The next several months will be critical for Mozambique. A peace agreement signed in August between Frelimo and Renamo, its ruling and opposition parties, has set the stage for national elections on October 15. “Free and fair elections,” with results accepted by all, would bolster national reconciliation in this fragile country and would be a major step away from years of low-level conflict and acrimony. Successful elections would also build momentum for Mozambique to reach its economic potential.
One of the world’s poorest countries, Mozambique suffered from years of civil war beginning soon after its 1975 independence from Portugal. One million Mozambicans died. Earlier this year, Mozambique was hammered by two devastating cyclones. While there is hope for economic progress — the country enjoys abundant natural resources — Mozambicans will need Frelimo and Renamo to overcome their bloody past and work together, whichever party wins the election.
One area of potential cooperation is securing the country’s rich but vulnerable coastline.
Earlier this decade, the Frelimo government committed to invest some $2 billion into boats and related maritime equipment to police Mozambique’s rich fisheries, which are being illegally exploited by China and others. Another aim was to develop Mozambique’s own fishing and maritime industries, including through ship repair and building. Since then, global energy giants have committed tens of billions of dollars to developing the country’s large offshore natural gas fields. This development makes securing its coastal region all the more important for Mozambique.
Unfortunately, this effort fell apart. The international shipbuilder Privinvest, supplier to some 40 navies, delivered over 60 boats, equipment and support systems. Yet these assets remain mostly unused. Almost two dozen former Mozambican government officials, including the then-president’s son, have been charged with corruption that sunk this project. Sadly, this isn’t unusual. Transparency International labels Mozambique’s corruption as “endemic,” having cost the country nearly $5 billion between 2002 and 2014.
Without these boats in use — many are literally rusting in dock — Mozambique is doing little to protect its coast against continued illegal fishing and other harmful activities. No local fishing industry is being built. The is a major lost opportunity. Despite having “great growth potential,” it should be no surprise that fisheries in Mozambique are an “under-performing sector,” according to the World Bank. The bank also has identified “strengthening governance and management” as a key goal in developing Mozambique’s coastal economy.
The new Mozambique government that takes power after the elections should make putting these boats into the water a priority. They are simply too valuable a resource to be wasted. Overcoming this scandal and making strides to protect and develop the country’s ocean wealth for the benefit of all Mozambicans would send a powerful signal that the country is on the right track. It would also be a tangible example that Mozambique is overcoming its devastating legacy of corruption, which would help attract badly needed foreign investment.
Effectively deploying these maritime assets would require Frelimo and Renamo to shift from the campaign and to work for the common good. The new government should figure out what went wrong but, more importantly, look ahead at what needs to go right to fix the problem. Private operators would probably be best to replace the defunct state-run companies set up to operate the boats; business consultants could help figure out the best way forward. International donors and others would likely want to help recover these fixed costs.
Too often, democracies, both young and more established, suffer from a “winner-take-all” mindset that stifles cooperation and progress. Mozambican politicians, with years of violent conflict, are particularly tested. Unless Frelimo and Renamo cooperate to solve problems, setting aside their hostility, democracy will sputter, and the country will backslide. In that case, coastal problems would only worsen.
Pope Francis just visited Mozambique. He urged “hope, peace, and reconciliation,” praising the peace deal and personal courage shown by Frelimo President Filipe Nyusi and Renamo leader Ossufo Momade. Both men face hard-liner opposition within their parties. Hopefully, this spirit of cooperation and reconciliation will grow in Mozambique.
The new Mozambique government will face many challenges. Expectations by Mozambicans run high, especially with the development of natural gas. Putting idle boats and other maritime assets to work to protect and responsibly develop the country’s natural wealth would be an excellent way to help meet these challenges.
Tom Sheehy is a former staff director of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.