While Europeans were still struggling in the Dark Ages, the light of the ancient world had already fallen on Mozambique. From the 9th century AD, Mozambique’s coast was part of a chain of civilised merchant kingdoms, visited by ships from as far afield as India, Arabia and Persia. They came sailing in on the monsoon winds to buy slaves, ivory, gold and spices. Muslim merchants intermarried with African families, and set up trading posts along the coast.
Sailing onto this scene came the first Europeans – Portuguese explorers such as Vasco da Gama. These 15th-century buccaneers pursued their trade interests with armed raids on coastal towns or cannon bombardments from their warships, and constructed forts to protect themselves from their English and Dutch rivals. In the 17th century, the Mozambican interior was divided into huge agricultural estates, nominally under the Portuguese crown but in fact run as private fiefdoms with their own slave armies.
In the late 19th century, Portugal and several other European powers began a lengthy political arm-wrestle for a chunk of Africa to call their own. British eyes began to fall on Mozambique, and Portugal reacted by strengthening its previously lax colonial control. The country was so wild, however, that the government had to lease large areas of land to private firms, which soon became notorious for the abuses they inflicted on their workers.
The early stirrings of resistance were kindled, and the independence movement erupted into life after the ‘Mueda Massacre’ in 1960, in which peacefully protesting villagers were gunned down by Portuguese troops.
In 1962 the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo) was formed, led by the charismatic Eduardo Mondlane. Mondlane was assassinated in 1969 and succeeded by Frelimo’s military commander, Samora Machel. Frelimo decided early on a policy of violent resistance. Finally, after bitter struggle, the independent People’s Republic of Mozambique was proclaimed on 25 June 1975, with Frelimo as the ruling party and Samora Machel as president.
The Portuguese pulled out virtually overnight – after sabotaging vehicles and pouring concrete down wells – and left Mozambique in chaos with few skilled professionals and virtually no infrastructure. Mozambique’s new government threw itself into a policy of radical social change. Ties were established with European communist powers, cooperative farms replaced private land, and companies were nationalised. Mass literacy programmes and health initiatives were launched. For a while, the future looked rosy, and Mozambique was fêted in left-wing Western circles as a successful communist state. Bob Dylan even wrote a song about it.
By 1983, the country was almost bankrupt. The roots of the crisis were both economic and political. Concerned by the government’s support for resistance movements such as the ANC, the white-minority-ruled countries of Rhodesia and South Africa deliberately ‘destabilised’ their neighbour with the creation of a manufactured guerrilla movement known as the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo).
Renamo was made up of mercenaries, co-opted soldiers and disaffected Mozambicans, and funded by the South African military and a motley collection of Western interests. Renamo had no desire to govern – its only ideology was to paralyse the country. Roads, bridges, railways, schools and clinics were destroyed. Villagers were rounded up, anyone with skills was shot, and atrocities were committed on a massive and horrific scale.
But by the late 1980s, change was sweeping through the region. The collapse of the USSR altered the political balance in the West, and new, more liberal policies in South Africa restricted Renamo support. Samora Machel died under questionable circumstances in 1986 and was succeeded by the more moderate Joaquim Chissano. Frelimo switched from a Marxist ideology to a market economy, and Renamo began a slow evolution into a genuine opposition party. A formal peace agreement was signed in October 1992.
In October 1994, Mozambique held its first democratic elections. Frelimo won, but narrowly, with Renamo netting almost half the votes. The 1999 election produced a similar result, this time followed by rioting and discord. Since then, things have settled down.
In December 2004, long-time Frelimo insider Armando Guebuza was elected with a solid majority to succeed Chissano. While the government has certainly not acquitted itself cleanly in all areas over the past decade-plus – recent scandals include massive bank fraud and the murder of investigative journalist Carlos Cardoso – Mozambique is enjoying unprecedented peace and stability. The cornerstones have recently been laid for bridges over the Rovuma and Zambezi Rivers. Once completed, these bridges will open up the country and facilitate further development. Most observers rank Mozambique among the continent’s rising stars.