprawl in a maze of dimly-lit streets and alleys, in neighbourhoods where crime rates are considerably higher than the city, and sanitation is basic at best.

And out in Mozambique's vast countryside, home to most of the population of 24 million, many rural communities have only scant access to essential services. Despite its recent successes, Mozambique remains one of the world's poorest countries, with more than half its population suffering from food poverty. 15 years of civil war between the Frelimo government and Renamo rebels left the country in ruin, and since peace accords were signed in 1992, the government's main ambition has been to raise the standard of living for all citizens.

Beginning from such a low base, huge improvements were made all sectors, with overall poverty declining by 15 per cent, but in recent years progress has plateaued. The most recent comprehensive survey found a half percent increase in those living beneath the poverty line between 2003 and 2009, and there is no reason to suggest any significant shift since.

Though the majority have yet to benefit, the prosperity brought by foreign investment is plain to see in Maputo, where luxury goods are more easily vailable than ever. It is all too apparent that there is a growing divide between rich and poor in Mozambique,and opposition supporters claim that Frelimo is responsible. From years of unchecked power, the formerly Marxist party has become a closed elite with close ties to major businesses, whose interests are often prioritised over those of regular Mozambicans.

Over the past few years, much of the government's focus has been on the 'mega-projects,' often aimed at exploiting country's sizeable reserves of gas, oil and minerals. These investments have so far failed to meet expectations. Job creation has been low, and a lack of Mozambican expertise means that skilled jobs more often go to foreigners. In addition, Mozambique's underdeveloped infrastructure has seriously hampered industrial development.

Mining giant Rio Tinto recently sold its coal assets in Tete province for $50m, a colossal loss on the $3.7bn spent to acquire them in 2011. The rail network between Tete the coast proved insufficient to support the project, and attempts to barge the coal down the Zambezi River proved no more successful.

The example of Rio Tinto now stands as a reminder that Mozambique's mineral wealth will be no panacea for its problems. Even successful projects have failed to create inclusive economic gains, instead increasing a worrying wealth gap whoich continues to develop.

These projects form only a part of the government's long term plans to reduce poverty, which have been published in a series of strategy papers to outline policies and goals for poverty reduction. Known as PARPAs, they outline priorities in developing agriculture, employment, better governance and social services.

Like many, Koen Vanormeligen, Unicef representative for Mozambique, is sceptical about the benefits 'megaprojects' and questions the government's decision to prioritise them over more inclusive investments.

He echoes many working in the non-governmental sector when he says that capacity building is the most important task for the country. Poor infrastructure and a paucity of human capital is a major restraint in all sectors, especially in education and health, where there is a constant struggle to provide basic services.

This year, nine million children will be born in Mozambique. These numbers require an enormous increase in capacity for maternal care, nutritional support, education and more. The challenge is staggering. Vanormeligen describes it as “like building a railroad track when the train has left the station. We can't say hold it and stop.” Even to keep standards as they will be a tough task, he says. “To stay still they need to run.”

Another major impediment to Mozambique is one that regularly flares up during elections. Corruption is an unfortunate but unavoidable reality in Mozambique. At a petty level, it can appear in the form of underpaid traffic police offering to make a deal over a minor infraction, or even asking for a soft drink or snack to continue a journey without delay. But of more concern is the common disappearance of money from public accounts.

George Dominguez, of Association Wonelela, works to combat corruption in Inhambane province. Wonelela's programme of public auditing involves analysing financial documents obtained from local government and assessing the use of funding.

“When you take the documents you can look over the plan. You can read '2012 – we'll build four schools, three hospitals and a new road.' The money is written down but you go to the place and there's nothing.”

He gives an example of a nearby district where 2.7 million meticals (€68,700) was allocated for the construction of an official residence, and a further 600 thousand (€15,200) for a new police station. Neither have been built, and no trace remains of the money.

Wonelela's investigations have not been made easy. Government officials have been reluctant to provide documents, and George laments that “they fight too much.” Once the investigations are complete, they are published in reports which are distributed to government and local residents. Spreading awareness of corruption is the primary aim. “We put up posters so everyone can learn what is happening. The people want to know because it's their money.”

Civil society organisations like Wonelela are helping to create a platform for transparency and open public debate, which has been sorely lacking under Frelimo rule. Most Mozambicans will acknowledge that deference to authority is culturally ingrained, but more than ever citizens are organising and making demands of their government.

There is an indomitable positivity about Mozambique at the moment. Though poverty, inequality and corruption persist, no one doubts that there is a bright future ahead for Mozambique. There is an increasing demand, from civil society and from government opposition, for a government that will spread the benefits of economic growth fairly, and should Frelimo retain power, this is a demand they will not be able to ignore much longer.

Agriculture in Moamba

In Moamba, not far from the Lebombo Mountains which mark the border with South Africa, election campaigning is in full swing. FRELIMO, the ruling party, have daubed their already-peeling red posters over any vertical surface around the town's main crossroads. Meanwhile supporters of MDM, a progressive opposition party, kick up dirt as they drive through on a pickup truck laden with speakers, blaring out some catchy political jingles.

On the FRELIMO posters, under the face of presidential candidate Filipe Nyusi, is written a promise to continue a programme which provides 7m meticals (€179k) per year to projects in each municipality.

About a kilometre or two outside the town, the farmers of Assossiation Block 2, work together to make the most of their holdings. The association was formed over a decade ago, when state owned lands were handed over the community, with individuals receiving plots between one and four acres each. Though the ground can support a wide variety of produce, irrigation is crucial for these farmers' livelihoods.

The association holds a total of 485 acres, though only about 200 are usable. Damage to one of the dams means irrigation is limited, and high salt content renders almost 20 per cent of the land useless. Though the IMF has provided funds for the government to address the salination issue, association leaders Joshua and Paixao remain skeptical.

They are no strangers to broken promises from the local government. One dam, on which almost half of the land's irrigation is reliant, has been left in disrepair for years, with no funds yet in sight.

Both men believe that the government's plans to develop agriculture have been neglected in favoure of its enthusiasm for exploiting the country's mineral reserves. Joshua says, “The government is running to oil and gas, but these will run out, and farming will remain.” He believes that with Mozambique's recent economic growth, there is no reason not to invest more in the agricultural sector, which supports the vast majority of the population.

On the acre plot run by 31 year old Lucas, things are looking better than ever. An enormous pile of potatoes, some half the length of his forearm, continues to grow as workers harvest the field.

“This years crop has been incomparable because of the good seed. The government contracted suppliers are not serious organisations and supply poor quality seed. This year we went to South Africa to buy our own.”

Pointing to a visibly less abundant acre next door, he displays the difference between the government seed and his own, and explains that he has no plans to return to the former. Growing in confidence with his latest harvest, Lucas already plans to expand so he can provide more produce for the market. He is finding it difficult to find a guaranteour for a bank loan, but remains determined that farmers like himself be directly inserted into the supply system, and not just be reliant on local government.

Like the other members of the association, he is ambitious to provide more for himself and his community. This sense of entrepeneurship, with support behind it, is what the government hope will drive the agricultural section forward throughout Mozambique.

For Moamba at least, progess is underway, and its farmers are confident it will continue.

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

Living with HIV in Mozambique

A mother of seven and grandmother of three, Ana was diagnosed with HIV in 2009, the same year her husband left, leaving her as the sole provider for the household.

When she first received the diagnosis, she immmediately had all her children tested. The results returned negative, and she began to seek medical treatment for herself and support for her family.

Finding no help from government social services, she turned to her Universalist church, which provided food when needed. Soon she becane a participant on a family strengthening programme run by international NGO SOS which supports families stuck by HIV until they become self-sufficient.

With help from both the programme and her congregation Ana continued to support her family, working in a kindergarten and selling groceries, before a relapse rendered her bed-ridden.

“I was sick and not able to work or walk. I couldn't do anything and was unable to pay school fees – so some children gave up school.”

Now back in working health, she says that her personal goals are to see her children complete their education and become employed. She hopes herself to open her own barraco – a small concrete shop will sells a variety of food and household goods – to provide a steady source of income.

An estimated 11.5 per cent of Mozambique's population have been diagnosed with the disease, the eight highest rate in the world. Despite the capital being the most developed area in the country, Maputo, where Ana lives, has the highest rates of HIV infection.

Though free condoms are widely available, and antiretroviral drugs are increasingly affordable, the health system remains far too basic to address the enormous numbers of Mozambicans with HIV. Community and volunteer organisations such as the family strengthening programme are relied upon in many cases to step in where government assistance is unavailable.

In a small, cement-floored office, staff from SOS speak about the changes they have seen in the community since the programme was established in 2002.

Back then, the stigma of HIV was such that many would refuse treatment completely. Others would forgo modern medicines and rely on traditional healers instead. Daina, who has assisted the programme since its inception, says that now “people are more open about their situation and don't wait for us to tell them to go to the hospital.”

Programme participants, like Ana, feel more confident in discussing their experiences and their progress, she says. They want want to compare how they are with how they were.

Ana will officially leave the programme this month after a formal handover ceremony, which she compares to the moment a child first leads the family home.

And the topic of family is what always recurrs when she speaks about herself – the determination to provide for her own; the help she received from others. She explains that she remains thankful for the concern of other families in her neighbourhood, and that they always keep her in mind.

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

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